Yannick Nezet-Seguin is Changing the Game in Classical Music

Quick Content Warning At Beginning: I briefly talk about the sexual assault allegations of people in the entertainment industry at the beginning, but only to give background on why I am writing this article in the first place. Still, sexual assault is a difficult topic to discuss for many survivors of such trauma, as well as for people in general, so I just wanted to issue a brief warning before getting into the post itself. I also post links to news articles about LGBT discrimination in my discussion, so these could potentially be triggering stories as well. 

Before deleting my Facebook, I checked my newsfeed only to find several stories about the conductor James Levine. People were petitioning for him to step down from his leadership of the Metropolitan Opera because he sexually abused his students for decades. Now, I was pretty indifferent to James Levine during his prosperous career. I never really cared that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra “Rhapsody in Blue” recording I was listening to was conducted by James Levine. I can’t remember even going to his performances, and I used to attend a lot of classical music concerts. But it only took the aforementioned articles in my newsfeed to get me to start caring about Levine, only in the sense of the horrible abuse he committed in order to feel power and pride over his pupils. Levine kept his sexual abuse of these young men hidden from the public so it wouldn’t ruin his career, but look where it got him: a final “good riddance” from the Met, as well as from several other orchestras, for good. His allegations showed the public that classical music isn’t the cutesy pristine art it used to be known as; it’s just a microcosm of many other industries that, while getting better at addressing abuses in the workplace, still have quite a few higher-up people making terrible decisions just because they somehow feel their social standing will protect them from public judgment.

That’s why Zachary Woolfe’s timely article in the recent January 20 issue of The New York Times, about newly appointed Metropolitan Opera music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin, was so encouraging, because a lot of leaders in classical music even to this day are straight (except for the openly gay conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, Marin Alsop and some other folks). Nezet-Seguin has been openly gay for his entire career and feels totally comfortable talking about his sexuality, something that not many conductors were comfortable talking about before.

Nezet-Seguin says in the article that

it’s becoming more important for me..to just realize that both of us [him and his partner Pierre Tourville] can be examples, in a way, to inspire young musicians who fear that this is going to be a problem in their profession and career advancement. And I want to embrace that role more and more.. Just by being, and by living our life…this is hopefully something that breaks the preconceived ideas.

“Milestone at the Metropolitan Opera”, Jan 20, 2019 Arts and Leisure. The New York Times.

Speaking for myself, as a queer-identifying individual, reading this article was incredibly inspiring because it made me feel that I don’t have to fit a certain mold in order to satisfy what society has traditionally expected classical musicians to be like (e.g. straight, white, male, patriarchal). In fact, my college experience in orchestra was so empowering because the orchestra had many LGBTQ+ identifying members in it, and everyone in our music department was incredibly supportive of us and our musical endeavors. Even though society’s arguably more tolerant of LGBTQ+ people nowadays, this isn’t always common in some places, and classical music in general has a long history of oppression, particularly with LGBTQ+ people and people of color. We normally think “oh, classical music is this universal language that everyone can relate to” and as I’ve learned over the years, everyone has their own narrative, their own life experiences that can serve as inspiration or a way to address social injustice, such as sexism and homophobia, and it’s important to embrace these less-discussed narratives so that we can embrace a more inclusive idea of what diversity means.

Diversity in classical music isn’t just about numbers and statistics (e.g. “we’ve got one black kid, a pansexual person or two, and one woman. Yay we’re diverse now!”) It’s about letting individuals in marginalized communities bring new styles, new ways of doing things, to the field. Basically letting them have a say in the artistic expression of the group. Nezet-Seguin says that he wants to go beyond what is standard stylistically for the Met’s orchestra and experiment with greater dynamics and colors.

For the company’s recent new production of “La Traviata,” he said, he worked with the ensemble on “a much richer sound, resonant, pizzicato, bass-oriented. Cellos and basses: I’m a lot about what they need to do. Not because they’re not good, but because for years they’ve been asked to be as short and light as possible…That was the conception of sound of my predecessor…I just have a totally different idea, and we miss very often the fundamental of the harmony. Whenever it’s a little bit longer and richer and with more vibrato, it changes completely the aural spectrum.

