Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the Return of the Philly Orchestra, Crowdless Concert Halls, and Good Silence
The Philly Orchestra conductor is set to kick off the ensemble’s new season with a livestreamed performance at the Mann Center on Wednesday night.
When the Philadelphia Orchestra returns to the stage for the opening night of its reimagined 2020 season, things are going to look a bit different. (This is the 2020 season, after all.) The musicians will be wearing masks, seated six feet apart. The wind and brass instruments — which we now know are producers of both beautiful sounds and possibly hazardous aerosols — will be sequestered behind plexiglass walls. There will be no in-person audience. The orchestra will instead be streaming a series of concerts, starting with a performance of Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and contemporary composer Valerie Coleman at the Mann Center on Wednesday night.
The last time the orchestra played together in a legitimate concert, it was mid-March, right as the country was beginning to shut down due to the pandemic. The orchestra ended up putting on a performance before an empty Kimmel Center that was equal parts ominous and inspirational — not least because the roiling music of the Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony seemed to mirror the feelings of anxiety percolating throughout the city. Above all, the compelling spectacle was proof that classical music, despite any highbrow, passé reputation it might possess, could still feel essential and urgent.
As the pandemic went on through the summer, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin continued to put on occasional quasi-performances with his various orchestras — he’s not only the conductor in Philly, but also at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and at the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal — including a series of Zoom concerts that might have been gimmicky if they didn’t sound so shockingly good. (The secret? Each Zoomer recorded his or her part separately.) The orchestra’s new season, which features a number of big-name soloists including Lang Lang, Emanuel Ax and Gil Shaham, is scheduled with streaming performances through the end of this year. (Tickets for most events are $15. For the opening night event, admission to the “digital stage” is $50. )
If if it’s not quite a full return to normalcy, then it’s a least a step closer. In advance of opening night, we caught up with Nézet-Séguin to talk about his pandemic routine, how quarantine has changed his concept of the concert, and the difference between the silence of a crowd and the silence of an empty concert hall.
When the pandemic first began and everyone was still excited to be spending time on Zoom as a novelty, you put on a series of Zoom concerts with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. In some ways, that feels like a bit of a precursor to the online season that you’ll now be doing here in Philly. How did those early Zoom concerts compare in your mind to the real, in-person thing?
I mean, the Zoom thing was actually almost a kind of reflex. It was something I feel that us artists, we felt we needed to do. It was such a shock for everyone, in the arts especially, when you’re involved in art that is made in groups of people, like an orchestra or a chorus, to be all of a sudden alone with your instrument, not feeling your colleagues, and not being with the public. And for a conductor, imagine not even having any instrument at home. So there were two choices, basically: Disappear for a while or try anything we could to stay and feel connected.
What was very important for me, and also for the musicians of the Philly Orchestra and the Met, was to give this to our audience because everyone was at home, everyone was isolated. But I always knew that putting all of these little boxes together by Zoom, this can only be for so long.
If the Zoom performance was a kind of reflex, then what you’re doing now — a concert that’s in person on one end and remote on the other — seems closer to a return to normalcy. Are you approaching these digital concerts differently than the ones you did entirely via Zoom?
This is really much closer to what we’re used to, even though it’s also very strange, because the physical distancing that has to be between the musicians is of course far from being normal, and then there’s all the masks. Then you realize how usually there’s so much non-verbal communication for an orchestra and for colleagues to be together, and of course between a conductor and the orchestra. But still, none of this is a good enough reason to decide not to do it. And this is teaching me a lot, I have to say, about the power of chemistry between musicians of the same ensemble, or between an orchestra and a conductor. I always believed in that chemistry. But if you had asked me a year ago, “Is it possible to conduct or to play as an orchestra with six feet apart?” I would have said, “No that’s absolutely out of the question, it’s absolutely impossible.” But when you’re forced to do it, you realize, even if it’s not ideal, it’s actually doable.
“You can feel a difference between the true silence of 2,000 people in a hall — because they’re focused and they’re giving you something of their soul by listening — and the emptiness.”
What about the chemistry between the orchestra and the audience? With some types of performance art, like in theater, there’s frequent audience reaction, so the simple fact of having people in the room reacting might change a performance on any given night. One might think that it matters less in classical music, where the audience usually is quiet. How much do you think not having an audience in the building will change the atmosphere from the orchestra’s standpoint? Do you feel like you’ll be playing into a void?
