Unsettle, Surprise, and Shock

Yannick Nézet-Séguin on a conductor’s lifelong relationship with Beethoven

By Google Arts & Culture

Interview by Olivia Giovetti, VAN Magazine

Yannick Nézet-Séguin has quickly become one of the world’s most sought-after—and most ubiquitous—conductors. At 45, the Montréal-born musician has held the position of music director with his hometown’s Orchestre Métropolitain since 2000. To that resume, he has also added music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012 and music director of the Metropolitan Opera.


He has also spent much of his career conducting Beethoven, from multiple cycles of the nine symphonies, to the composer’s concerti to his opera Fidelio. There was even more planned for 2020 before the realities of COVID-19 shut down many concert halls and opera houses. With a seemingly-inexhaustible reserve of energy, however, he has found ways of still exploring the composer’s works in this anniversary year, presenting six of the nine symphonies with the Orchestre Métropolitain for DG Stage—Deutsche Grammophon’s streaming platform, and hosting a virtual session on the composer’s influence via Carnegie Hall’s YouTube channel.

In keeping with his schedule, we exchanged voice memos with Nézet-Séguin to discuss his history with Beethoven, how he approaches some of the most well-known works in the repertoire, and the three questions he would ask the composer over dinner.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2016, Rheingau Musik Festival, June 2016, From the collection of: Rheingau Musik Festival
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Do you remember the first Beethoven piece you heard?

Quite typically, it was a symphony, and it was a very well-known one: The Fifth. Karajan and [the Berlin Philharmonic], probably [from] LP collection of my parents. We also had a Pastoral Symphony and the Seventh. These are the usual suspects for any music lovers, and my parents had broad tastes, so they had a wide range of classical and non-classical records; a little bit of everything. That’s how I got interested first in Beethoven.

You began playing piano at a young age. What was the first Beethoven piece you learned, and how old were you?

What I remember learning are some of the Bagatelles when I was really young, between age 5 and 12. I entered the Montreal Conservatory of Music [to study] with my teacher Anisia Campos, who just passed away in August… I actually revisited all of my piano books from that time [and] I remember that the first piano sonata of Beethoven she assigned me to play, when I was I guess 13, was Op. 10, No. 1 in C Minor. [It’s] like the Fifth Symphony; the Beethoven Sturm und Drang turmoil, really forward-looking and all about destiny. When I look at my books, I must have played and learned with her at least half of the 32 sonatas.

You've mentioned that Beethoven was what inspired you to begin conducting. What was the work and what about it sparked that inspiration?

I first heard some Beethoven with Karajan, along with Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony, [and] those recordings were what got me first into conducting. You know, trying to pretend “conduct” with the recording playing. The power of illustration of [Beethoven’s] music, its emotional impact, that’s what got me immediately.

What do you think it is that makes Beethoven so inspirational for so many musicians more than two centuries later?

The inspiration of Beethoven is really being able to give an individual voice to the composer. His mastery of the form is extraordinary, but what sets him apart is the immediacy of humanity throughout his pieces, through his music. He was the first one to do it in such a way with all that that entails: from despair to doubt, and to hope, and to battle, and to defeat, and to struggle… All his works—and that’s a very important component—even the most tender ones, have a certain aspect of pain and struggle, and yet there’s always a way of overcoming that pain and struggle. He was clearly the first one to do it to such an extent, and as such has influenced the most composers in all music history. In times like now, when the world is struggling, I think we again find answers, and comfort, and inspiration in Beethoven’s pieces because of that.

Fidelio, Ludwig van Beethoven, Quartett in G-Dur "Mir ist so wunderbar", Ludwig van Beethoven, 1805, Original Source: SBB-PK, Signatur: Mus.ms.autogr. Beethoven 26 I
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What was the first Beethoven work that you conducted?

The First Symphony, with the Montréal Symphony for my debut. And, very, very soon after, I conducted the Ninth. That’s also very typical Yannick: going for the biggest at first. [Laughs] No shortcuts here.

You have a very international career and strong connections to a number of cities—Rotterdam, Philadelphia, New York. But as a Montréaler, and given your long relationship with the Orchestre Métropolitain, is there a particular Beethoven work that you associate with your home city?

