Music For A While with Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA Classique chats with musicians about their lives in the time of coronavirus.
“We must keep hope in our hearts. This is a pause. Some things will change, but music cannot be silenced. It’s going to take courage, and it’s going to take initiative and creativity, but as artists, we know how to do this. That’s why we exist: to give beauty and hope to the world.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live and work. Musicians are particularly affected while concert halls remain shuttered and live audiences are replaced with virtual ones. In light of this evolving reality, we’ve launched a series of short interviews with ATMA Classique recording artists about their lives during the pandemic.
This instalment features the renowned conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, whose latest recording for ATMA Classique is Sibelius Symphony No 1 with Orchestre Métropolitain. We spoke to Yannick in May 2020.
1. What was your last live public performance before the lockdown began?
The last concert I gave was on March 12th, 2020 and it’s been quite popular on the internet. I conducted Beethoven symphonies 5 and 6 with The Philadelphia Orchestra. We played in concert clothes, in our hall. There was no live audience because it had just been forbidden, but we could still gather together as an orchestra. We sort of knew that this would be the final concert for a while, and we live-streamed it for our virtual audience. We will never forget — any of us — the emotion … not to have an audience there, and to feel the sense of how important it was to make music together. It gave a special significance to the way we played these really well known and symbolic symphonies.
2. How has your daily routine changed during the pandemic?
I wish I had a better routine! It’s difficult to have a routine at this moment, although it’s actually very important for the mind. Of course, early on I was so busy doing so many administrative things that very often I would be too tired to make any music or play any piano during the day. I’m now trying to start the day with piano and continue with the administrative stuff, which I think is a better balance for my mental health.
3. What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of this new reality?
What’s very challenging is to be away from the musicians I work with all the time. It’s challenging for everyone around the world to be in this pandemic, but I think that artists especially – because we were the first to be shut down and we know that we’re going to be the last to resume – this is very hard on everyone’s morale.
In my particular case as a conductor, someone who can only really make music in a group, that has a special significance and it’s very hard to do. What’s challenging is that my roles consist of being at the helm of three organizations — The Metropolitan Opera, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and The Orchestra Mètropolitain. It means three sets of crisis management challenges to resolve, and that has made it very hard. I’m really happy to be there for everyone else, for the management teams, the boards, and especially the musicians in this time. Also having a lot of new initiatives like Zoom calls with students and different organizations and performing music live from home with my partner Pierre Tourville. That’s all great but I find myself very busy with things I’m usually not busy with, and I just have to remind myself that this is all for the music, and I need still to play the piano in order to keep sane.
4. How are you keeping busy now that live concerts have been suspended?
I think this is true for many people I’ve spoken with; in a way we’re even busier! So I wish and I hope that I can use this time of confinement to be able to relax, or actually read more and do things at a slower pace because my life is usually so hectic. I find myself feeling very hectic at trying to manage all the demands on my time at the moment, which are different from usual.
On the other hand I don’t want to complain, because I think it’s important that as artists we are present, we’re there to provide music to people who are really isolated at the moment —especially people who also need it because they are under special stress. I love that artists are present on social media and various platforms, and I’m happy to do it, but I definitely don’t need to find ways to keep myself busy!
At night after dinner, I can play games with my parents on Facetime. We ordered the same game for them that we received at home, so at least we can have a kind of a social gathering with my parents and friends. But virtually, of course, via Facetime or Zoom.
5. What music do you find yourself turning to most frequently since the pandemic hit?
The music that has kept me going is my piano playing. I have all the books that I used when I was a student and I can read my fingerings and the notes that my piano teachers wrote, and that has been really good for me. Especially Schubert sonatas, for some reason. I also did a lot of Bach at some point. But at the moment it’s really Schubert; it keeps me going.
6. Have there been any silver linings/unexpected benefits for you resulting from this time in isolation?
Yes, I think, like everyone, just feeling a sense of home and being rooted in one place. In my life, it’s a blessing. This is something that has not happened for many, many, many years, and I think most international artists will say the same. Being with my cats – they’re certainly very happy! And I’m very happy too, that has kept me rooted and grounded here.
I’m lucky that my parents and the rest of my family are very healthy. Having Pierre with me, also being healthy myself. We can take short walks to go to the grocery store. We live near the Canal in Montreal, and relatively speaking, there are many benefits — having time to play the piano for me is definitely something I cherish.
7. Any words of advice as we try to get through this?
We must keep hope in our hearts. This is a pause. Some things will change afterwards, but music cannot be silenced. It’s going to take courage, and it’s going to take initiative and creativity, but as artists, we know how to do this. That’s why we exist: to give beauty and hope to the world. And I can’t wait to be able to share it live with everyone else, but in the meantime I’m amazed to see everything that my colleagues are doing to keep the music alive.
Interview by Luisa Trisi, Big Picture Communications