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'This Is Why We Play': Amid Pandemic, Philadelphia Orchestra Livestreams Beethoven

Concert halls and music venues around the world have been shuttered due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, but before closing its doors, the Philadelphia Orchestra gave one last performance on March 12 — to an empty concert hall. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin describes the experience of playing in a vacant hall and hearing silence at the end of each piece. And we listen to a 2019 interview with Yannick.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Most of our staff is working at home now, and today is my first day broadcasting from home. So if I sound slightly different, that's the acoustics of my living room. And if you hear a loud meow, that's our cat, Rowdy. We can't go to concerts for now, and my guest Yannick Nezet-Seguin can't do his job, which is conducting two of the world's great music institutions, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. But I'm pleased to say he's going to spend some time with us.

Last week, after the orchestra learned that it would have to cancel its performances until at least April 11, the orchestra decided to go ahead with a final performance livestreamed in front of an empty concert hall. Yannick conducted the orchestra in a performance of Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth symphonies. If you want to watch that performance, it's streaming on the Philadelphia Orchestra website and on YouTube. And thanks to the generosity of the orchestra, and in collaboration with WHYY, the full concert will be available to watch on the PBS Video app or on whyy.org beginning tomorrow. Now that the Metropolitan Opera has canceled performances, they're streaming an encore performance of an opera every day on their website free for everyone. Although Yannick can't conduct the orchestra or the Met right now, he can talk with us about music that he thinks resonates in this moment.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Thank you for taking the time to do this. How are you?

YANNICK NEZET-SEGUIN: Well, I consider myself lucky because I'm healthy. Everyone around me is healthy. I am with my family here in Montreal, and I came back here right after my last performance in Philadelphia on last Thursday. And yes, I think, you know, of course, we have - we're living unprecedented times. But relatively speaking, I think we have to count our blessings. And I'm definitely, you know, fit to try and face these new challenges ahead of us.

GROSS: So I love what the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera and probably a lot of other places are doing, too, which is - since you can't perform in front of live audiences, you're making performances available to the public through broadcast or streaming. So let's start by talking about the Philadelphia Orchestra. The last time you conducted it was last Thursday. And what you did was you conducted the orchestra in front of, basically, an empty hall so that it could be broadcast on the classical music station in Philadelphia and then also televised on Channel 12, the TV sister station of WHYY radio, where FRESH AIR is produced. And so what was it like for you to conduct in front of an empty hall knowing this wasn't a rehearsal; this was the real thing, even though there was nobody there?

NEZET-SEGUIN: Yeah. This is - of course, this was one of the most memorable for good and not so good reasons, of course, because it's sad circumstances. But yet it became a memorable event and experience for all of us on the stage to perform in front of an empty hall. Now, we're communicators, musicians. That's why we do this. Some of what we do is very lonely because when we study scores or when we practice our instrument, it's one-on-one - you know? - not even. It's one and the instrument or the score. But all of this is ultimately to share. And to have, all of a sudden, the component of having an audience - so someone who can react immediately, physically in the same space as we are to what we do - is really unsettling. And immediately, I think, for other musicians and myself, we realized that we were missing this very important part of what we do.

And if there is something that even just a few days without being able to perform for audiences - and also, when I talk to audience members, you know, by phone or communicate by - with them through social media, I think that the live experience - already, we miss it. And we - hopefully, when this is all over, we can resume our live offering with a renewed sense of how important it is for us all to feel like a community.

GROSS: So the Philadelphia Orchestra performance of Beethoven last Thursday was streamed live. And so, you know, typically, in an audience, people are very quiet because they're listening. And it's considered very rude to talk during a performance. But I think people were, like, chatting via social media during the performance. How does that make you feel that there's this, like, different way of listening?

NEZET-SEGUIN: I welcome this with open arms, I have to say. This is just showing that being together in one space collectively, like you would normally be in a concert hall, is a way of connecting with your neighbor even if you're not talking because, yes, as you say rightfully, to enjoy music in its best possible way, silence is really more than the highly recommended. It's needed. However, if, as a collectivity, you're not allowed to be physically with a certain community, then the community becomes by feeling that you're listening with several thousands of people at the same time to the same stream. And therefore, I really understand the impulse of wanting to comment.

