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Questions of Practice: Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin on Contextualizing Classical Works

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There is this one key model that I have, which is playing music. You know, you play an instrument and it's the same in many languages. And my mother tongue French, it's also the same, joy. That means that we shall never forget that music is an act of joy.

Of course, art is a reflection of much wider, broader spectrum of emotions. But at the core, there is a joy of making music, being together, especially, music that is orchestra or choir, which is how I got really into music, by the way, when I was a kid, was to make music with others and playing and singing.

I do believe really that music in the live context, in a concert hall, or in a non-traditional venue, but to be experienced together as a community event is something that is quintessentially joyful. And this is why, you know, whether there's recordings and, you know, these are important, also, any kind of media around music, and now more YouTube videos, and every way to share the music that we play. This is all good.

It will never replace the fact that music is one of the few remaining not only art forms, but activities in life in the 21st century, that needs really a human to activate. My master Maestro Giuliani, was always talking about this, that art-- of all the art forms, music is the one that you need the action to make alive.

You can look at a painting, and that's-- the fact of looking at a painting, or the fact of reading a book, even if it's a play, if you read the play, you already make the act of having this art form alive. With music, if you just open the score and read the music, the music doesn't live yet until it has someone bringing it to life by the sound. And this is why it's such a unique art form that I am animated and passionate to just bring to as many people as possible.

The twenty-first-century world is much different than it was in Ludwig van Beethoven’s time, and though his work is a product of that nineteenth-century context, it still endures. And while the compositions themselves do not change, orchestras must make the music relevant for today’s audiences. Here, Yannick Nézet-Séguin discusses the value that centuries-old works can offer contemporary listeners and how an orchestra can present a classical piece so that it remains dynamic and resists becoming a “statue.”

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 Philadelphia, the Juilliard School of New York, and other institutions.