Born to Conduct: Film charts Met music director’s ascent


NEW YORK — “Now I will conduct a short excerpt from Ravel’s ‘Bolero,’” the Metropolitan Opera’s future music director announces proudly.

It’s Yannick Nezet-Seguin, but he’s not the figure familiar to opera lovers on the podium of one of the world’s great concert halls. Instead, he’s a fourth-grader addressing the talent show at Saint-Isaac-Jogues primary school in Montreal.

And then, in Susan Froemke’s new documentary, “Yannick: An Artist’s Journey,” the 10-year-old boy launches into an exuberant exhibition of arm-waving to a recording of Ravel’s ferocious masterwork.

The scene is among the many amateur video moments that help chart the development of one of the most gifted conductors to emerge on the classical music scene in years. And Froemke has smartly paired this early moment with a snippet of the mature Nezet-Seguin leading the Met orchestra in the same piece.

“What’s amazing to me,” she said in an interview, “is if you look at the way he’s moving his arms as a child, it’s almost exactly the way he does it today.”

Those arms are key to his style of conducting, learned from his idol, maestro Carlo Maria Giulini, with whom he spent a year in Italy in his 20s.

“He was always saying that the clarity of the conductor comes from the clarity of the thought, and if your thought is clear, then the gesture will be clear,” Nezet-Seguin recalls of Giulini in the film. “You need to imagine that the sound is between your torso and your hands and you’re sort of holding the sound.”

The other major musical influence in his life was pianist Anisia Campos, with whom he studied from ages 13 to 21. He had already set his heart on a career as a conductor, but she insisted he study as if he were going to be a concert pianist.

“That was the best education I could have wished for,” Nezet-Seguin observes. “Because only through this kind of discipline can a conductor address the best orchestras in the world later. I know what they are going through, instrumentally speaking.”

Froemke, who interviewed Campos at age 92 before she died last year, said “she was very frail physically, but the minute she spoke she became formidable.”

Indeed, her personality as both strict disciplinarian and proud mentor shines through: “He was a talent,” she says of her young pupil. “And he worked on that talent, and he had a guide who masterfully guided him. He was the guided student, and I was the guiding teacher.”

The documentary recounts its subject’s rapid rise to the top ranks of conductors: founder of La Chapelle de Montreal, an instrumental and choral group, when he was 21; music director of Montreal’s Orchestre Metropolitain by age 25, principal conductor in Rotterdam in 2008, music director in Philadelphia in 2012, and now, at age 46, leading the world’s largest opera house.

It’s when Nezet-Seguin was launching his international career in the early 2000’s that we get a rare glimpse of anxiety in this otherwise seemingly supremely self-confident man.

“He was 25 and playing with some of the great European orchestras,” Froemke said. “He would study and study and he would be full of nerves before he would go before these orchestras. There’s a moment in Rotterdam, Yannick is waiting outside the stage door to go into the first rehearsal and you see the fear in his face.”

Froemke said he told her that when he rewatched the video of that moment recently, “The fear came back to him in a profound way.”

To help him through that period, his parents, Claudine Nezet and Serge Seguin, and his life partner, violist Pierre Tourville, spent most of a decade traveling with him from city to city.

The documentary is bookended by scenes of Nezet-Seguin preparing two productions he conducted during the Met’s 2018-19 season, his first as music director and the last full season before the house shut down because of the pandemic.

He’s shown working with soprano Diana Damrau on Verdi’s “La Traviata,” in which she portrays Violetta, a courtesan who is dying of tuberculosis.

In the opening scene, Violetta is throwing a late-night party, and the music on the surface is festive and carefree. But the conductor asks his star to dig deeper.

“There is an excitement in this music which is a little sick, from the start,” he suggests. “Why are they (her friends) asking, ‘Are you well enough’ right away? Maybe there’s something in your voice that already signals we’re not sure.”

And during rehearsal for Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmelites,” he urges the singers — portraying nuns who will soon be guillotined by the French Revolution — to make their “Ave Maria″ sound intimate and personal rather than like a formal choral piece.

“All their fear, love, comfort, longing, it’s all in that prayer,” he tells them.

Froemke, who has directed a number of other documentaries about the Met, said she would love it if this one found an audience beyond devoted opera lovers.

“I’m hoping because he is so young and dynamic that it will be interesting for younger people and give them an insight into classical music. The idea that a 20-year-old is interested in Bach’s “St. John’s Passion” rather than being in a band on Youtube is kind of cool.”

“Yannick: An Artist’s Journey” opens in movie theaters nationwide on July 7, kicking off a summer season of the Met’s Live in HD encore presentations that runs until August.

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