I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: Yannick Nézet-Séguin is nothing like Eugene Ormandy.
Throughout his long tenure (1936-80) as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director, Ormandy consistently subordinated his personality to the music. If he or his musicians experienced any emotion onstage, they conveyed it only through the sounds, never through facial expressions or body language. Even for a concert like last weekend’s program of Bernstein, Mozart, and Schumann — which the orchestra’s own program notes described as “among the most personal utterances of their composers, offering journeys of the soul” — Ormandy and his players never bared their own souls. In effect, they functioned as high priests who disdained any extra-musical communication with their audience. That was a line they simply would not cross. Even raucous standing ovations were greeted by the maestro with little more than a nod before he shuffled offstage.
Of course, it helped in those days that Ormandy’s orchestra enjoyed a virtual monopoly on Philadelphia’s high-culture market. Even if the orchestra needed to compete with cutting-edge theater, opera, and restaurants — not to mention a bounty of other classical offerings nowadays — Philadelphians in the Age of Ormandy didn’t dream of going anywhere but the Academy of Music when the orchestra was performing. Patrons typically held their season subscriptions for life, surrendering them only at death, and then usually to their children.
In today’s more spirited environment, conductors must work harder at enticing their audiences, and goodness knows Yannick does. Since he took charge in 2012, Yannick has crossed Ormandy’s line with blissful impunity. Saturday night he was in overdrive, exuberantly working himself up as he put the orchestra through a varied evening of Leonard Bernstein’s powerful Jeremiah symphony (in which the composer grappled with the sufferings of his own Jewish people in the midst of the Holocaust), Mozart’s 24th Piano Concerto, and Schumann’s Second Symphony.
I used to find the best way to get into the music at an orchestra concert (read: avoid zoning out) is to focus on a single musician. For many years, my favorite was cellist Gloria Johns (now DePasquale). More recently it’s another cellist, Yumi Kendall, who responds joyfully or sorrowfully to the music at hand. But Saturday I discovered a better solution: just watch Yannick.
Channeling Nancy Reagan
It wasn’t merely the way he seemed to communicate with each of his 100 musicians but also with his soloist. When Radu Lupu played his cadenzas in the Mozart piano concerto, Yannick didn’t relax; on the contrary, he studied Lupu with intense fascination, thereby encouraging the rest of us to do the same (much the way, say, Nancy Reagan used to laugh uproariously at her husband Ronnie’s jokes as if hearing them for the first time). Either Yannick holds Lupu in genuine reverence or he’s a heck of a good actor. Maybe both.
Lupu, by contrast, is 71 and most definitely a pianist stamped by the old Ormandy mold. He made a difficult Mozart piece look easy, and when it was over he responded to the cheers by nodding ever so slightly and then shuffling stiffly offstage, much like you-know-who.
Not so Yannick. This man wears his passions on his sleeve. He welcomed the ovations, encouraged them, and singled out individual players and sections for further applause. Just as he instinctively understands the Schumann symphony (which he conducted without music), he also seems to understand instinctively the infectious effect of good vibrations, which he works very hard at spreading. There’s also a certain economic logic to his approach: If you get this much of a workout at your job, you don’t need a membership in a health club. Did I mention that the house, for a change, was full?
To read Robert Zaller's review, click here.