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Questions of Practice: Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin on Leadership

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I think leadership in the world is changing, has changed in various fields of our society. It's even different how teachers in higher education will relate to their students. It's different, even some politicians and the way they will lead, and especially true, I think, from the corporate world.

This is why as conductors, we're often asked by corporations, oh, can you talk about how you lead, because they like to have an orchestra as an example of how a company should be behaving with each individual having their own role, which is all as important, but there is nevertheless a need for bringing all this together.

So conducting has changed since Berlioz and Mahler, all through Toscaninis and Kurians and all the way to today. And I'm just maybe one example of how it changed. However, what I want to really express here is that for me, music being an emotional field, art, in general, obviously, but I have trouble imagining how you can really express to the full capacities as a musician in an orchestra if the leader is actually someone you fear, or there's part of you that's actually full of, [GASPS] I will miss this note and what if and what-- I don't want to-- I don't want to ruin the performance.

It's already so much in the minds of every musician on the stage, because you're exposed, and you don't want to be the one having the wrong note. You don't want to be the one coming in at the wrong place. But I believe that creating a space of trust, of confidence in yourself as a musician, but also mutual trust, the musician trusting the leader and the leader trusting the musician, so the conductor, that this is the way that the expressivity of the music can be at its most complete.

Of course, this doesn't mean that there's not this demanding quality and these relentless work that we do in rehearsal. But the performance should be about releasing all of this. I consider myself as a conductor being just one musician amongst other musicians with a specific function, which is to bring everyone together.

And I had to reflect on this aspect since I'm very young, because as a young conductor, what can you bring to the table, and how can you have authority over musicians that are all-- which was the case when I started my career-- all more seasoned and more experienced and older. And why should I stand there in front and have them do what I ask?

And this is where the elements of answers started to be together that what they couldn't take away from what I would bring to the table would be two things, my knowledge of the score, but also my passion, my love for the music. And I do believe that the conductor should share first and foremost his or her love for the music, to the musicians, therefore reminding the musicians who of the orchestra why they do this, and therefore communicating that passion, that love, and therefore that joy to the audience.

So for me, it's not even a question of who's the boss or not. It's more about sharing and making sure that we all remember what it means to communicate through music.

When Yannick Nézet-Séguin began his conducting career, he tells us, he was younger and less experienced than every musician in the orchestra—but it was his job to lead them nonetheless. In this interview, Nézet-Séguin reflects on the nature of leadership and explains what he thinks should be the source of a conductor’s authority.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin is the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the Orchestra Métropolitain in Montreal. He also conducts master classes at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the Juilliard School of New York, and other institutions.