By Rick Schultz
NORTHRIDGE, Calif. — The French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin got to show off one of his three orchestras when he brought the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra to the Valley Performing Arts Center on the campus of Cal State, Northridge, on Feb. 10. It was the first stop on the orchestra’s nine-concert North America tour, which is focusing mostly on the West Coast including upcoming performances in La Jolla and San Francisco before appearances in the Midwest — Ann Arbor and Chicago — and a final concert Feb. 22 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York.
The widely engaged Nézet-Séguin, 39, in his seventh season as music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, also holds the same post with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Orchestre Métropolitain (Montréal).
At the tour opener, the conductor was in full command, offering an unusual program of two staples of the concert repertoire: Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. There was even an encore, the Overture to Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin.
The concert made a spectacular start to the tour, with performances of both symphonies that were powerful, polished, fast but never over-driven. He brought plenty of sectional details to the fore — from the bright woodwinds, warm-hued brasses, dark strings, and percussion — while maintaining a secure hold on each work’s overarching structure. The Rotterdam Philharmonic’s unique “Russian” sound, tempered by more delicate colors conjured by their French-Canadian conductor, proved a dazzling, seductive combination.
Other programs on the tour will be more traditional, mixing-and-matching these symphonies with concertos by Brahms and Ravel. In Costa Mesa, for example, pianist Hélène Grimaud was the featured soloist for Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 (with the Tchaikovsky Fifth). She will also be performing Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G as the tour moves on.
Nézet-Séguin’s last tour with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, in the 2009-2010 season, was generally concentrated on the East Coast and Canada. Speaking by phone from his home in Montréal, the maestro explained his decision to focus this time on the West Coast.
“This tour is very significant for the orchestra, as well as for me personally,” Nézet-Séguin said. “It will be a debut in San Francisco — my first time in the city — and also in Chicago. I conducted the Rotterdam five years ago at Avery Fisher Hall, but because of my directorship of the Philadelphia Orchestra, I have a regular presence in New York.”
Nézet-Séguin said he wanted to program the Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky works because “along with the Shostakovich, these are the great Fifth Symphonies of the Russian repertoire.” The conductor also felt it was the best way to display the bedrock strengths of the Rotterdam players. “This orchestra has an exceptional Russian tradition,” Nézet-Séguin said. “Many decades ago, there were quite a few Russian-trained players, but that was also cultivated by my predecessor, Valery Gergiev, who was there for twelve years. Russian music is still very much in the blood of this orchestra.”
As Rotterdam’s music director, Nézet-Séguin said, his role has been to maintain and nurture the distinct ripe colors the orchestra had under Gergiev, as well as its bravura approach to Russian music. “I’ve worked in the last few years to refine those colors,” he said, “and to add another range, a variety of colors, which are more delicate, possibly more tender.”
The conductor added that Russian music combines well with French music. Along with Ravel’s lyrical and jazzy Piano Concerto in G, the Rotterdam Philharmonic will also be performing that composer’s disarmingly childlike Mother Goose (Ma Mere l’Oye). “The two Ravel pieces with which we are touring demand tenderness and lightness of touch, and more dreamy colors,” he said. “When we apply those colors to some of the Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, I think it makes those very well known symphonies an even richer experience.”
Nézet-Séguin said the Rotterdam woodwinds are French-oriented, with “some actual French musicians” in the section. “There’s flexibility and a certain kind of poetry which is different,” he said, “and the way the strings articulate, it’s maybe less about the sustained sound but extremely expressive and breathing.”
He last conducted the Tchaikovsky Fifth ten years ago in Monte Carlo: “This is only the second time I’m doing it. But the Fifth was the symphony I liked most as a music student, and I always dreamed of conducting it.”
Asked about the score’s pitfalls, such as the finale’s potentially treacherous varying rhythms, the conductor was philosophical. “There are certainly things to avoid and we were careful the past week to look at the score again, and try to be true to what’s written,” he said.
The two piano soloists on the tour, Grimaud and Nicholas Angelich, are friends of Nézet-Séguin. Angelich, a Paris Conservatory-trained American, is a more usual partner of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and will be on hand for the tour-ending concert in New York, performing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1.
Comparing the Rotterdam Philharmonic to the Philadelphia Orchestra, Nézet-Séguin said his rapport with the latter ensemble was immediate — “in the first 45 minutes of our first rehearsal.” However, it was a different curve with the Rotterdam musicians. “I felt their potential, but it was like a tsunami of emotion in that orchestra that sometimes needed to be more channeled,” he recalled. “Immediately, I did a lot of French music with them, which is more about a tender aspect of creating a color and listening to each other, and not necessarily only putting yourself out there.”
Nézet-Séguin singled out “commitment” as the most vital connection between the Rotterdam and Philadelphia players. “It’s about the passionate involvement of every member of the orchestra to the creation of the sound in each rehearsal and performance,” he said. “One wishes to say this about every orchestra, but that’s sadly not necessarily the truth. Because this is the way I conceive of music making, this is probably why I ended up with these two ensembles.”
Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.