And by the way, the comments that we got during this livestream were all so beautiful, about the beauty of the music and about how grateful everyone was that this was happening. And some people were more knowledgeable about the pieces, could say, here it comes, my favorite moment. And I find this really interesting. And, yes, maybe we're going to learn something through this about how people like to react to music. But for the moment, I just see it as another manifestation of the need to feel part of a community when we share great art together.

GROSS: Was it acoustically different for you to record in an empty hall?

NEZET-SEGUIN: We know our empty hall by rehearsing in it. So it was interesting to see that even though we were wearing concert dress and in concert mode, we felt the same acoustics at the Kimmel Center, Verizon Hall than what we normally hear when it's a rehearsal. So that was not unsettling. What was unsettling was to finish these pieces and have complete silence. And...

GROSS: Oh, I hadn't thought of that. Of course.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Yeah.

GROSS: Wow. Yeah.

NEZET-SEGUIN: That was very, very unsettling and, actually, quite moving. For some musicians, it was even - you know, they had tears in their eyes because that - there was a feeling of emptiness that was, you know, also challenging, you know, in a way. But that all made us realize how much we need the audience to bounce our energy back, and that's something essential for the live experience of music. But music can also live other ways than just live. So that is a - yeah. I think there's a lot to reflect. And I think it's going to take us a few months to also understand exactly all those differences between being live with an audience and knowing that there is an audience, of course, but just not having them as part of the experience immediately, physically.

GROSS: My guest is Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the conductor and music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the music director of the Metropolitan Opera. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 6 IN F MAJOR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the conductor and music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the music director of the Metropolitan Opera. They've both canceled performances for now because of the coronavirus.

So you conducted Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth last Thursday, your last performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra before having to shut down. Did the music have different meaning for you in the moment, and did you invest a different meaning in it?

NEZET-SEGUIN: We always planned these concerts to be the start of a Beethoven cycle. So this is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven, and so his music is celebrated all over the world. And we've been planning this great cycle - full cycle in Philadelphia that was supposed to go to Carnegie Hall, which - all of this, of course, has now canceled. I was personally to also go to Europe next month to perform and record those symphonies by Beethoven with a different orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Now this, of course, is still uncertain.

So then, when this situation happened, we did not change the program. This is what we were rehearsing and planning on playing. And it's - I don't know. I don't want to read signs of any kind. But the opportunity to connect to our audience in such a moment of shock in the world, where all of this is happening and we can't access the concert hall, but having it with Beethoven, whose, you know - whose music is probably the most popular or best-known in the symphonic world - and his Fifth Symphony is the representation of destiny and humankind overcoming its own destiny. And the "Pastoral" symphony, which is all about nature and how to reconnect with nature and nature as a provider and a source of inspiration and hope - we honestly could not have chosen a better program for this. But this is what we had to play.

And every musician of the orchestra have played these symphonies countless times, and myself included. I've, of course, conducted these symphonies so often. But there was indeed a sense of reconnecting to the purpose of what Beethoven wanted to tell us through these symphonies. And Beethoven was a very socially engaged composer in his time, was very - had great opinions politically, opinions about, also, how human nature should take charge of their own destiny or responsibility and their own place in the world. He also, because he was having - suffering from hearing loss as a composer, as we all know, he had to reflect on the struggle and how to live with the disease. So there is a lot in his music that is still so relevant as a society. And that's really, I think, meaningful and rich when we have to celebrate something that brings the world together.

GROSS: So Beethoven's most famous passage, probably, from Beethoven's Fifth is (singing) bum, bum, bum, bum (ph).

So, like, when you played that Thursday night - you know, a passage that so many people have heard so many times - what did it mean to you?

