A child shall lead them, or: You’ve got to see this guy conduct!’

Yannick and the Orchestra (2nd review)

5 minute read
The extrovert passes the crucial Haydn test.
The extrovert passes the crucial Haydn test.
I had the good luck to be present at what I hope will turn out to have been a pivotal moment in the fortunes of the Philadelphia Orchestra when, last Friday, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Orchestra for the first time since he signed on as its music director-to-be. Whatever happens down the road, it was among the most joyous nights of music making I've ever seen or heard.

A few days ago, a friend sent me a link to this extraordinary Youtube clip of a three-year-old boy conducting the fourth movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Little Jonathan isn't merely cute; he also obviously knows every moment of this Beethoven intimately and is able to physically communicate his feelings about the music just before it occurs. In short, rather than just waving his arms around, Jonathan is actually conducting.

Now consider this clip of Nézet-Séguin rehearsing the Philadelphia Orchestra last week. It's easy to imagine that Yannick, at age three, was just like Jonathan and, in fact, hasn't changed all that much.

When Christoph Eschenbach addressed his audiences, as he did from time to time during his Philadelphia tenure from 2003 to 2008, he always had the look of a man barely overcoming almost pathological shyness. But if anybody obviously loves the attention of a crowd, it's Nézet-Séguin.

At home with the Phillies

Back in June, as part of the media blitz that accompanied his anointment, it was announced that Nézet-Séguin would lead the crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch at a Phillies game. "What a hokey idea!" I thought, imagining how lame somebody like Eschenbach or Dutoit would look in that setting. But from my vantage point behind the visitors' dugout that day, Nézet-Séguin looked athletic, ebullient, and perfectly suited to the occasion. If you were behind the first-base dugout, here's what you would have seen.

At Verizon Hall on Friday, Nézet-Séguin wasn't very much different from the conductor I'd seen at Citizens Bank Park, and appeared before an audience that, after adjusting for venue and age, was just as keyed up as a Phillies post-season crowd.

Before the Orchestra had tuned, he strode onto the stage, microphone in hand, to be greeted by a standing ovation. With a self-effacing smile, but obviously relishing the moment, he said, "Perhaps you should wait and see if you really like me." Then he delivered a brief and earnest lecture on the virtues of the Haydn symphony we were about to hear, with an admonition to listen during the second movement for the striking trumpet fanfare that, in Nézet-Séguin's mind, links the Haydn to the opening of the Mahler Fifth.

The test: Mahler? Or Haydn?

Last June, at the end of my review of Charles Dutoit's reading of Mahler's Third, I wrote: "Eventually … Nézet-Séguin will take on a Mahler symphony. Then we'll see what sort of conductor we really have." In response, the Orchestra's former musicologist Bernard Jacobson wrote, "I part company with the idea that Mahler, especially, shows you what a conductor is made of. For me, give me Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, or Brahms as the crucial test-composers."

I now must bow to Bernard's judgment. I cannot recall ever hearing a Haydn Symphony performed with such grace and passion. As its slow introduction began, I was astonished to find tears in my eyes. Nézet-Séguin immediately took the whole orchestra, winds and strings, to the luminescent lyrical heart of Haydn's language and kept it there for the whole work. Throughout the performance, he conducted every musical gesture with the same sensual pleasure and musical intention as the three-year-old Jonathan.

To be sure, Nézet-Séguin"'s Mahler Fifth was passionate, powerful, controlled— a masterful performance (although not even Nézet-Séguin could rescue the symphony's finale, a movement that, for me, is a lengthy and overblown exercise in forced gaiety). But using a Mahler symphony to whip up an audience that was already primed for a frenzy of adulation seems just too easy.

What does it take?

As a choral singer, I can tell in about three seconds whether or not a conductor knows how to conduct singers. But, to be honest, despite the many decades I have spent attending concerts and studying scores, I still don't really understand what orchestral conductors do at this level— what it takes for them to elicit the best from a top-tier professional orchestra. Is all that expressive gesticulation really necessary? Four years ago I saw Simon Rattle extract equally magical results from the Philadelphia Orchestra while hardly moving a muscle.

Necessary or not, the players seemed wholly under the spell of Nézet-Séguin's musical vision. Just as important, especially at this moment in the Orchestra's history, Nézet-Séguin communicates his musical joy directly to his audience as well.

I'm sure many who attended this concert, including the numerous students who were there enjoying the Orchestra's new and enlightened discount ticket policy, will say to their friends, "You've got to see this guy conduct!"♦

To read another review by Peter Burwasser, click here.
To read another review by Victor L. Schermer, click here.
To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.
To read responses, click here.

What, When, Where

Philadelphia Orchestra: Haydn, Symphony No. 100 ("Military"); Mahler, Symphony No. 5. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor. October 29-30, 2010 at Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Sts. (215) 893-1955 or

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