Q&A with Yannick Nézet-Séguin: The Phila. Orchestra season, risks, and tradition

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 Yannick Nézet-Séguin's fifth season as Philadelphia Orchestra music director might not immediately look that different from the previous four.

In some ways, that's intentional. Nézet-Séguin has often talked about the advantage in creating a familylike circle of performers - such as Karen Cargill, who was memorably featured in this season's Messiah and who will be back in May 2017 for the MahlerSymphony No. 3. Certain composers don't stay away long: Now that Nézet-Séguin has conducted all of Rachmaninoff's symphonies, guest conductor Stéphane Denève will cover the composer's piano/orchestral works over three separate concerts April 27-29, 2017.

Three significant new works are in the season, most important the Christopher Rouse Concerto for Organ and Orchestra - for an instrument that seems well-suited to the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer's explosive creative temperament.

Also, some of the more generic-looking programs have underlying risks. One is the Dec. 1-3 outing with the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 and Shostakovich Symphony No. 4, which was premiered in the United States by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Both works occupy experimental places in each composer's repertoire. One might even say the 1936 symphony represents Shostakovich at his own personal fringe. Audiences may still find it shockingly brilliant.

"But I think that after five years, if I can't take chances like this, I think something is wrong," Nézet-Séguin said.

Over 45 minutes backstage at the Kimmel Center, Nézet-Séguin discussed the state of the orchestra, the thinking behind his choices of music, and how these choices point toward the future - revealing that he is definitely a hands-on music director, even though he's technically in Philadelphia 14 weeks out of the year. For example, you would think bringing back 79-year-old Charles Dutoit (the former chief conductor, who wanted Nézet-Séguin's job) would be a negotiation that would require Henry Kissinger to come out of retirement. Nope. Nézet-Séguin did it himself.

How did you convince Dutoit, who is conductor laureate, to come back?

I've been in touch on a regular basis since I was named. He was clear that he didn't want to come in the next few years. . . . He didn't want to be a certain shadow. I respect that. I still insisted for him to come. Every year, I would use electronic means - emails - at various times of the year, birthdays and whatever, always inviting him and inviting him and inviting him. Maybe he thought he would wait five years. He really wanted to do Britten's War Requiem [which he'll do March 23-25, 2017]. I'm over the moon that one of our titled conductors is coming back.

Why is Simon Rattle doing only one performance of the Mahler "Symphony No. 6" on Oct. 6?

That was the best we could get. I'm not nearly as experienced or famous as Rattle, but my schedule is a nightmare when it comes to guest-conducting outside orchestras. He really wanted to come and has made it doable by arranging his schedule to do one performance. It's better than nothing, and this is the only American orchestra he's conducting besides the Metropolitan Opera.

Box office figures last season were down, at an average of 76 percent of capacity. The percentage tends to be higher at the concerts you conduct. To what extent are some of this season's more traditional programs a response to that?

So far this year, we're way ahead of last year - even the first week after the holidays, which is traditionally slow. This season started with a bang. Last year started strangely. My first few weeks should've been great with Lang Lang and the Alpine Symphony. But they started at 80-something percent. That was alarming. Of course, we're analyzing all of that and wondering if we can be better. But, sometimes, it's just something in the air. We aren't always to blame.

We do consider the feedback that we get. And that might make us adjust a little bit. But what I'm most convinced about is that we need to do things more than once to create new traditions, new expectations, new habits, and we can't backtrack if something isn't on the box office level we want. Our composer festival sold well, but it didn't sell out. That doesn't mean we stop doing it.

Do you ever worry about burning out the standard repertoire?

The freshness of approach is at least as important as having new repertoire. . . . I think that doing the Rachmaninoff concertos as a festival, as an intensive thing, is a fresh take on it. Maybe next year we'll have a concert version of [the Rachmaninoff opera]Aleko. With the complete cycle of Brahms symphonies, Herbert Blomstedt wanted to do Brahms' Third, and there's no way I'm arguing with him. I wanted to do Brahms' Fourth. . . . Alain Altinoglu, who replaced me when I was sick two years ago, wanted Brahms' First.

I sometimes look at some of the exciting projects you have elsewhere and wonder whether there's enough in Philadelphia to keep you challenged and interested, at least on the level you were, for example, during the Bernstein "Mass" last year.

I don't have a lesser time when I am conducting the Bruckner Symphony No. 4. I'm not less moved by that than when I'm working on something that's outside the box. It's actually quite the opposite. I don't consider myself a revolutionary person. I feel that I'm more toward a traditionalist. What turns me on is anything that's of great quality and relevance.

Speaking of Leonard Bernstein, that thread continues with his "Symphony No. 1 ('Jeremiah')" next season. He has a centennial coming up in 2018.

What I want to do is his three symphonies, one a season. I always loved the conducting and persona of Bernstein - and his music, obviously. But I didn't have the chance to conduct it a lot. We will do other stage works. This is a personal reaction for me, but also a reaction to how the orchestra and the community responded to Mass.

Your choral work this year is Mozart's unfinished "Mass in C minor." It's paired with Schubert's "Symphony No. 8 ('Unfinished')." Many have tried to finish them.

I once conducted a completion of the Schubert. But I'm very romantically attached to the idea that this is a perfect body of work in itself . . . in the way the slow movement opens up into an eternity in a spiritual way.

You've been involved in nearly every aspect of the orchestra, with the exception of the Mann Center season. Will that change?

I visited the Mann Center just before Christmas. It was a gorgeous day, and I wanted to have a really detailed visit. I had been there just once for a quick visit. We are in very close touch with the Mann to imagine our future there. We have bold ideas. What you need to know is, yes, we're talking. We have to make sure the project is right, and then I'll jump in. I'm very impressed with the Mann. I like the fact that it's all wood. There's some refurbishing going on, but they should keep the wood. At all costs.

dstearns@phillynews.com

For a detailed listing of the recently announced Philadelphia Orchestra 2016-17 season, go to www.philorch.org

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