NEZET-SEGUIN: My own vision of this famous motif about, you know - famous amongst famous; it's, you know, those four notes - is that it's something that's relentless and breathless. And it's actually Beethoven struggling. And it's Beethoven not knowing where this is all going until he finds the solution some 30 minutes later with the last movement, which is in C major. And this is normally my interpretation of it. And, of course, with the circumstances, it became even more relentless, even more breathless. And I have to congratulate, of course, all the musicians of the orchestra for being so focused in sharing their emotions that moment even though there was no audience. And I believe that at that point, it was quite clear for all of us that we - it might be the last notes we play together for some weeks or months.

And this definitely helped inform the performance or charge it with - I wouldn't say even so a fresh vision, but more an emotional content that's just different than any normal. But by the way, there should never be a normal, you know? There should never be, in music, any sense of routine or something that's just the way it has always been for the sake of it. And - but this is why we play music - is to get these emotions which are hard to put in words. We can actually express them and have, hopefully, some people inspired in a kind of cathartic way by listening to it.

GROSS: So let's hear that passage from Beethoven's Fifth that we were just talking about. And this is my guest, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra last Thursday night with no audience in front of an empty hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN C MINOR")

GROSS: So that was my guest Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra last Thursday before an empty hall because audiences were already banned.

I listen to a lot of jazz, and a lot of it dates back to, like, the 1920s that I listen to, and I think about how that music has endured for decades. When I go to the opera, I think of how some of the operas that I'm seeing have endured for centuries. They've endured through wars and world wars. They've endured through epidemics and through the 1918 flu pandemic. Do you think about that a lot, about how the music that you conduct - you conduct a lot of new work, too - but the earlier work that you conduct, that this is music that has endured and given people, like, joy and comfort and connection for so long? And it ties us to centuries of people who lived before us and who have endured their suffering, too.

NEZET-SEGUIN: This is so well said, Terry. I think, you know, what you just said is exactly why we do what we do. This music is not called classical for - you know, for nothing; it's because it becomes a classic because we actually connect through our being and our history and our aspirations, collectively as a society but also individually, through these masterpieces because they have an endless power of regenerating our philosophy or our hope in life.

And yes, I do think about this a lot, especially not only that they have endured these terrible moments in life, but I think this is where precisely that art has been able to give comfort, to give hope, to give guidance, to give a moment to breathe, something to think, and now is no exception. I think this is where - and it feels strange because we can't give it life. But it's not the first time in history that also live performances are not possible. So we have this advantage to actually be able to share differently.

And now what I see - what I'm seeing all over the world happening - and definitely this is what we are doing in Philadelphia and Montreal and New York - is several initiatives about what can we do even from our living room to bring it to the people, what the musicians can do as chamber music, just a very small group in the living room, or some Q&A, some lessons online, some gatherings that are - that keep the connection and the communication because that is the key.

GROSS: Yannick, thank you so much for taking some time to talk with us. I wish you well. Please stay well. And your family - I hope your family stays well, your friends, the orchestra members, the members of the Met, your whole musical family. Thank you so much for your time and for your music.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Thank you, Terry. It's always an honor and a pleasure to talk to you. And I also wish you health and also your family and loved ones. But very appreciative that you also take the time to bring this content to the people.

GROSS: Yannick Nezet-Seguin is the conductor and music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the music director of the Metropolitan Opera. Now that concert halls are shut down because of the virus, the Met is streaming encore performances of its operas on its website, with a new opera every day, free to everyone. You can also watch the Philadelphia Orchestra's performance of Beethoven's 5th and 6th Symphonies that was livestreamed before an empty concert hall after learning they'd have to cancel performances.

You can watch that on the Philadelphia Orchestra website or YouTube. And thanks to the generosity of the orchestra and in collaboration with WHYY, the concert will be available to watch on the PBS Video app and on whyy.org beginning tomorrow. Saturday night, viewers in the Philadelphia area can watch it on WHYY-TV. After a break, we'll hear the interview I recorded with Yannick last year about his life and about the art of conducting. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JANOS FERENCSIK AND THE HUNGARIAN NATIONAL PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN C MINOR, OP. 67: III: SCHERZO - ALLEGRO)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Now we're going to listen back to another interview I recorded with Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the music director and conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the music director of the Metropolitan Opera. This interview was recorded last year at WHYY in front of a live audience, back when we could still do that kind of event. This interview was more biographical than the one we just heard. He's popularly known as Yannick. That's in part because a lot of people are confused about how to pronounce his name and because he's so informal. But I think it's also a sign of the affection his audiences have for him. He's committed to interpreting classic works and to presenting new, musically adventurous works.

