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When The Philadelphia Orchestra announced in 2010 that it had named a 35-year-old French Canadian with relatively little name recognition in the United States as its new music director, the world could not have anticipated the extent to which this podium dynamo would vitalize the Orchestra and transform the very nature of a music director’s relationship to his or her community.
Photo by Chris Lee
It was thanks to Allison Vulgamore’s visionary leadership, having recognized Yannick’s extraordinary promise and recruited him within her first six months as president and CEO. Her words at the time continue to ring true today. “I am truly excited for The Philadelphia Orchestra’s partnership with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a great musician and human being. I have witnessed the warm fellowship he shares with musician colleagues and audiences around the world. His exceptional artistry and strong connection with our musicians combines in rich and impactful performances, and his contagious love of music endears him to our audiences and community.”
Seldom had a matchup of music director, orchestra, and region been greeted so joyously. When the Montreal-born protégé of Carlo Maria Giulini led a series of concerts in Philadelphia in June 2012, just weeks before the official beginning of his tenure, he started boldly: with a series of concerts returning to the Academy of Music honoring the legacy of the visionary Leopold Stokowski, who had himself become music director of the Orchestra exactly 100 years before. “One hundred years later I am privileged to step into this wonderful heritage that Stokowski has given all of us,” Yannick said at the time. “He shaped The Philadelphia Orchestra into a very forward-thinking orchestra, and it is that spirit that we hope to capture in 2012-13 and beyond.”
Yannick greets members of the audience following a Family Concert. Photo by Pete Checchia
Today, as Yannick begins his fifth season at the Orchestra’s helm, one can only view with awe the commitment with which he has embedded himself into Philadelphia’s cultural and social fabric—while building an international reputation as one of the most gifted and charismatic conductors of our time. In June he put that commitment into writing: In a process guided by Vulgamore, and well in advance of the expiration of his existing contract, he “re-upped” through the 2025-26 season—building a foundation for another decade of music-making with the Orchestra. In addition he has taken on one of the most prestigious leadership posts in the music world, succeeding James Levine as music director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, beginning with the 2020-21 season.
“I never imagined that I could live the dream of having the legendary and magnificent Philadelphia Orchestra in my life,” Yannick said. “So it is with great joy that I extend my commitment to be present on Philadelphia’s podium for at least another 10 years. I have well over a decade’s worth of ideas to bring to the stage and into the community. Now, becoming music director of the premier and most extraordinary Metropolitan Opera is double the dream. To have the chance to make music with both these amazing institutions was irresistible to me. I am, without doubt, the luckiest music director in the world today.”
Named Musical America’s 2016 Artist of the Year, Yannick is one of the world’s most visible conductors—and one of the most well-liked. “He’s a universal communicator,” said Jeremy Rothman, Philadelphia Orchestra vice president for artistic planning. “He’s a welcoming and generous personality, an authentic personality. People gravitate toward individuals like Yannick who live by their morals and passions.”
In April-May 2015 Yannick led four powerful performances of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS, which provided the unique opportunity to bring together musicians from throughout the community. Photo by Pete Checchia
Yannick’s adventurous spirit, his personable nature, his innovative programming, and his excitement about collaborations have created a new aura around The Philadelphia Orchestra. In addition to enriching the standard canon with bracing interpretations, he has created a series of initiatives to renew the repertoire.
One of Yannick’s gifts, Rothman said, is “identifying fantastic repertoire that hasn’t been done here in a long time and building it around a concept.” During the 2014-15 season the Orchestra marked Yannick’s 40th birthday with the 40/40 Project, programming 40 works that had not been done on subscription programs in at least 40 years, if ever, including such well-known works as The Nutcracker, or lesser-known gems by Glazunov, Janáček, and Debussy.
In addition to new works by Gabriela Lena Frank, Nico Muhly, and Mark-Anthony Turnage, Yannick has unveiled a series of commissioned concertos for principal players, focusing on instruments not blessed with large concerto repertoires. Included are works by Behzad Ranjbaran (flute), Tan Dun (harp), David Ludwig (bassoon), Maurice Wright (timpani), and Jonathan Leshnoff (clarinet).
Deeply committed to choral repertoire, and to working with great vocalists, Yannick has completed a multi-season requiem initiative that included performances of the requiems of Mozart, Brahms, and Verdi—and culminated with Bernstein’s MASS in 2015, a collaboration with such local institutions as the Temple University Concert Choir and Diamond Marching Band, mummers, the Rock School for Dance Education, the School District of Philadelphia, the Westminster Symphonic Choir, and the Dialogues Institute.