There is no symphony that I associate really clearly with Montreal, except the fact that we did all [of] the symphonies many, many times.… We got to know each other a lot through those symphonies, and I believe for any music director in an orchestra, doing a cycle of Beethoven’s works or Beethoven works across many years is like a testimonial for how the relationship is growing between a conductor and an orchestra. It’s a reality check for all of us.

What's your favorite Beethoven work to conduct?

Well, it’s hard to pick a favorite. But perhaps the symphony I’ve conducted the most and I still value in a separate little place in my heart is the “Eroica.” Of course, the proportions, the gigantic proportions, suit me well. I love longer structures. But also, just the big break in the tradition in history with this and—more than the individual, I would say—the social impact that that symphony had and still has, and its commitment to the world that Beethoven was in when he composed it, is really touching.

Over the years, people have used Beethoven's biography as a way of contextualizing his music, especially the symphonies. How much do you take into account Beethoven's biography when you're conducting his works?

This is an interesting one, because I do take into account the biography, of course, when conducting Beethoven’s works. However, Beethoven very often (like also Brahms and other great composers), used his time to work on two different pieces with contrasting effects and purposes and emotional impact. I think we have to be careful with associating too closely the biography to the pieces, because very often composers behave in such a way that the pieces they are working on are a counterbalance to what’s happening in their life.

As a conductor in 2020 leading these works—some of the most recognizable tunes in classical music—do you feel the pressure to find something "new" in them? Or do you let them speak for themselves?

There is no pressure in making something new for the sake of being new. In the case of Beethoven, though, it’s very, very important to remember that these pieces were groundbreaking. A very essential element of Beethoven’s interpretation and purpose should be to unsettle. To surprise. To shock. To find new ways. To be visionary. This is what happened when Beethoven was composing. Nothing was acquired, and it was actually really unsettling and disturbing for [his] contemporaries.

Therefore, the danger when we perform these pieces that are so well-known is there is no way of surprising. It’s important to look at the details and get back to the essence or essential meaning of Beethoven, and finding ways through articulation and tempo and orchestration to unsettle and surprise the listener today. That is a huge challenge, but something that I really enjoy doing.

When you're playing and recording Beethoven with an orchestra like the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, whose Beethoven cycle with Harnoncourt is a near-legendary recording, does that also make a difference or add any pressure?

The Harnoncourt Cycle is my favorite cycle. This was absolutely eye-opening for me—ear-opening, I should say. It’s not a question of pressure, but of responsibility when you’re a conductor. You’re a custodian of an institution and the memory and the legacy of such a genius like Harnoncourt; it’s not to be taken lightly. With humility, I go with these wonderful musicians and try to build on that tradition together.

This recording cycle of the Beethoven symphonies [I had planned with] the COE, we had been working on for the past five years, looking forward to doing this, making this happen for this anniversary year. It’s such an irony that Beethoven, of all composers, got silenced by all the cancellations due to the virus. So this project, of course, we were all very sad to see it go, but I’m also confident that we can reschedule it in the not-too-distant future.

COVID-19 forced a number of Beethoven celebrations to be cancelled or postponed this year, but you’ve also been doing a lot with virtual concerts. What purpose do you see music serving in a time of social distancing?

[Beethoven] was the last concert I conducted before the pandemic, on March 12, to a dark hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Beethoven Five and Six. Very, very symbolic to have this [program]. And symbolically those were also the first pieces I conducted back when I was in Montréal and we were allowed to start our Beethoven cycle on DG Stage.

Now, of course, in social distancing it’s difficult to make any music really remotely. However, what is great in playing Beethoven at this time is the comfort we all have with this music. It’s something that’s so natural to any orchestra musician and conductor that, after the difficulty of not playing together for so long, it’s great to be able to reunite with a piece that we all know. It’s also, more importantly,an explosion of joy, of vitality. I think that is really the vital aspect of Beethoven’s music: It’s helping us regain the energy necessary to go through this crisis.

Credits: Story

Interview by Olivia Giovetti, VAN Magazine

Credits: All media
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