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Met Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin On Hope, Suffering And Verdi's 'Requiem'

Nézet-Séguin chose Verdi's Requiem for his 2012 inaugural performance as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He says the piece now helps him find a sense of connection during the pandemic.

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Other segments from the episode on September 24, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 24, 2020: Yannick Nezet-Seguin; Review of TV series 'Tehran.'

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're going to listen to and hear about a beautiful and awe-inspiring piece of music, Verdi's "Requiem," with our guest, conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin. He leads two of the world's great music institutions - the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He chose to perform the "Requiem" for his inaugural concert as the music director in Philadelphia in 2012. The "Requiem" is a choral masterpiece featuring the orchestra, four solo performers and a full choir.

Our station, WHYY, streamed the performance in July, which gave Terry the chance to talk to Yannick again about his life during the pandemic and why he chose this stirring piece to begin his work in Philadelphia. Yannick is a young, charismatic conductor committed to interpreting classic works and presenting new adventurous music. He grew up in Montreal and continues to return there to conduct. He's also been a guest conductor at orchestras around the world and was the music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. He became the third music director of the Metropolitan Opera in 2018 and became the Philadelphia Orchestra's eighth music director in 2012.

We'll start with some of Yannick's first performance as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. From Verdi's "Requiem," this is the "Tuba Mirum" section of the movement called "Dies Irae," which translates to the day of wrath.

(SOUNDBITE OF YANNICK NEZET-SEGUIN AND PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF GIUSEPPE VERDI'S "REQUIEM")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in Latin).

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Yannick, it is so good to speak with you again. I just want to say, it's a magnificent performance of Verdi's "Requiem," and it's such a really awe-inspiring piece. And it seems so fitting to hear a requiem now when every day there's a pandemic death count. But when you conducted this, it was in 2012, and it was a celebratory performance. It was your first performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra as its music director. Why did you choose to make this your inaugural piece?

YANNICK NEZET-SEGUIN: Well, Terry, as you just said, this is a piece that's very awe-inspiring, but also it's a piece that is very deep and has a lot of content which is not necessarily uplifting, in a way, immediately because, of course, it's the mass for the dead. And as in many requiem in the history of music, in my opinion, it brings the best out of the composers who choose to write or put such a text to music. Thinking of Mozart, thinking of Brahms and Verdi - maybe those three, maybe even above all the others - or Faure as well, Gabriel Faure.

So when we chose that piece, I remember us in Philadelphia talking - what does it mean to start a music directorship with a mass for the dead? So we did have to already immediately take into account all of these questions. And I remember that what really inspired me to do this was that I feel that it's important, through music, to always convey the power of those pieces and what they mean for each individual sitting in the concert hall or, for now, each and everyone listening to this and watching this from home.

And the meaning is that we all have to deal with death and life after death and people around us and our own - also our own relationship to living and that, in the end, the - to live this as a community makes us feel less lonely, makes us - in a certain way - hopeful. And this is why maybe it's relevant to have it now in these times. And, of course, the other reason was a bit less philosophical, but it was about my love for vocal music as much as symphonic music. And I think this requiem is just the perfect example of the balance between the two.

GROSS: So I want to talk to you about a specific part of the piece, and it's the "Dies Irae." It's around 10 minutes in. I don't know if you'd officially call it the second movement or not. But this is the day of wrath section, and I want to quote a few of the lines.

(Reading) The day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes. How great will be the terror when the judge comes who will smash everything completely? The trumpet scattering a marvelous sound through the tombs of every land will gather all before the throne.

And, like, my goodness (laughter). And, meanwhile, what's happening musically is that this huge chorus is singing this descending line, and there's a bass drum marching in the background. And it's just chilling to hear this, as all the singers are basically pleading for mercy on Judgment Day. Like, I find this musical passage just so - it sends chills down my spine. What is happening musically that so powerfully conveys the text?

NEZET-SEGUIN: Well, I couldn't agree more with you. This text is very powerful. But I think it's unique in the history of music to have been able to capture all of these elements, musically, so powerfully. And that's also one of the great examples where the music is magnifying the text or amplifying it in a way. So you mentioned already the bass drum chords. Those are very unique. We do it with a large bass drum nowadays, but it has to be mentioned that Verdi was imagining that an instrument would be even built for that, was imagining a huge bass drum which was not available at the time, which was wood (ph).