Yannick was born in Montreal in 1975, grew up there and continues to return to conduct. That's where he is now. He's been a guest conductor at orchestras around the world. He was the music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra before becoming the eighth director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012. He became the third music director of the Metropolitan Opera in 2018.

Friday, PBS' "Great Performances" will present the Met's "Live In HD" broadcast of "Turandot" conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So there's an adorable video, a home video...

NEZET-SEGUIN: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Of you when you were, like, 10 or 12 or something that's been incorporated into a couple of film features about you. And you knew you wanted to conduct when you were 10, and so in this adorable little home video, like, you're, like - like, you're air-conducting to a record. And what was your conception of what conducting was when you were 10, and compare that to what conducting actually entails.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Well, when I watch this video, the disconcerting thing - and which is probably good and bad at the same time - is that I feel I haven't changed.

(LAUGHTER)

NEZET-SEGUIN: So sometimes I think, well, that means that I still have a long way to go. And on the other hand, that also means that what animated me then is still there. What I can tell you of my decision - really, I remember the day exactly and how I felt and the face of my parents when I told them, I'm going to become a conductor. And they just looked at me and said - they were playing, like, cards or something on the table of the kitchen and said, well, sure thing, thinking that, you know, two weeks later, I would want, again, to be an astronaut or something like this, a first responder.

GROSS: (Laughter).

NEZET-SEGUIN: But it stuck with me. I had temptations, mainly architecture was the big temptation when I was in my early teens. But then conducting - I didn't know why it attracted me. I felt it's almost like a religious call. I think it's also because it made me love music. I was playing the piano for a few years, liked it but not - didn't love it, until I started singing in a choir, and then both completed each other very well. And for me, making music in a group is what animates me. And I think this is what I could feel right away when I was 10, but having my own role in the group also, which I could define already at that time by helping others because this is when my - what my parents were teaching me.

GROSS: Did you have any idea how complicated it would be to be a conductor? 'Cause as a conductor - for example, I want you to describe what a conductor's score...

NEZET-SEGUIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Looks like.

NEZET-SEGUIN: So I - no, I didn't have any idea how complex or how multilayered it would be and especially how fantastically universal, in a way, it needs to be. You have to be well read. You have to know, if I do a piece of music, a symphony by Brahms with the Philadelphia Orchestra or an opera by Verdi at the Met, I need to know the chamber music of Brahms and the melodies by Verdi and also his string quartet. You need to know the repertoire of everything. And of course, as you said, the complexity of the scores is knowing how every instrument functions.

GROSS: Well, you have to be able to sight read all of that, right?

NEZET-SEGUIN: Yes. So this is what we develop...

GROSS: You're sight reading, like, every instrument in the orchestra and putting it together at the same time.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Yeah. That takes time, but it's really - it's something - it can compare to, you know, some - when you can speed - do speed reading...

GROSS: Yeah.

NEZET-SEGUIN: ...And I guess so, as you see the page and you identify right away the thoughts and the keywords? It's a little bit this way - sight read a score. You have to immediately - your brain starts to know, oh, yeah, the first violins are located here, and they're doubled, of course, by the flute and the oboe. And I - this goes in parallel, but it also requires hours and hours and hours and hours of studying in silence, as opposed to the orchestra musician who has their flute or their violin or their trumpet or their drums. So there's always a sound.

It's actually less lonely because you are alone with your instrument, which is another persona, in a way, as opposed to the studying of the conducting, which is alone with the score and all the music in your head, not even a sound, until it becomes very gregarious. And you have to arrive and know the score so well that people think you know it from memory. And you can, of course, have your own vision of how it should sound, like it is in your head, but you also have to listen to what sound is actually produced in order to shape it.

