6 things we learned about superstar Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Yannick Nézet-Séguin joined Q’s Tom Power for a feature interview about his meteoric rise in music, from conducting at age 10 to directing Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain, the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

In a Q interview, the Québécois music director reflected on his phenomenal rise to the peak of his profession

In 2018, Yannick Nézet-Séguin became the music director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera — only the third in the institution's history. (Hans van der Woerd)

Click the play button above to hear Yannick Nézet-Séguin's full conversation with Tom Power.

Montreal's Yannick Nézet-Séguin was 21 when he conducted his first orchestra, but only 10 when he set his sights on becoming a conductor.

Today, he's heralded as a classical music superstar, both at home and internationally. He's the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, conductor-for-life at Montreal's Orchestre Métropolitain and only the third music director in the 139-year history of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In a feature interview with Q's Tom Power, Nézet-Séguin reflected on his meteoric rise. Here are six things we learned along the way.

He trains like an athlete because conducting is 'very physical'

Nézet-Séguin still has a clear memory of the first orchestral piece he ever conducted at age 21: Tragic Overture by Johannes Brahms. It left him exhausted.

"After those 12 minutes, I just had no back left. I had no arms left; I had no shoulders left; I had no water in my body left because I was sweating so much," he recalled with a laugh. "It's very physical to conduct."

The maestro compared his work to that of an athlete who must train to avoid injury. "I need, as a conductor, to express physically what I think about the music and to embody the music," he said. "And I don't want to be restrained or restricted with my gestures. So that's why I'm also taking care of my body and taking care of what I eat."

‘I need, as a conductor, to express physically what I think about the music and to embody the music. And I don't want to be restrained or restricted with my gestures,’ said Nézet-Séguin. (François Goupil and the Orchestre Métropolitain)

Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony has played an important role in his life and career

When Nézet-Séguin was about eight or nine, he asked his parents to buy tickets to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra to see a performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony, conducted by Zubin Mehta. It was the first orchestral concert he ever attended.

"That made, obviously, the strongest and most inspiring impression because, you know, I'm still here and conducted that piece — that very piece — for many important debuts," he said.

"That was part of my first program when I was named at the Orchestre Métropolitain in 2000. My debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra was with that piece, I recorded it also for Deutsche Grammophon. So, yeah, it's been a very important piece. I guess, probably, in part — in large part — because of that first encounter with the piece when I was so young."

A young Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts in a school performance

7 years ago
Duration 2:15
Featured VideoIn this home video , Montreal orchestra conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is seen conducting for a school performance as a child.

Being a conductor is a lonely occupation

As a child, Nézet-Séguin decided he wanted a profession where he would be "surrounded by a lot of people."

"I guess that played into a certain kind of leadership quality that I had," he told Power. "I want to be with other people, but I want to have my own place within the group."

But being a leader can be lonely. Unlike musicians, Nézet-Séguin practises in solitary silence and during performances, he stands alone at the podium making decisions on his own.

"I like this contrast though," he said. "It's really lonely, but then when I get to do my thing, it's almost chaos — especially, you know, when it's an opera house where there's 100 chorus members and … all the technicians and all the dancers, like 400 people at the same time, and I'm in the middle of all this."

WATCH | Yannick Nézet-Séguin's full interview with Tom Power:

He believes that going to the orchestra should be like going to the movies

While some audiences may think they won't fully appreciate the orchestra unless they become more knowledgeable about it, Nézet-Séguin insists classical music is for everyone.

"It shouldn't be different than [if] you go to the movies and you like a movie or you don't like it," he said. "I make an opinion whenever I see a film, but I'm not equipped. I never studied in film … but I still form an opinion.…

"You can go and sit there and be immersed by the emotion of being there because there's a lot of sound or because it's very quiet.… I want everyone to feel welcome to concerts and then discover later."

He's helping diversify the Met Opera's repertoire

As music director of the Metropolitan Opera, Nézet-Séguin is pushing for equity and inclusion in a bid to acknowledge the institution's past mistakes.

"For the past two, three centuries, it's been white [males] telling their stories — and especially European. And the Met is an American house, which has its responsibility," he said.

In the past few years, the Met has invested in new operas from a range of diverse composers, including Terence Blanchard, who made history as the first Black composer to have his work performed by the company.

"What really moves me, and all of us, is that this Fire Shut Up in My Bones — this masterpiece by Terence — just filled the seats," said Nézet-Séguin. "Everybody wanted this. And there's this myth that 'Oh, people don't want new music. They only want what they're used to.' And the audience in New York clearly sent us another message, saying, 'Look, no, this is what we need to hear.'"

Dancers perform a scene during a rehearsal for Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in My Bones, at the Metropolitan Opera on Sept. 24, 2021, in New York. (AFP via Getty Images)

He made a lifetime commitment to his first love, Montreal

Nézet-Séguin said he has three families now — his Montreal family, his Philadelphia family and his New York family — but his hometown of Montreal will always hold a special place in his heart.

"I think that this is, it's kind of the first love. You can't replace the first love," he said. "And the good thing in conducting is that you can still stay attached to your first love while moving on."

Nézet-Séguin's love for Montreal's Orchestre Métropolitain runs so deep that he signed an unusual agreement to be the company's conductor-for-life.

"I have a lifetime agreement with them because every five years, the musicians were nervous, [saying], 'Is Yannick going to leave?'" he told Power. "And then we said, 'OK, let's just agree that we don't talk about this — we just stay.' And you know, at some point, if they want to kick me out, that's fine too. But you know, as long as they [want] me, I'm going to be there."

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Produced by Ben Edwards.