And one has to get the right sound because it cannot sound too dry, like a military drum, but if it's too boomy, it doesn't have the impact. So, yes, it's - like looking at those paintings of the last judgment, especially in churches in Italy - or in Venice, I remember seeing some - and you imagine there's a constellation of people around it, but there's, like - the motion is coming to us. And those descending line, you rightly pointed out, from the chorus are actually really like the judgment descending upon us. And that is, of course, one part of it. But the chorus is most importantly, I think, representing the mob of all of us humans in fear. A little bit after - when it quiets down, after a couple of minutes of that - into that movement, it talks about the terror. And the chorus is whispering, but all at once, quantus tremor est futurus. And afterwards, there is a final trumpet, the judgment - the trumpet of the judgment like in the Bible. It is - and that was completely revolutionary in Verdi's time - it is actually six trumpets - two on stage but two on one side of the auditorium and two on the other side. So it is a written echo effect, imagining that the trumpets in the world will come from every part of the planet.

GROSS: And that descending line with the orchestra - is there something special that's happening harmonically to give this sense of anguish and pleading...

NEZET-SEGUIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...And doom?

NEZET-SEGUIN: Yes. So - absolutely. So this is almost like a baroque way of doing things, like what Bach would have done to create an effect which we call this, which is an immediate emotion or an image emotionally. So those descending lines is what we call the chromatic scale. So it's every little half step of the scale - (vocalizing). So that is actually the anguish because it is almost like a huge sigh or a huge cry. It is like a giant tear that is - that we hear. And the fact that this is repeated over and over again is also incredible.

After the chorus, there is also an incredible gesture from all the strings. They have something which is almost unplayable, but of course, the great strings of the Philadelphia Orchestra can play it beautifully - (imitating violin). So this is a descending line which is not chromatic. It's many, many, many scales twisting down. And to me, it's the swirls of what will accompany this storm of the last judgment, the swirl of the wind and of all the hurricanes that will take all the judged people to - who knows? - maybe hell or - so that is all part of why also Verdi repeats it very often.

And maybe another fact, which I'm sure you know, but maybe our listeners don't all know - that this piece was first composed as part of a collective requiem for a tribute to Rossini. So Verdi was asked, like many of his other fellow composers in Italy, to write one movement for this giant combined requiem from many composers. And what he composed was the "Libera Me". So he was assigned to do the final movement. But within the final movement, this "Libera Me," the "Dies Irae" text comes back. So this is why it was the starting point for his own requiem mass many years later.

(SOUNDBITE OF YANNICK NEZET-SEGUIN AND PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF GIUSEPPE VERDI'S "REQUIEM")

PHILADELPHIA SINGERS: (Singing in Latin).

DAVIES: That was the first part of "Dies Irae" from Verdi's "Requiem" conducted by our guest Yannick Nezet-Seguin with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF JOHANNES BRAHMS' "SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN F MAJOR")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Our guest is Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the music director and conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Philadelphia Orchestra. This July his inaugural performance as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012 was streamed by WHYY-TV. They performed Verdi's "Requiem", and Terry had the chance to speak with him about it.

GROSS: Well, am I right in saying that when you were a child - that you sang in the choir, doing Verdi's "Requiem?" How old were you?

NEZET-SEGUIN: I think the first time I sang that requiem, I must have been 15 or 16. So I sang it a couple of times as a member of the choir.

GROSS: What did it mean to you when you were 15 compared to what it means to you now? I mean, this is a piece about the dread of eternal damnation versus the possibility of eternal life. So you have the two biggest extremes, and you have really soft and really just booming passages. And it's such an emotional work. So when you were 15 and still not very experienced in the world, what did this music and the power mean to you?

NEZET-SEGUIN: I think when I was - as far as I remember, when I was a teenager, what I was very interested in was from the viewpoint of a music student or scholar. Well, actually, I was trying to analyze more the elements of what rings true in terms of theater or in terms of religion because, you know, as you and I have talked about a few times already, my own relationship to religion when I was growing was very, very, very strong. And of course, coming from that viewpoint but trying, also, to make my opinion - make up my mind about this eternal question about that piece specifically. Is it an opera, or is it a mass? And I think that over the years, I developed more my view about it, which is that every composer who tries to tackle these incredibly powerful and challenging and eternal questions that, you know, the "Dies Irae" brings - you know, the day of judgment, and the fear, the tears; the joy in the "Sanctus" but also the eternal blessing and the eternal rest - every composer who wants to deal with this has to do it with the most sincere way.