GROSS: So in - I think it was in the rehearsal video for "Traviata," you were talking about a marking in the score - and I forget whether this is a piano or a fortissimo marking. And you were saying, see that, like, piano - we'll say it was a piano. See that piano? Get rid of it. I've examined 40 scores, and it's none of them. Just forget about it.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Yeah.

GROSS: And I was thinking, 40 scores?

NEZET-SEGUIN: (Laughter).

GROSS: Are there, like, 40 different scores for "Traviata?" Like, do you go through 40 scores comparing them before you conduct?

NEZET-SEGUIN: Well, 40 might have been an image...

(LAUGHTER)

NEZET-SEGUIN: ...A figure of style. But let's say yes, you can examine - at least for this, probably it, realistically, was, like, a dozen. You get all the sources, materials of the different editions of everything - so the first edition. And then nowadays we get these wonderful editors who go through the manuscripts and the first performing set of parts which Verdi used in the Milan and then when - where it was used in Paris and so on.

There's also the vocal score that has differences with the full score sometimes. And this is very telling because in the piano-voice score, you get indications from the composer which are not necessarily the same. And these are microdetails, but these details - of course, the collection of these details is what helped inform the performance, not for the sake of the details, of course, but just for the best - which is what we have to do as interpreters - to be true and faithful to the intentions of the composer on an emotional level...

GROSS: Yeah. So...

NEZET-SEGUIN: ...On a message level.

GROSS: ...I'm thinking about how much cerebral and intellectual work you have to do...

NEZET-SEGUIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...In order to get to the emotional level, which I'm sure you didn't think about when you were 10 (laughter).

NEZET-SEGUIN: No, certainly not.

GROSS: Yeah.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Certainly not. I think when I was 10, it was very much about the - probably the dancing.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded last year with Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the music director and conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the music director of the Metropolitan Opera. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF YANNICK NEZET-SEGUIN & THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF RACHMANINOV'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2 IN C MINOR, OP. 18-1. MODERATO")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last year before a live audience with Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the music director and conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the music director of the Metropolitan Opera. Tomorrow night, PBS' "Great Performances" will present the Met's "Live In HD" broadcast of "Turandot" conducted by Yannick.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So I love hearing you talk about music. So I want to play a piece of music with you conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. And this is going to be the Trauermarsch from Mahler's 5th. And this has some gut-wrenching chords in it.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Oh, yes.

GROSS: So I want you to tell us - we're just going to hear, like, the opening 60 or 70 seconds. But I want you to tell us what you hear and what you'd like us to listen for. Like, bring out some of the things for us.

NEZET-SEGUIN: It starts with this distant yet firm trumpet, which we can imagine is heading an entire mob of people in a very, very dark way, coming from a very distant street or even in a village.

GROSS: Because this is, like, a funeral march.

NEZET-SEGUIN: A funeral moment. And then all of a sudden, you know, when, like, in a movie, you can, not very distinctly, see that there's a mob marching somewhere, and all of a sudden the image arrives, and it's all in front of you. And this is when the percussion just explodes with the whole orchestra after a few seconds. And the whole orchestra seems to be like one person crying and saying, why? Why does this happen to us? And it comes back quickly to the real melody of the funeral march, like everybody is resigned to let it happen. And this is probably the few seconds we're going to hear.

GROSS: Absolutely. OK, so let's hear it. And this is my guest Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF YANNICK NEZET-SEGUIN & THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF GUSTAV MAHLER'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN C-SHARP MINOR: PART I: 1. TRAUERMARSCH. IN GEMESSENEM SCHRITT.")

GROSS: That is so stirring and so beautifully played. So much of orchestral music and certainly opera has to do with death...

NEZET-SEGUIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And mortality. And I'm wondering if it's made you think about mortality more to be so exposed to such deep emotion about mortality through so much of your work and to have to convey - to inhabit that emotion so deeply to be able to convey it to us.

