Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Pete Checchia
Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Pete Checchia

Discussing Diversity with Yannick Nézet-Séguin

  • Yannick Nézet-Séguin

    Born in Montreal in 1975, Yannick Nézet-Séguin studied piano, conducting, composition, and chamber music at the Conservatoire de Musique du Québec. At the age of 19, he met Carlo Maria Giulini, whom he accompanied during rehearsals and who became a significant influence. After his initial positions with his own ensembles and as choral director at the Opéra de Montréal, Nézet-Séguin was appointed music director of the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montréal in 2000. From 2008 to the summer of 2018, he served as Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, which subsequently named him Honorary Conductor; he has helmed the Philadelphia Orchestra since 2012, and since 2018 he has served as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he will launch new productions of Wagner’s Lohengrin, Kevin Puts’s The Hours, and Terence Blanchard’s Champion in 2022-23.

    Nézet-Séguin has worked with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, where he was Principal Guest Conductor from 2008 to 2014. In the United States, he has also conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Nézet-Séguin made his debut at the Salzburg Festival in 2008 with Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette; he has also appeared as an opera conductor at London’s Royal Opera House, La Scala in Milan, and the Vienna Staatsoper. He conducted the seven great Mozart operas at the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden, all of which were recorded. In 2021 he released his first solo album as a pianist, Introspection, which encompasses works from Bach to Berio. His recording of symphonies by Florence Price received a Grammy Award in 2022. Yannick Nézet-Séguin has garnered multiple honorary doctorates and is a Companion of the Order of Canada, a member of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres du Québec, and an Officier de l’Ordre de Montréal.

Congratulations on winning a Grammy Award for The Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording of Florence Price’s First and Third Symphonies! You have been championing the work of Price for quite some time now – how did this project start and where do you hope it will lead?

I discovered Florence Price a few years ago. Ever since then, I knew I wanted to showcase more of her incredible artistry. In the 2021-22 season of The Philadelphia Orchestra, we dedicated ourselves to celebrating Price’s work, performing and recording her symphonies. We are thrilled that our recording of her First and Third Symphonies on the Deutsche Grammophon label won the 2022 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance. It’s so important to me and to The Philadelphia Orchestra to look at neglected works, to bring back the music of composers we believe in, like Florence Price, and to continue broadening the repertoire to give a much more diverse representation of who we are as a society today. It is our hope that Florence Price becomes a staple in the classical music canon and that recordings of her works will be Grammy contenders – and winners – for many years to come.

On winning the Grammy Award, you said: "Though we can’t erase the prejudices of the past, we can work together to build a more equitable future for classical music – one in which all voices are heard, where everyone sees themselves on our stages, and where artists like Florence do not fade into obscurity." As Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, how do you hope to shape the makeup of your ensemble in a way that all audience members will eventually see themselves represented on stage? What other forgotten artists are you looking to re-establish in the near or far future?

There is still much work to be done. The Philadelphia Orchestra is looking at diversity from many different lenses, from examining blind auditions to expanding the repertoire we perform. In our upcoming 2022-23 season, we will continue our exploration of works by artists whose voices have been historically underrepresented. In addition to works by Florence Price, we will give the first Philadelphia Orchestra performances of Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Almost 90 years since Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphians gave the world premiere of William Dawson’s African American Folk Symphony, one of the first works by a Black composer to be premiered by a major American orchestra, will we present this work again. And we’re also looking forward to our first performances of Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite with pianist Aaron Diehl and the Aaron Diehl Trio.

In addition to Price’s Symphony No. 1, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concert at Lucerne Festival on 4 September will feature the work of another Black female composer: This Is Not a Small Voice by Valerie Coleman, featuring soprano Angel Blue. Can you tell us more about this piece?

This Is Not a Small Voice is a Philadelphia Orchestra commission set to the text of Sonia Sanchez’s poem of the same name. We love working with Valerie Coleman, one of the most brilliant composers of our day. She so beautifully collaborated with Sonia on this work, evoking the powerful message of the poem through music. The piece starts out quietly, suggestive of a small voice before it swells into fuller orchestrations suggesting the power of the innocence and grace inherent in children.

For its web series "Our City, Your Orchestra," the Philadelphia Orchestra records free online concerts at Black-owned businesses and iconic cultural locations. How has this initiative strengthened the connection between the orchestra and local communities?

Originally designed as a way to support Black-owned businesses, non-profit institutions, and other iconic Philadelphia locations affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, "Our City, Your Orchestra" has been a beautiful way for The Philadelphia Orchestra to connect with the communities of Philadelphia through music and dialog. The series celebrates the diversity and vibrancy of the Philadelphia region and helps to turn the spotlight on organizations advocating for change, sites of historical significance, and businesses that represent and serve resilient communities. I had the pleasure of participating in an episode at the William Way LGBT Community Center, which was deeply meaningful for me. This initiative has helped to introduce the Orchestra to people, neighborhoods, and organizations that we may not have otherwise had the chance to connect with—and that alone is incredibly special. We’re also delighted that many of the organizations we’ve worked with have garnered additional financial support and greater awareness as a result of the series. 

On a more personal note: As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, do you feel this aspect of "diversity" is given enough visibility within classical music?

I have certainly been fortunate to not directly experience prejudice in my career. But I know this has not been the case for everyone in the LGBTQ+ community. It is important for everyone to have role models, and that’s a role I’m embracing more and more. The arts community is a family, giving strength to a lot of people.