First of all, I’m down with anyone saying they’re all about that bass, so when he said that I just had to give him some finger-snaps in kudos to his acknowledgment of the cello and bass struggle of having to “tone it down.” In orchestra, I remember always feeling like I sounded too loud as a lower-clef instrument and the conductors always going “too loud!” in my direction. The fact that Nezet-Seguin wants cellos and basses to challenge themselves to play out more so the ensemble can sound more “bass-oriented” is so revolutionary to me that I just want to give him serious props for that. Let me go off on a tangent here to say that…a lot of times individuals in orchestras are told to not stand out, and of course to an extent that’s reasonable. After all you are playing with a group of other individuals, so there’s really no room for “I” in team unless you’re the soloist. But at the end of the day, you just have to speak to the music, and if that means the conductor needs to add some different phrasing or get the musicians to think about the music differently than how it’s traditionally been performed, then all the better. Also , resonance really does make a piece sound richer and more interesting. Even playing “Air” in high school, our conductor really wanted us in the lower strings to pluck the strings so that they echoed instead of kerplunked with a flat dull sound. Doing this gave a beautiful color to the piece and was a way of communicating with the higher strings (violins and violas) in this incredibly melodious dialogue.

Somehow I think that Nezet-Seguin’s yearning for a richer sound in the Met’s orchestra reflects his incredibly rich and fulfilling life as an openly gay individual who feels comfortable in his own skin. In the article, Nezet-Seguin talks about his life with Tourville, from when they first met, to the differences in their coming up as gay men (Tourville, unlike his partner, endured relentless anti-gay bullying as a kid) to their early struggles as musicians. Both of them recall struggling to make ends meet with freelance musician work and “a $20 all-you-can-eat pasta deal on Tuesday nights at a local restaurant” during which they would talk about their desire to travel the world together. Their persistence paid off and Nezet-Seguin got more opportunities to conduct orchestras such as the Rotterdam Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, while also getting to travel and perform with Tourville (funny enough, Nezet-Seguin was the director of one of the orchestras that Tourville was a member of, so it was pretty awkward at first for Nezet-Seguin to know his partner was going to be auditioning for him. I’d feel pretty awkward if my partner was going to be my panel judge for an orchestra, too. Heck, even if they were to be my 9-5 job hiring manager at Capital One.)

Not just that, but they live a cool comfy homebody sort of life together. Nezet-Seguin says the couple likes to just spend time at home cooking a meal and watching HGTV. Ain’t nothing wrong with that; I’m a homebody at heart and love to just curl up on the couch and watch a good movie with some herbal tea, so amen to having comfy time together. A music career can often be cut-throat and stressful, so it’s important as musicians that we find time to take care of ourselves. Now of course, it depends on your situation; if you have to really hustle, like Nezet-Seguin and Tourville did, it’s hard to make time for yourself because you’re constantly worried about money. But still, self-care doesn’t need to be extravagant, expensive or lengthy. It can be as simple as watching a funny TV show, reading fiction for fun or just breathing for five minutes. Taking time for self-care is still pretty helpful for us musicians to manage our overall well-being and also foster new ideas and ways of looking at things. It also helps us become more vulnerable; people might often think of conductors as these intimidating guys at the podium and are hard to talk to. But even just by living their daily lives, Nezet-Seguin and Tourville are challenging a lot of the stereotypes about conductors.

Overall, I am very glad I read this article. I know that Nezet-Seguin and Tourville are not the only openly-LGBTQ+ folks killin’ it in a heteronormative industry (as I mentioned earlier San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is openly gay and got married to his longtime partner Joshua Robison back in 2014. Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony conductor, has a son with her partner Kristin Jurkscheit and has spoken publicly about her family. Her website menu also has cool rainbow colors). However, when we think about the wider scope of LGBTQ+ rights, the history of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and ongoing discrimination (just recently two men brutally attacked singer and Empire actor Jussie Smollett and called him homophobic and racist slurs. I don’t care if people are thinking it was staged, it’s not ok regardless.), this article raises an important discussion. Even in classical music, coming out was extremely distressing, and even though people in the West accept that Tchaikovsky was gay, the topic on Tchaikovsky’s sexuality is a much uglier debate in his home country of Russia. Many Russians, despite editor Marina Kostalesky’s tireless unearthing of his sacred letters, in which he talks in great detail about his sexuality, still question whether these letters were true or made-up, and with ongoing homophobia in Russia (remember the Sochi Olympics?) Tchaikovsky would be rolling in his grave right now. Hell, he’s probably been rolling in his grave every time something homophobic happens. I don’t blame him; even in the U.S. we still have a long ways to go, and classical music is no exception.

But still I can’t help but feel a glimmer of hope that I, like Yannick and Pierre, can defy the odds as a queer musician in the classical sphere. And that I can encourage other LGBTQ+ musicians to embrace themselves and not feel pressured to go with the status quo.

Here’s this incredibly awesome interview that Yannick did recently on his becoming the Met music director. His conducting is quite amazing to watch because he puts so much beautiful feeling into it.

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