NEZET-SEGUIN: This is a theme that, you know, surprisingly or not, I'm thinking about daily since I'm a child because even before music became so important in my life, I was drawing. That was my artistic expression. I was drawing a lot, everything. It had a lot, my drawings, to do with the passion of Christ. And I was Catholic, raised Catholic and loved going to church. And for me, my favorite passage was all the passion of Christ and the crucifixion - and something I realized is not necessarily the normal theme for kids of 6, 7, 8 years old.

(LAUGHTER)

NEZET-SEGUIN: And when I started singing in the choir and when I - of course, then, we had immediately to sing those requiems and those great masterpieces and they, of course, naturally led to these operas about death and life after death, these great symphonies like Mahler's and Bruckner's.

So I'm so lucky in my life. I have two loving parents - everybody healthy - two wonderful sisters, children. I have great friends. And I've - I consider myself - and I'm eternally grateful that this - I live a truly happy life. And I believe that, probably, this balance with dealing with such deep and dark emotions - potentially dark emotions - is what gives me the inspiration to bring something out of it.

And I feel a responsibility - not only me, and not because I'm a conductor, but just simply because I'm an artist - I feel a responsibility, in return, to give these moments where everybody can feel these emotions together in a concert hall or listening to recording and get some comforting, get some hope, get some dream, get some empathy that, you know, whatever the feelings we have when we...

GROSS: Sometimes it's affirmation of your despair.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Exactly, simply this. But it's actually comforting to understand that some notes can make you feel this despair and that you're not the only one.

GROSS: When you're on the podium, like, you're living inside the music. You're experiencing the emotion. But you also, I would imagine, have to be outside the music, standing back outside of it, getting the big picture, tuning it up, making it better where it needs to be. So are you living this kind of double level when you're on the podium?

NEZET-SEGUIN: Yes. It's - this is maybe the hardest thing, not to be completely submerged with emotion. That is, so you have to live completely emotionally what it is but also have some part of your brain that's outside to control. Otherwise, it's a - potentially, a train wreck. And that's also a very interesting development that I've gone through as a younger conductor and now a more experienced one because, of course, I was swamped by emotion when I was younger. My piano teacher always used to tell me, you have always to keep your - the mind cold and the heart warm. And this is, I think, what we should always strive for as performers.

But I see now working with operas how, sometimes, when a singer is singing these, you know, very, very emotional moments and they themselves cry while singing, this is not where it's the most powerful for the audience. You have to go past that emotion, which doesn't mean cold. But it's a sublimated, you know, emotion that is then transmitted to the audience.

Some of my - I remember doing a series of Verdi requiems, which - there's an emotional work...

GROSS: Yeah.

NEZET-SEGUIN: ...If there ever was - with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. And we were on tour. And I remember one performance, I felt, oh, Yannick, you might not be - I was thinking while on the podium, this one feels maybe a little bit less emotional. That is the performance all my musicians talk about to this day. They felt that this was so powerful.

So you then get the level of how, as a conductor, your own emotion is different than what the musicians on stage live and, therefore, what the audience has. And it's all this fascinating question of projecting the emotion, which is not exactly the same as living it.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded last year with Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the music director and conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the music director of the Metropolitan Opera. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID NOLAN, SIAN EDWARDS AND THE LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF MAURICE RAVEL'S "MA MERE L'OYE, M. 60: IV. LES ENTRETIENS DE LA BELLE ET LA BETE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded last year before a live audience with Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the music director and conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the music director of the Metropolitan Opera. Tomorrow night, PBS' "Great Performances" will present the Met's "Live In HD" broadcast of "Turandot" conducted by Yannick.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Let's get in one more piece of music. And this is you conducting "Traviata," and this is very recent. This is your debut as the official new Met conductor. And this is the HD performance, which is from December of 2018. And this is a Verdi opera. We're going to hear Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Florez. And so - like, this is a scene where she's a courtesan, and she's dying of tuberculosis? Or is it...

NEZET-SEGUIN: Yes.

GROSS: ...Maybe syphilis?

NEZET-SEGUIN: No - well, it's supposed to be...

GROSS: It's definitely tuberculosis? Yeah, cleaner. Yeah.

NEZET-SEGUIN: ...Tuberculosis. But...

