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From Beyoncé to Debussy, Yannick Nézet-Séguin shares music that inspires him

Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 6, 2021. Last week, the mayor of Philadelphia declared it "Philly Loves Yannick Week," in celebration of him extending his contract with the Philadelphia Orchestra for four more years.
Chris Lee
Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 6, 2021. Last week, the mayor of Philadelphia declared it "Philly Loves Yannick Week," in celebration of him extending his contract with the Philadelphia Orchestra for four more years.

What do great conductors listen to when they're not on the podium? Yannick Nézet-Séguin made a playlist, specifically for Fresh Air, of music that inspires him. It includes a surprising mix of pop, hip-hop and classical music.

The Grammy-winning conductor leads the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera and the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal. Nézet-Séguin says that he listens to pop music the same way he listens to classical: "I hear harmonies. I hear details of instrumentation and mixing."

He loves a concept album: "From start to finish, it's not only a good song, but as a whole, it's greater than the sum of its parts," he says. "And I felt this way with RENAISSANCE, by Beyoncé."

Beyoncé is just one of the artists on Nézet-Séguin's playlist — which also includes a song he sometimes plays for his cats. Click the audio link above to hear our chat with the conductor, as well as some clips from each song. Highlights from our conversation follow below, along with a Spotify version of Nézet-Séguin's picks.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin's playlist highlights

"COZY," by Beyoncé

Yannick Nézet-Séguin: It was difficult to choose just one song out of the album [RENAISSANCE]. But I also like the messaging of the album, and I think that "COZY" at this moment is a great message that talks first to women, in general, and empowers women and empowers all of us, quite frankly, regardless of gender. It's self-love, but it's also about mental health. And I think self-love is the starting point of mental health. And to be able to [get] this point across while still being able to make us dance and have a catchy melody, I think that's just the mark of what makes pop music great when it's great.

On RENAISSANCE's dedication to the queer community

I want to be the leader who makes space for others and other communities to shine and to be rediscovered and to have their own space.

At the Grammys, [Beyoncé] also in her speech, thanked the queer community in general. And there was something about giving space, giving the voice to a certain community while herself not necessarily belonging to [it]. I relate to this also – obviously myself as a gay man, that really is close to home. But also I think [of] better ways of being a leader, what it means in classical music, in my field. How can I be a better leader? ... I want to be the leader who makes space for others and other communities to shine and to be rediscovered and to have their own space. And that's really what I've been doing, whether at the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Met and even the Orchestre Métropolitain and shining a light on other communities and artists. Beyoncé, she's at the top of the world at the moment ... and she's using this to raise awareness to other people. And I, of course, respect and admire [her] and that's something that really resonates deeply with me.

"Zur Rosenzeit," by Edvard Grieg, (performed by Renée Fleming and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, from the album, Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene)

[Renée Fleming] is larger than life. ... One of the first recordings I bought as a CD was her Schubert set of songs with Christoph Eschenbach, former music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, as it happens, but on the piano, and I remember buying this for Christmas present to my mother. And when Renée, many decades later, after we collaborated on stage many times in opera and in [the symphony], she was my first soloist here in Philadelphia for my first opening night, back in 2012. But when she called me during the pandemic and said, "Look, Yannick, we should make a recital together at the piano," I could not believe it because I never saw myself as a pianist that could make it at the piano to the top like this. For me, I'm primarily a conductor. And to have the opportunity, I couldn't say no to that. And this became a project so dear to both of us. One of my favorite songs that I dreamt of playing, especially with a voice like Reneé's, is this Grieg song, "Zur Rosenzeit," and that's why I chose it.

"Encore Un Soir," by Céline Dion

Céline Dion is our diva in Quebec. ... The song I chose is from one of her latest albums, the one that she released back in 2016. I attended the show that she gave in Montréal, and that was not so long after her husband and agent, René Angélil, passed away. And so I think it was a highly charged show and I don't know, this song just reminds me of being there, meeting her before the show, feeling the love from an entire city and the entire nation for their diva, our diva Céline.

"MONTERO (Call Me by Your Name)," by Lil Nas X

I just love the person, or the persona of Lil Nas X. For me, it's inspiring to see that in a field where it was still quiet and repressed and not accepted to be anything but a certain way of seeing masculinity that he can be so successful by being so upfront, without shame, being who he wants to be.

It's not exactly the same, but I'm still one of the very few out gay conductors out there. And I think it's about time that these symbolic figures like Lil Nas X, it's only this way that we're going to have young people really embrace it and probably understand or make decision-makers maybe understand that they should stop saying to everyone, "Oh, if you're outing yourself, you're going to have your fanbase reduced," and everything like this. I think it's insane. There's so many young people at the moment who are in desperate need, they feel ashamed of being who they want to be. And there's problems with suicide and still so many issues. That's why I want to be more out ... because I want to be an example that, yes, we can make it to the top by being who we want to be, and we should love whoever we want to love. And I feel like this is in its own way what "Montero" [and] Lil Nas X, is doing.

"Symphony No. 9 in D minor," by Anton Bruckner (performed by the Vienna Philharmonic)

Bruckner is probably the most Catholic composer ever. He's the most religious, was an organist. ... So I feel like Bruckner symphonies are like organ works, but orchestrated for a full symphony orchestra. And because of this, that music can be very spiritual, very nourishing. I love conducting Bruckner. I recorded all nine symphonies, but this ninth Symphony, especially the excerpt I chose, is something that's [some of] the most menacing, threatening music that's [ever] been composed. It's where an orchestra can get scary, and not in a spooky way, just because it's quintessentially impressive and imposing.

On Bruckner composing the music when he was close to death

He's aware of it. And I have a very, shall I say, romantic idea about this. I think geniuses, composers, when they are close to their own death, a little bit like Mozart with his own Requiem, or Schubert with his unfinished symphony, even though he was writing sketches for his finale, he knew that this was the last moment and it is translated into music. And I think that should be how we receive it, perform it and also how we listen to it.

"The Little Shepherd," by Claude Debussy (performed by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and a favorite of his cats)

[My cats are] both very musical, I swear. They're the most musical. I have one who has the perfect voice. He's called Rodolfo, like the hero in Puccini['s] La Bohème. He's a great tenor. He has the perfect voice, but his ears are so sensitive that when I play piano, he loves it, but he usually has to go in another room because it's too loud. But when I play this piece, it's so soft and gentle he stays around. And ... [the other cat] loves music, and the louder the better. We had friends the other day coming to rehearse chamber music at home with the piano with some strings, he just stayed the whole time and sat on each and everyone's lap and asks daily, "When are the friends coming to make the concert again?"

"Physical," by Olivia Newton-John

Olivia Newton-John was my first crush. I loved her. ... I couldn't stop listening to it when I was a kid. And I think my older sisters ... who are five and six years older than me, they would put on that song and ask me to dance. ... And it stayed with me. Recently I watched the video again and saw all the gay imagery that goes with it. ... Maybe there was something that I did not understand at the time which actually stayed with me. And it's also, I think, very entertaining and very energetic music that's inspiring for all the more physical side of my life now, where I go to the gym and I try to stay in shape to make sure that I don't get injured when I conduct.

Audio interview produced and edited by: Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram.

Audio interview adapted to by: Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.