We experienced that in Philly just on March 12th, when every stage basically in the country was going dark. We played that concert with some Beethoven symphonies. It was so new and we could feel this was the last time we’d play for a while, so we played it in front of no audience, but in our normal hall. And the fact of not having the audience there, especially at the end of symphonies like Beethoven’s Fifth, where people erupt in applause, I think this was kind of a shock, too, for us. And you’re right that maybe it’s silent in classical music, but the energy during the silence is very important. For example, I used to say that I felt when an audience was really engaged by the quality of their silence. You can feel a difference between the true silence of 2,000 people in a hall — because they’re focused and they’re giving you something of their soul by listening — and the emptiness. It’s very, very different.
Remote concerts have gone on before the pandemic. The Berlin Philharmonic, for instance, has a big YouTube presence. So people have already been listening to things from afar. But has this changed your own concept of what a concert actually is, and if maybe these remote concerts should continue going forward?
Yes. Clearly. Honestly, the classical music world was behind in how we embraced technology. Basically, it was not embraced properly. One of the benefits of this digital experience is the way it’s filmed to make it feel like the audience can be at several places within the orchestra, instead of just being in one seat. It’s great to be in the hall and acoustically hearing the blend of all the instruments, but actually being able to see it from up close, the effort and the dedication and the precision, it’s kind of like looking at an athlete on TV from up close. For the moment, the digital experience is a replacement, but it’s going to — and I’m convinced about this — remain a complement to the live experience.
It’s probably fair to say that many people go to an orchestra concert, really, to escape and get absorbed into the music. Just based on your opening night performance, you have some pieces by Mozart, Verdi and Rossini that might fit that mold. But you’ve also commissioned a piece by the composer Valerie Coleman that was written as a response to the pandemic. So I’m curious if you see your role as providing a kind of escapist sonic entertainment, or if you actually want to be producing something more challenging for the audience?
Well I think it clearly needs to be both. This sonic experience and this escape, it’s very important to me this aspect of it, so you’re right to mention it. However, all of these pieces by Verdi, and Mozart, and Rossini, when they were premiered, most of them were actually modern for their time; they were reacting to realities of the moment. They were challenging to their audiences. Beethoven is maybe the best example of it, but also the composers you named. People would flee the halls when they were listening to world premieres. Almost every masterpiece we play nowadays on a regular basis was badly received when they got their premieres. So there is something about art that’s a mixture of that escape and really when it is expressing something that is very close to home, it can be disturbing and challenging.
In the case of Valerie’s piece that we commissioned, I think it’s a very heartwarming piece, therefore not necessarily challenging in that sense, because it’s very pleasant to the ear. But yes, it is a piece of its time, of its circumstance. It does have some of the anxiety of the last few months. And it’s very, very important for the orchestra and for me to have music in our program that really is addressing those issues, as well as the great classics. I think you can’t have one without the other.
How will you ultimately grade the success of the upcoming performances?
Obviously we want the most people to be able to witness and watch what we’re going to do. Also, programs cannot stay forever free. Some of our offerings will need to remain free access, because it’s part of our duty. But we also have artists and people who need to earn their lives. We need these highly skilled professionals of the highest level, which are part of the Philadelphia Orchestra, so some offerings will need to be paid for. Our goal with the audience is that our devoted subscribers will appreciate and stay with us during this and witness our journey. But I also hope it’s an opportunity to get a more international audience for the orchestra. There are no boundaries anymore.
Clearly this was disruptive for all of the members of the orchestra, but maybe no one more so than a conductor, right? Like you said, there’s no instrument that you can practice. What did you actually do during the early months of the pandemic? Were you practicing in the mirror? Did you feel totally bereft? What was going on?
The mirror, no. [laughs.] That’s actually something I’m against. I think the conductor should not use a mirror to practice. I know maybe some do, but not in my case. Normally what I do to prepare is I study the music that I’m about to do. Like many people, I felt not really motivated to do so. But I’m originally a pianist so this is what I did: I took all my piano scores and piano books and spent a lot of time at the piano, also playing with my partner Pierre, who’s a violist, in Montreal. So we reconnected doing chamber music jut the two of us. And then, time flew. Because honestly between my responsibilities in New York, Philly and Montreal, I was on a lot of Zoom calls and a lot of interviews and gave a lot of masterclasses to students in schools, everything. So I was far from not busy. But the reconnecting with the piano was something very special for me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.