GROSS: Yeah. OK.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And her lover has returned because his father has lied to him and sent him away. And now he's back. And they both know she's dying, but he's trying to cover it up and singing, like - oh, you're going to get better; we're going to go to Paris. And - so we're just going to hear, like, minute, minute and a half of this part. And we're going to start where - with her solo part. And then they duet, and he comes in.

And this is operating on two levels at the same time - them singing about, yeah, we're going to go to Paris. Oh...

NEZET-SEGUIN: We...

GROSS: ...It's going to be good. And you know they're also singing their despair because she's dying.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Because as - yes, definitely. If it were something - relief about only her side, it would be what we call in minor key. So it would be, actually, something that, physically, we would understand they're very sad. If it were only about him pretending, it would be in a very bright, major key. But now, it's actually in A flat major, which is - now it seems very technical if you don't know music - but it's actually a sound that is a darker major key, so the melancholy is already there. So even though we hear a sweet melody, we can somehow, by the genius of Verdi, feel that this is not right.

GROSS: Oh, I love what you just said. OK, let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA TRAVIATA")

DIANA DAMRAU: (As Violetta, singing in Italian).

DIANA DAMRAU AND JUAN DIEGO FLOREZ: (As Violetta and Alfredo, singing in Italian).

DAMRAU: (As Violetta, singing in Italian).

JUAN DIEGO FLOREZ: (As Alfredo, Singing in Italian).

DAMRAU: (As Violetta, singing in Italian).

DAMRAU AND FLOREZ: (As Violetta and Alfredo, singing in Italian).

FLOREZ: (As Alfredo, singing in Italian).

DAMRAU AND FLOREZ: (As Violetta and Alfredo, singing in Italian).

GROSS: That is so beautiful. And that's my guest Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducting the Metropolitan Opera with Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Florez from "La Traviata."

When I saw the "Traviata" - the "La Traviata" that you did in HD, the camera was on you as you raised your hands. Well, two things about this - once when you raised your hands - I think towards the beginning of the second act - you raised your hands to start conducting the second act, the baton flew out of your hand.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Yes (laughter).

GROSS: And somebody - I don't know who - handed you the baton, and you laughed. You laughed. And I thought, OK, this could have been a really embarrassing moment. You weren't embarrassed. You thought it was hilarious. And then you just kind of picked up and got back into this really...

NEZET-SEGUIN: I was embarrassed, but I still laughed, yes (laughter).

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Does it happen a lot?

NEZET-SEGUIN: No. That's the embarrassing thing. It just never happens, and it had to happen where I was conscious that these were the precious seconds where I was conscious that these were the precious seconds where...

GROSS: (Laughter).

NEZET-SEGUIN: ...The entire world was watching, live in HD, not Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Florez and Quinn Kelsey, but actually, poor old me. So I was - yeah, I thought it was embarrassing but yes, funny, because things like this can happen. This is live theater.

GROSS: I want to thank you for being here and talking with us. But I want to thank you so much for your music with the orchestra and with the Met. I'm so grateful to live in Philadelphia and have you here and to be able to see you conducting the Met in the HD at my local movie theaters. Thank you so much for your beautiful music.

NEZET-SEGUIN: Well, Terry, it's an honor and a pleasure to be here and to know you and have you in our great city. I wish we could talk even longer.

GROSS: Oh, me, too.

(LAUGHTER)

NEZET-SEGUIN: So let's do it again.

GROSS: Absolutely.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin is the music director and conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the music director of the Metropolitan Opera. Tomorrow night, PBS' "Great Performances" will present the Met's "Live In HD" broadcast of "Turandot" conducted by Yannick. Our interview was recorded last year at WHYY in front of a live audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERTO LIZZIO AND THE SOUTH GERMAN PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S SYMPHONY NO. 6, F MAJOR "PASTORALE" OP. 68 - ALLEGRO MA NON TROPPO)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelly. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Stay well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERTO LIZZIO AND THE SOUTH GERMAN PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S SYMPHONY NO. 6, F MAJOR "PASTORALE" OP. 68 - ALLEGRO MA NON TROPPO) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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