And the only way for a composer to be really sincere is to do it with the kind of language and vocabulary that they usually use. Since Verdi is one of the greatest opera composers of all time, the language he knew was through theater. So I think immediately, someone who is not accustomed to Verdi will think, oh, that's an opera; it's a bit too theatrical. And I disagree. I think that is just the kind of language that Verdi was knowing. And therefore, it became sincere and more personal to him.

GROSS: Verdi himself was agnostic. And it's amazing to me that he'd write such a powerful, deeply felt requiem when he wasn't Catholic. He was agnostic. And I'm wondering, Yannick, getting back to the fact that you sang this when you were 15, at what point in your own relationship to Catholicism were you?

NEZET-SEGUIN: First, about the fact of the composers being agnostic - I think that Mozart, in many ways, can be considered an agnostic, too - maybe not so much Brahms. But I'm thinking of another composer like this or at least - at the very least, they all had a troubled or at least questioning relationship to religion, all of these great composers. And maybe that's what, indeed, actually gave them the necessary distance to be able to really understand what it means as a text. Instead of having maybe a formalized or true accepted vision of what it is that this text means as a prayer or as a believer of one's faith. And probably - this is just an - it's hypothetic for me, but it might be the reason why these pieces speak to us so much today and to many generations regardless of if you're a Catholic or Jewish or a Muslim or a Lutheran. It doesn't matter at some point, you know? It's all about kinship of humankind to these eternal themes, which religion is one way of explaining in each.

So at my age, especially in the teenage years, I was still believing very intensely in the Catholic religion. However, it was really the time where I started to understand my transfer of my own vision from believing in God into believing in music, which was a way to God or God's way of talking to us. And so that piece had a special importance to me because it's basically maybe encompassed all of my beliefs - a text which I knew well but with the vision of an opera composer who had a lot more to say about life but put all of his best work, arguably, in a religious text.

DAVIES: Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin talking about Verdi's "Requiem," his very first performance as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012. We'll hear more of Terry's conversation with Yannick about that performance and about his life during the pandemic after this break.

I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILIPPE JORDAN'S "MESSA DA REQUIEM: XIII. SANCTUS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, back with her interview with conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Yannick is the young, charismatic music director of both New York's Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Terry had the chance to talk with him in July when our station, WHYY-TV, streamed his very first performance as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012. For that inaugural performance, he conducted Verdi's "Requiem" with the orchestra, four soloists and the Westminster Symphonic Choir. Terry talked with Yannick about how he's dealing with the pandemic and about his history with Verdi's choral masterpiece. He first performed the "Requiem" as a teenager.

GROSS: You know, you talked about this requiem as being - like, your introduction to it, when you were 15 and singing, that it was a transition point for you from believing in music - believing in religion to believing in music. Did you ever have the fear of eternal hell, the fear of Judgment Day and eternal flames, that this piece - especially the "Dies Irae" - expresses? Did you live with that?

NEZET-SEGUIN: Interestingly, not really. Or I'm not saying not at all, but this is not the focus of how I conceived and still conceive religion or faith. The expression of it - or maybe that's now the Yannick, a 45-year-old, talking to you. It's more - because it's hard maybe for me to know what I was thinking back then about this. But today I would say that, unfortunately, my fear of it is more what happens on Earth.

GROSS: The suffering? (Laughter).

NEZET-SEGUIN: Right. It's - yeah, it's all the suffering. It's all the danger. It's all the unknown. It's all that we are at the mercy of always something greater than us. And the recent months have proven it, you know, that even though we try, we try hard with technology and everything to control our destiny, there's something at some point that will be greater than us, and we have to react. And don't get me wrong; I think that with all the fears and the bad - what's - the tragic death and everything that's bad that's happened and is still happening to our world during this pandemic, there's also hopefully some good lessons from it. And I try to believe that humankind will also see a few of those wakeup calls.

But for me, the - what - the Judgment Day in that requiem, what it depicts for me is more the fears of the human life on our Earth, that we don't want the Earth to explode in a few decades. We want to take care of it. And I hope that maybe that's another way to understand this very quintessentially human and not necessarily religious message.