Yannick conducts the Philadelphia All-City Orchestra in rehearsal. Photo by Jessica Griffin
Yannick has also demonstrated a commitment to creating dynamic new environments in which to experience great symphonic scores. Several of his programs have been further illuminated by theatrical staging, lighting, or video in collaboration with other arts organizations. To honor the centenary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, he led a collaboration with Philadelphia Live Arts and Ridge Theater Company (2013). Performances of Strauss’s Salome (2014) were staged in partnership with Opera Philadelphia. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (2013 and 2015) was presented in a theatrical form in collaboration with Symphony V.0 and stage director James Alexander. And many other holiday, family, and special events have been presented with an assortment of dancers, designers, and visual artists. Among other vital initiatives have been festivals focusing on the Art of the Pipe Organ in honor of the Kimmel Center’s Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ; great musical cities of the world: St. Petersburg (2015), Vienna (2016), and Paris (2017); and two historic appearances performing for Pope Francis during his visit to Philadelphia in 2015.
Of paramount importance to Yannick’s tenure has been the planting of deep roots in the community. In his four-year tenure he has already worked with an incredible number of local organizations, including the Curtis Symphony, the Philadelphia All-City Orchestra and All-City Choirs, the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, Play On, Philly!, and the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra. He has appeared at such institutions as Girard College, Temple University, Martin Luther King High School, Settlement Music School, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Historical Society. He places special importance on the recently announced HEAR initiative (Health, Education, Access, Research), a portfolio of collaborative learning programs announced at a free PopUP concert earlier this year.
Yannick’s determination to connect to the Orchestra’s legacy has found expression in his openness to reinvigorating the “Philadelphia Sound,” in works by Brahms, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius, and Strauss. He has also revisited works that the Orchestra presented world or U.S. premieres of—such as the centennial performances this past March of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and the multimedia presentation of The Rite of Spring. A recording of the Rite on Deutsche Grammophon marked the Orchestra’s return to a major label after a hiatus of several years. A second recording on the label was released last year.
Yannick threw out the first pitch at a Philadelphia Phillies game in September 2015.
“We will create connections and links between repertoire, different eras, and composers, offering a variety of viewpoints and perceptions,” Yannick said early in his tenure. “Every program relates to another, and over the course of the season we will have opened wide a window to the complete world of music.”
Opera will continue to be central to Yannick’s next decade with the Orchestra, in complement with his Met appointment. Works such as Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (2017) have been carefully chosen so as to highlight the Orchestra, Rothman says. “We want scores that really ‘speak well’ with the Orchestra, and whose drama and narrative are uniquely heard from onstage and not in the pit.”
Yannick and the Orchestra have embarked on Tours of Europe and Asia, the latter functioning alongside the Orchestra’s multi-year China Residency program. “The Philadelphia Orchestra is known uniquely in China in a way that no other American orchestra is,” Vulgamore said. “Since we first went there in 1973, we have developed a meaningful and influential model of cultural exchange—a two-way street that showcases our artistic excellence onstage during concerts, while also illustrating our enduring commitment to education and engagement via people-to-people exchange in local communities. We continue to deepen our relationship with China and its music-lovers through increased residency initiatives, including orchestra training in China, co-commissioned musical works, and more.” The Philadelphia Orchestra will continue to be a global ambassador with its 2017 Tour of Asia, including a first-ever visit by a Western orchestra to Mongolia, and a 2018 European Tour.
During Pope Francis’s historic visit to Philadelphia in September 2015, Yannick and the Orchestra performed twice for the pontiff, during the Festival of Families Concert and for the Papal Mass. Photo by Chris Lee
Yannick’s explorations into the American vernacular will continue to be central to his activities: This season, the American Sounds initiative (which brought Bernstein’s MASS and Hannibal’s spiritual and jazz-inspired One Land, One River, One People, another commission) will include Mason Bates’s electronica-infused Alternative Energy; the world premiere of the Duo Concerto for Vibraphone and Marimba, Principal Percussion Christopher Deviney’s arrangements of works by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays; the world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Organ Concerto (an Orchestra co-commission); and Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs written for Benny Goodman and Symphony No. 1.
Upcoming milestones will include innovative programming for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth (2020), The Philadelphia Orchestra’s 125th anniversary (2025), and city-wide music-making for the 250th anniversary of American independence (2026).
“The warm embrace of The Philadelphia Orchestra and its audiences has been humbling and exhilarating since I made my debut in 2008,” Yannick says. “Knowing that this love affair with the Orchestra and the City of Philadelphia will continue is an immense joy. I believe what we are doing artistically is so important, and it’s having a big impact on this community.”
Paul Horsley is performing arts editor at the Independent in Kansas City. He was The Philadelphia Orchestra’s program annotator and musicologist (1992-2000) and classical music and dance critic for the Kansas City Star (2000-08). He holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Cornell University and teaches at Park University in Kansas City.