You were a treble for many years as a child. Did your parents get you into singing?
“It was actually the other way around. I got my parents into it. It was just a recruiting they were doing at school. In my elementary school the two responsible for the children of that choir came and made us sing and said if you’re interested. Since I was already playing the piano it got my attention and I said, why not try to sing? After a few months my mother entered the choir and then after a year my father as well and actually one of my sisters, it became a very family thing.”
When I think of sacred music I think of it having to be functional first before it is art. It is working music, like a march or a dance accompaniment.
“I never saw it this way. In terms of how the functionality for me I saw it more on the spiritual side. What was getting my attention as a little boy was more the sacred aspect of the music, the fact that it was related to church. It was very special. For me it is sacred to make music even if it secular – it has nothing to do – there is a ceremony, an offering about it and I think that was the main thing that I can take from those years.”
Conductor who work primarily with choirs often have trouble when they conduct an orchestra because of their circular beat. Since you were a choral conductor first, did you find that to be a problem?
“No, I don’t think so. It’s hard for me to say because I’ve just always been really myself. I’ve worked with quite a few conductors but not so much. I didn’t get so much choral conducting training and I didn’t get so much orchestra training. I just did it. I’m not saying that I did it myself, because I am thankful for all my teachers. My piano teacher has shaped the way I am now as a musician and also how I make an orchestra work.”
Is there such a thing as a definitive interpretation of a work?
“I feel that sometimes people confuse both. When we give a concert, obviously at that moment it is the way it should be otherwise if we’re not believing it in the moment, I guess it will never be as powerful as the creation of the composer.
On the other hand, if we keep doing the same pieces over and over for centuries now it is because there is always an attempt to get to some kind of truth. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, but the truth can be of multiple faces and we’re trying to get as close as possible to this.”
You’ve just been announced as the music director of a major American orchestra at age 35. Did you ever think it would work out like this?
“No I didn’t honestly but I always dreamt of it. There was a force in me that always – because there are so many moments of doubt – there was somewhere, somehow, something telling me that was the right choice. Also, my doubts had a lot to do with my road through studies.
After one year of my conducting studies – I can compare it to a minor – major in piano, minor in conducting – I quit that because there was something about the teacher that would shut me down completely if I would remain there. That was difficult for a few years because I said ‘Am I doing the right choice?’ – not to go into a major of conducting and keeping the piano. Somehow I had to trust in a certain instinct somewhere.”
Is this success something that happened to you or did you make it happen?
“It seems like it happened to me and in a way there was an explosion in engagement and interest in myself but I was able to sustain that and accept those engagements because I had been working for quite a long time towards that.”
What are you going to do if they make you wear a Flyers jersey? [Philadephia had just put Montreal out of the playoffs in the semi-finals]
“I think my way around that is to go to Philadelphia more towards the Phillies. Anyway, baseball is bigger there than hockey and the Phillies are such a top team. Then I can remain of good allegiance everywhere!”
What about new music?
“I’m not coming from a background with a lot of modern music unlike some of my younger colleagues. For me it was not really part of my background because I came from the choral and also baroque side of things. But for me, this is all part of the same thing.
In my programming, I want to bridge as much as possible these things. In my second visit to Philadelphia I had the task of also bringing Claude Vivier, which they have never performed. I don’t want to make a feature of it but it’s part of the same tradition to me and I will be committed to all of it. ”
You have always conducted opera and orchestra. How does one help the other?
“It’s part of the same ecosystem for me as an artist. If I look at every great artist I admire, Furtwangler, Walter, Giulini, Abaddo, Karajan, Solti, Rattle – they all did both. As an orchestra I think it’s as important as well . Some orchestra like Vienna Phil or Dresden do this on a regular basis – they are a pit orchestra that give concerts.
In symphonic music – you always have the first violin singing a phrase and then everybody accompanies or the oboe or the horn or the trumpet. It’s always accompaniment and someone who is important so it’s the same principle and I think opera makes you realize this. Obviously symphonic music gives me a lot to deal with in terms of the importance of the orchestration, which also helps my opera conducting. I see this as very much part of the same thing. I would hate that some people would see me more in one than the other. It’s already starting and I would never cave in to that.”
[Photographs are of Basilique Marie-Reine-Du-Monde in Montreal, the church at which YNS was a chorister and conductor. Credit:Marcia Adair]