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July 5, 2012
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Philadelphia Orchestra comes to Vail

VAIL - Don't worry. It's not just you. Some conductors of major symphony orchestras are, in fact, getting younger.

Gustavo Dudamel was 29 when he took over the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 to rave reviews. Vail audiences are familiar with Alan Gilbert, who assumed the reins of the New York Philharmonic when he was 42, also in 2009.

And now it's time for the Bravo Vail Valley Music Festival to meet Yannick Nezet-Seguin, 37, who officially starts his tenure as the music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra in September. Nezet-Seguin and Philadelphia perform an all-Brahms concert tonight (The Violin Concert and the Fourth Symphony) and Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Sixth on Saturday at the Ford Amphitheater.

But before America's Big Five orchestras or those abroad start combing grade schools for future leaders, Nezet-Seguin says that we might want to hold on for a minute.

"There is definitely something there, but I would hesitate to use the word 'trend,'" Nezet-Seguin said from Baden-Baden, Germany, where he is preparing for two performances of Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte." "We might be young in a way that attracts marketing, but at the end of the day, if we don't deliver with the musicians, if we don't know what we're doing, it's not going to work. ... It may take 10, 20 or 30 years to look back and say what was really happening."

Amid all the media hype, which started in 2010 with the announcement that Nezet-Seguin would become only the eighth musical director in The Philadelphia Orchestra's history, he comes to this post with an accomplished resume.

He started with the Montreal Opera and the Orchestre Metropolitan, and remains with the latter in his native Quebec. With the former, he came in contact with noted conductor Charles Dutoit for the second time - more on their first interaction later.

During the middle of the last decade, he headed up the Rotterdam Philharmonic and made waves as the guest conductor of the London Philharmonic. By that time Dutoit had moved to The Philadelphia Orchestra, he invited Nezet-Seguin to guest conduct in 2008 and the rest is history.

Nezet-Seguin comes to The Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra at a difficult time for all symphonies in the wake of the recent recession and a particularly hard one for his new orchestra, which filed for bankruptcy in 2011.

Nezet-Seguin's charge is to reinvigorate one of the country's marquee symphonies, patching up relationships with the organization's musicians as well as reviving the Philadelphia musical community. It's no small task for the 37-year-old.

Drawing an orchestra

Nezet-Seguin came to conducting, like most of his peers, through percussion. His parents had a piano in their basement in their home in Montreal and the future musical director of Philadelphia remembers his first piano lesson when he was 5.

In addition to piano, Nezet-Seguin liked to draw. When he was 9, he and his family went to a summer concert of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Nezet-Seguin drew a picture of the orchestra, led by Dutoit. The picture made its way to the maestro, and Dutoit wrote a thank-you letter to young Yannick.

"It was a really nice note," Nezet-Seguin recalled.

While it's natural to assume that two connected while in Montreal with Nezet-Seguin embarking on his career and Dutoit conducting the city's orchestra, the two actually developed their relationship in Philadelphia.

There, Dutoit replaced Christopher Eschenbach, who had a controversial and brief five-year run with The Philadelphia Orchestra, as the organization's chief conductor.

Ironically, Nezet-Seguin's first performance with the orchestra in 2008, at Dutoit's invitation, is the exact same program being played Saturday at Bravo - Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique."

Two years later in 2010, Nezet-Seguin, at the age of 35, was tabbed as the music director designate.

"I was happy to be given an opportunity to be trusted with such highly-skilled musicians," he said. "We always remember conductors when they're older - (Herbert) Van Karajan, (Arturo) Toscanini, (Eugene) Ormandy. They all started extremely young. They were only less exposed by the media at the time."

'A crescendo'

Dropping the name of Ormandy is not a coincidence. He led The Philadelphia Orchestra for 44 years from 1936-1980. With Leopold Stokowski (1912-1938 - their tenures overlapped), the orchestra had just two leaders in 68 years.

And the duo helped the Philadelphia Orchestra make history - it made the first electric recording in 1925 and the first radio broadcast of a symphony in 1929 with Stokowski. Under Ormandy, Philadelphia made the first tour of an American symphony in Communist China in 1973. This is the sort of stability any orchestra would love and Philadelphia, in particular, needs in the wake of the last decade.

After being named director designate, Nezet-Seguin met with the musicians of the orchestra and its patrons to mend those relations strained during Eschenbach's leadership. After his first performances with the orchestra at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, he decided to greet concert-goers in the lobby. That produced a good problem.

"I expected to shake hands with a hundred, maybe a couple hundred of people," he said. "There were 1,000 in the queue."

The overwhelming response led Nezet-Seguin to schedule post-concert discussions with Philadelphia audiences. He says that the feedback has ranged from musical students with technical questions about the performances to those discussing programming.

"It has helped us build a tremendous rapport with our audience," he said.

Nezet-Seguin clearly wants to draw on the history of The Philadelphia Orchestra. He is particularly passionate about celebrating Stokowski's centennial with Philadelphia. Nezet-Seguin and Philadelphia will be performing Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," among other works that Stokowski helped debut in America to commemorate the occasion.

"Well, two years ago, we intended to do this as a crescendo up to the time I would be officially the music director," Nezet-Seguin said. "I think we've been successful in creating a crescendo. It feels like a new beginning."

Staff writer Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934 or cfreud@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Jul 5, 2012 03:44PM Published Jul 5, 2012 03:41PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.