Yannick Nzet-Sguin

One of classical music's hottest young conductors makes his New York debut at Mostly Mozart.

RAISING THE STAKES Yannick Nzet-Sguin has become one of classical music’s most sought-after conductors.

RAISING THE STAKES Yannick Nzet-Sguin has become one of classical music’s most sought-after conductors. Photograph: Marco Borggreve

All manner of claims have been made for the salubrious effects of early exposure to classical music: Mozart makes baby smarter and the like. Seldom is it said, though, that taking your child to the symphony can lead to burgeoning superstardom. But for Yannick Nzet-Sguin, a young French-Canadian conductor whose career is taking on a runaway momentum, seeing the Montral Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Charles Dutoit, splashed all over the local media during the 1980s fired his imagination. “I asked my parents to go to a concert,” he recalls. “I became fascinated by it and began to wave a stick with recordings.” So fascinated was the young piano student that at age ten he informed his parents, both education professors, that he intended to become a conductor.

Nzet-Sguin (pronounced “NEH-zay SAY-gan”), 34, lived up to his word: Not only is he now a conductor, but he is also one of the hottest rising stars in the classical-music world. Having established his credentials with a nearly ten-year run as artistic director and principal conductor of the Orchestre Mtropolitain du Grand Montral, an ensemble whose international recognition he helped to raise with a series of highly regarded recordings for the Atma label, Nzet-Sguin took on two plum new roles in 2008: He succeeded Valery Gergiev as music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, and also became the principal guest-conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

This week Nzet-Sguin makes his New York City debut with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra on Tuesday 4 and Wednesday 5. The program includes Stravinsky’s charming neoclassical ballet Pulcinella, a piece seldom played in its entirety; Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony; and Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor (K. 466) with soloist Nicholas Angelich, a young American pianist with whom Nzet-Sguin has often collaborated. “I think he’s one of the very few true poets of the piano around.... He is arguably, to me, like a living Claudio Arrau,” the conductor says of his colleague.

But while Mostly Mozart gets the honor of presenting Nzet-Sguin here first, his concerts this week are just the beginning of a busy season in New York. In December, the conductor will make his Metropolitan Opera debut with a new production of Carmen, starring headline-grabbing married duo Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. “Apprehensive? No, no, no, no, no, no!” he responds to a question with feigned indignation. Then, seriously: “There’s always reputations of divas and divos—but that’s part of the opera glamour.” Under working conditions, he insists, he’s gotten along wonderfully with all manner of reportedly difficult characters—a knack that should serve him well, since the Met has already tapped him to lead a production in each of the next five seasons.

In February, Nzet-Sguin will bring the Rotterdam Philharmonic to Avery Fisher Hall for two programs emphasizing Romantic heft, glittering virtuosity and a taste for the contemporary, including a new piece by Dutch composer Theo Verbey—an offering the conductor believes ought to be compulsory for any ensemble representing its country on tour. He’s required to be in Rotterdam for nine weeks a season, “but if I count the tours, the opera we do annually in Amsterdam, plus the recordings, et cetera, next season I end up being there 18 weeks or so.” London gets four additional weeks, thanks to his duties at the Philharmonic, an orchestra Nzet-Sguin says he loves. (A magnificent account of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 recently broadcast by the BBC proves the feeling is mutual.) And he intends to maintain his Montral post “as long as they want to keep me,” he explains with a laugh.

Yet given all the high-level attention Nzet-Sguin is attracting, the question of career aspirations is one he prefers to deflect for now. “For me it’s a question of enjoying as much as possible whatever I’m doing, wherever I am,” he says. “I’m privileged that my career is now leading to the main cities and the most wonderful opera houses and orchestras. But I’ve decided not to project myself and say, 'Okay, after this I would like to be there.’ ” Instead, he claims, his ambition is simple: “Just to remain as happy as I am—and for the rest, I’ll trust life.”

Yannick Nzet-Sguin conducts the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall Tue 4 and Wed 5.

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