GROSS: When you sang it during various stages of your life, what were the parts, vocally, that were the most just fulfilling and beautiful or awesome, like in the sense of awe-inspiring, to sing?

NEZET-SEGUIN: So, actually, maybe the part as a singer which I found always the most touching and fulfilling is "Lacrymosa." So that's at the very end of that second movement, you said, which is a sequence, which is very, very long. Indeed, it's maybe the end of the first part, first half of the requiem. This "Lacrymosa" with all those tears and sighs - (vocalizing) - the violins and the alto solos and the sopranos. They convey so beautifully, and through a very simple motive of two notes that's repeated, they convey all the tears of the world.

And the melody itself, which Verdi took also again in his opera "Don Carlos," which is my favorite of Verdi - (singing in non-English language). It's so beautiful and not so loud at that moment. There's something quintessentially vocal, lyrical and tender. I do have different moments as a conductor, though, which I remain, to this day, maybe my most fulfilling when I conduct.

GROSS: What are those moments?

NEZET-SEGUIN: Well, maybe the one that is truly unique - and I would count one of those moments as one of - you know, you can count on one hand, you know, of the truly - moments where if you get it right, it feels, physically, there's something happening. It's like the Earth is opening under our feet. And there's also - we're also lifted up in the air. It's like a two-way expansion of perspective.

And that is coming from, again, a very musical trick, which is the ascending line of the sopranos and of the chorus and the soprano soloist and the descending lines of the basses, the bass of the orchestra and the basses from the chorus. They just go in the opposite direction. And that's, I would say, almost one minutes before the end of the piece. So it's at the very end of this fugue - (singing in non-English language) - which is very active, very anxious, energetic, quintessentially Italian - may I say? - because - ebullient.

But at the very end of this, all of those lines are opening up like there is no feet and no ground anymore. And the soprano soloist is reaching the high C, which is one of the highest notes for the soprano, and soaring above the whole texture. This is just an incredible moment, and just talking about it, I have chills. And when this happens in performance, it is just even hard to finish afterwards, the last minute, because this can be a life-changing experience as a performer.

DAVIES: This is the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin performing part of the final movement of Verdi's "Requiem," "Libera Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF YANNICK NEZET-SEGUIN AND PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF GIUSEPPE VERDI'S "REQUIEM")

DAVIES: That was part of "Libera me," the last movement of Verdi's "Requiem," with Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROTTERDAM PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF CLAUDE DEBUSSY'S "NOCTURNES")

DAVIES: If you're just joining us our guest is Yannick Nezet-Seguin the music director and conductor of The Metropolitan Opera in New York and The Philadelphia Orchestra. His inaugural performance as music director in Philadelphia in 2012 was recently streamed by WHYY-TV. Yannick conducted the orchestra, soloists and the Westminster Symphonic Choir in a performance of Verdi's "Requiem." Terry spoke to Yannick in July.

GROSS: You're in Montreal as we speak, which is a lot safer than the U.S. is right now in terms of the virus. Since death is something you've thought about a lot over the years since childhood, perhaps more than a lot of other people, I'm wondering how the presence of death right now and hearing the death numbers every day is affecting you. Because I'm sure you're not only thinking about yourself but of people who you love in Montreal and in Philadelphia and in New York where you conduct The Metropolitan Opera and around the world because the singers from The Met come from around the world. And you've conducted orchestras - so you have friends around the world. And so what is it like for you now to be living in the presence of death?

NEZET-SEGUIN: First, I have to say that, yes, I am lucky to be in Montreal near my family, but, you know, even though when you count - maybe when we see those numbers, we can see, oh, some parts of the world are safer than others. I feel - what I'm feeling at the moment is much more being a citizen of the world. I think that we're not safe anywhere really. I think we have to take it seriously everywhere. And there's no pride in I think wanting to show the world that maybe one part of the world is better than the other in dealing. I think we should all feel like we're the citizens of the Earth here, of course, even more in my case. I'm a citizen of Canada, but I'm also, you know, culturally a citizen of the United States. And for me, the colleagues I have in Philadelphia and in New York are as close to me as the colleagues in Montreal are. And I'm concerned and I'm worried. And, you know, our audience members, I want to make sure that I do my best, and this is what I tried to do in the last few months, doing my best even without being there physically because in a way, in confinement, it doesn't make so much difference if you're somewhere physically or not to connect, to reassure, to lead, to try to help. Music at the moment is still a moment for us to hope but to reflect. And this "Requiem" is hopefully both. It's a reflection on the lives that passed and the families affected and still affected by it. In New York, I lost two colleagues during the pandemic due to COVID-19...

