Levine Celebration: About Jimmy

by Yannick Nézet-Séguin

I was always deeply influenced by Jimmy's work while studying conducting and imagining myself on an opera podium. In my student years, I was an avid record collector, and therefore I bought many recordings conducted by Jimmy - with the Met, of course, as well as with the Vienna Philharmonic and the National Philharmonic. What always struck me was the extremely energetic quality of everything he touched, alongside the incredible balance between the lyrical freedom of the singers and the presence of the orchestra.

When I finally got the chance to attend performances at the Met, those qualities were absolutely apparent, even more so than in recordings. Of course, everything I heard at the Met was striking, but the performances conducted by Jimmy always had an extra something, an aura or magic that was truly extraordinary. I especially remember performances of two works that I know he loves deeply: Parsifal, with Domingo singing the title role, and Pelléas et Mélisande.

I think we can credit Jimmy for the fact that we associate the Metropolitan Opera with the highest standards, both in terms of the quality of the singing and for the exceptional quality of the chorus and orchestra. Speaking more specifically about this orchestra, it is, as we all know, a marvel. In my opinion, Jimmy has developed it to the highest level in terms of mastering this repertoire, in terms of listening to the stage, and in being flexible and in the moment.

Jimmy's mastery of every repertoire, from Mozart to Wagner, from Donizetti to Verdi, and from Berg to contemporary opera, is something that we now take for granted in a music director. Actually, though, it is truly special - unique and admirable. It has helped ensure that the Met remains the leader in all areas of the operatic repertoire.

One of Jimmy’s many inspiring qualities is that he truly loves singing and singers. This might sound like a given, but actually, sadly, it isn't! Loving the singers means anticipating everything they do, breathing with them and having the entire orchestra do so, and creating the conditions in which every singer will feel most comfortable, most able to give their best. To me, this is the golden rule, absolutely necessary to make the most of this extraordinary art form. When I started conducting, I realized that I shared that goal with Jimmy. I think this is why I have always been attracted to his way of making music.

Like all the truly great conductors, Jimmy has a recognizable style in every repertoire he approaches, and yet he is also very stylistically diverse and appropriate to each composer. This is one of the things that the world has admired and still admires, and I know for a fact that this is also something that influences me in my daily work. As performing artists, we all pursue this ideal balance between serving the composer's intentions and still expressing our own personality through it, and Jimmy's mastery in this is exemplary and inspiring.

Of course, so many singers have been nurtured by their work with Jimmy throughout the decades that it would be impossible to name them all. In terms of orchestral conducting, whether in the opera repertoire or as a symphonic conductor (especially through his performances in concert with the MET Orchestra), incredible rhythmic clarity combined with a great care for the line is immediately recognizable in Jimmy's style.

I have a personal story to share: Back in 2009, many months before my Met debut with Carmen, I expressed a wish to perform the opéra comique version of Carmen (with spoken dialogue). Jimmy asked for a phone conversation with me. Of course, I was very impressed by this gesture, and I was looking forward to finally speaking with my hero! When we spoke, he told me that he understood my wish, but at the same time he explained why he thought that at the Met it was actually preferable to remain with the grand opéra version (with sung recitatives).

He did this in such a collegial way, infectiously convincing, that I was convinced by his arguments! Of course, at the end of the day, he was the Music Director, but most of his colleagues in such a position would have done this in a very different, much less collaborative way. He talked to me with a blend of experience and a genuine feeling of dialoguing between musicians, which I think tells a lot about Jimmy’s human qualities.

Since then, during every production I have conducted at the Met, there have been a few times when he would listen to a radio broadcast of a performance I was conducting, and he would call me immediately after the performance in my dressing room to tell me how much he enjoyed it, that he was proud of the singing and of the playing, that he enjoyed the energy and the flow of the conducting. Of course, this always gave me the greatest joy imaginable.

In 2015, when I conducted the new production of Otello, Jimmy came to one of my stage/piano rehearsals in the auditorium and stayed for a few minutes. I thought this was such a special moment; I could feel his energy and his love of the music, watching me conducting and listening to the great Met Chorus singing the opening scene of act one. He was smiling.

Many months later, having the incredible honor of accepting the position of being his successor, I thought of this moment, which will stay forever in my heart. We have since spoken quite a few times, and I am incredibly lucky, as is the entire company, to continue to benefit for many years to come from his incomparable knowledge of this company and of the entire art form, and to collaborate with him in designing the future of this great house which he loves so deeply, and which I deeply love as well.

Thank you, Maestro Jimmy!