MONTREAL — Quebec-born conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin laughs when told that he’s been described as a rock star.
“I don’t think I have the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll lifestyle that a rock star would,” says Nezet-Seguin, principal conductor of Montreal’s Orchestre metropolitain.
But Nezet-Seguin, in the midst of a much-hailed tour as music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, ultimately doesn’t mind the comparison.
“Classical music is something which to a certain point is hip, is still something very popular with young people,” he said after announcing the Montreal orchestra’s new season.
More young people have been coming to concerts in the past few years in Rotterdam and Montreal, he says.
“We should not imagine that we will have crowds of 14- to 25-year-olds just waiting in queues for this. That’s an illusion because it’s never been the case anyway.”
But usually young people like what they hear when they’re exposed to classical music, he says. Even if they drift away from it, they usually come back at some point in their life.
“We have the responsibility of planting the seeds for it,” he said.
The boyish Nezet-Seguin, who was born in Montreal in 1975, has been drawing rave reviews for his work in Montreal and Rotterdam as well as many other cities in which he’s waved his baton.
The Boston Globe, for example, said “he drew vibrant performances from the orchestra, at once structurally coherent and viscerally exciting” when he conducted the Boston Symphony.
The acclaim has continued during the Rotterdam Philharmonic’s current North American tour, which has taken it to New York’s Lincoln Centre, Quebec City and Montreal’s Place des arts.
It performs at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre on Tuesday, followed by Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday. Nezet-Seguin will be bringing a Strauss program, which he says is perfect for a “big-boned orchestra” like the Rotterdam Philharmonic.
Nezet-Seguin studied piano and learned conducting from several of the masters, including Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini.
In Canada, he is also a regular guest conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and has led every one of the country’s major orchestras, including the National Symphony Orchestra and those in Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver.
He has been principal conductor of the Orchestre metropolitain since 2000 and music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic since 2008. He is also principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic.
Nezet-Seguin says it’s hard for him to state what attracted him to conducting, although he was “fascinated” watching choral conductors when he sang in choirs and was gripped by the work of Charles Dutoit when he led the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
“I remember that I was just drawn to it, and then it felt more like a religious call,” Nezet-Seguin said. “There was never anything as powerful to make me reconsider that I wanted to become a conductor.”
He’s also at a loss to explain his energetic style, saying, “I’m not aware of it. I’m conducting the way I think I feel the music.”
“I see this as very energetic and I feel very physically involved when I’m conducting.”
But he is able to pinpoint his favourite composer — Brahms, citing “the sheer humanity of the music.”
Besides the whirlwind of performing in various cities, Nezet-Seguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic will follow up on CDs highlighting the works of Ravel and Beethoven, collaborating with flautist Emmanuel Pahud in March.
Nezet-Seguin brushes off the hectic pace. He feels grateful to be working with the Orchestre metropolitain and says the music they make together grounds him so he is able to work with other world-class orchestras.
“It’s a very ebullient time for me,” he said. “I want to cherish it for what it is because this won’t happen again. It’s the beginning of things.”