GROSS: I'm so sorry.

NEZET-SEGUIN: ...The Met Opera. We lost one member of the viola section in The Met Orchestra, and we lost one assistant conductor who was one of our most wonderful colleagues in the music staff. So it became very real to see all of this. And I think that it's important to do everything, you know, especially as artists, to bring music to the people who are struggling and to give them comfort but also give them hope. And it's also for me important as a leader that I can be there for my institutions and also really be ready to bring the music back live when it's going to be possible. Of course, it's not possible at the moment, but we need to be ready when it's becoming possible. And so that is, of course, why even though I'm in Montreal I like to feel it in my heart I'm everywhere at once.

GROSS: I know, and I also feel that music allows us to experience our feelings more deeply and while doing that to affirm what we're feeling because the orchestra is feeling it. And it's that sense of connection that you're talking about.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Yeah. Well, when we watch this Verdi "Requiem," you know, there were so many people on stage. And at the moment, this is not possible to do. But when you look closer, you watch this chorus, amazing choir of the Westminster Choir college, young people dedicated to the text, the soloists in the orchestra. There isn't a lot of things in life that can convey the sense of community as you mention other than - more than at least, you know, an orchestra and a chorus, what it can do. And you're right. This is very inspiring at the moment to feel that we're not alone.

GROSS: I want to get back to the Verdi "Requiem." At the end of the performance, your inaugural performance as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, when the piece ends, your arms stay raised and I timed it. They stay raised for a really long time. It's 26 seconds. And that's - you know, there's usually, like, time for the notes to decay in the, you know, performing hall and, you know, a bit of silence at the end for reflection. But 26 seconds is actually a really long time. And I was thinking that was really intentional. This is such a powerful piece that you probably really wanted time for the audience to just sit with the silence and just reflect on what they heard and what they felt. And I'm wondering, like, how do you know how long you want the audience to sit with the silence? Are you just feeling it? Are you counting in your mind?

NEZET-SEGUIN: I think it's really about the feeling. It's about - you said it all. I think, you know, it's really about reflecting after what we just heard, but it's also about the power of silence. You know, the music that we play is also extremely powerful because it is silencing the outside voice for a while, and therefore silence in music is an incredibly valuable thing. And it might be the greatest values. You know, it's what's in between the notes. And so at the end of a piece like this where it doesn't finish with a big chord where the enthusiasm already goes, then it's a moment to try and enjoy the fact that we were in a community together for 90 minutes taking this journey together and praying in a way, in our own way, not necessarily in a religious way but a moment of internal let it sink in so that we really value the importance of what has happened. Usually, what I am doing is that I'm thinking of the performance and trying to sense also and during that time the audience and their energy. You know, if they're with us, then it can last as long - you know, it could still be going on. But at some point, you know, if there's for whatever reason the concentration and the focus goes, it's better to let it go.

GROSS: Yannick, I love hearing you talk about music. Thank you so much for talking to us today. And I really wish you and everyone you love and everyone you make music with, I wish them well. And thank you so much for your music and your thoughts.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Well, Terry, it's a privilege always to talk to you really. Thank you for your great questions, and I wish you the same and the whole team around you and your loved ones. And I can't wait to be back in Philadelphia and making music.

DAVIES: Yannick Nezet-Seguin, music director and conductor of New York's Metropolitan Opera and The Philadelphia Orchestra. Our thanks to the Philadelphia Orchestra and to Steve Kwasnik, Terri Murray, Adam Staniszewski and others at WHYY for recording the interview we just heard. The Philadelphia Orchestra will launch its upcoming season with a digital broadcast on September 30 with selections of Rossini, Verdi and Mozart. Coming up, John Powers reviews the new TV series "Tehran" about a female Israeli spy sent undercover to Iran. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROTTERDAM PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BELA BARTOK'S "CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA")

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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