PHILADELPHIA — By his own account, Yannick Nezet-Seguin is someone who looks on the bright side.
The Philadelphia Orchestra's next music director is well aware of the storied ensemble's financial difficulties, its acoustically criticized new concert hall and its shrinking audiences. None of it, however, appears to have diminished the 36-year-old maestro's enthusiasm for the work ahead.
"I can't help it. I'm a positive guy, so I arrive and work with what I have, this is the hall I have, let's make it better. Period," Nezet-Seguin told The Associated Press on the eve of a four-concert series offering audiences a hint of what's to come in the next years. "I'm sure we can make it a more positive experience for every concertgoer."
Montreal-born Nezet-Seguin holds the title of music director-designate until he formally takes over next fall. At that point, chief conductor Charles Dutoit will assume the title of conductor laureate.
Nezet-Seguin was offered the position after just two visits in 2008 and 2009, less than any other conductor since 30-year-old Leopold Stokowski arrived sight unseen a century ago. Nezet-Seguin's contract runs through 2017, but orchestra officials have already made it clear that they hope he stays longer.
The orchestra was having financial troubles when Nezet-Seguin accepted the position in June 2010, but less than a year later something happened that stunned much of the classical music world: The renowned 111-year-old symphony became the first major U.S. orchestra to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection .
"Before my arrival I (did) know of course what was ahead and that the finances were in a certain state," Nezet-Seguin said. "Nobody could have foreseen exactly the turn of events, but still there was nothing left blowing up as a complete surprise. I was being kept well informed."
The orchestra has struggled with dwindling attendance and donations, shrinking endowment income, high labor costs, the recession and an aging audience. Players' pensions and salaries have been cut, a partnership with Peter Nero and the Philly Pops was severed and the lease with the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts is being renegotiated.
Officials hope the orchestra will emerge from bankruptcy protection early next year.
"It is indeed a very difficult time that we are going through but I'm almost tempted to speak more in the past tense now," Nezet-Seguin said, "because I feel that with a new artistic leadership which I am representing there is now every energy focused toward the future."
Nezet-Seguin's selection as musical director marked the culmination of a search to replace Christoph Eschenbach, whose historically brief 2003-2008 tenure was marked by popular international tours and community outreach alongside persistent rumors of a strained relationship with musicians. Eschenbach has made Philadelphia conducting appearances in the seasons since his departure but Dutoit has served as the orchestra's interim leader for the past several years.
It was a televised concert featuring Dutoit, then conductor of the Montreal Symphony, that inspired a 10-year-old Nezet-Seguin to pursue what he said is more a vocation than a job.
"I remember the moment ... and I remember even Dutoit's words," he said. "He was talking about the music being like a prism; you see music from many different angles. ... It was very inspiring and I told my parents I wanted to be a conductor."
He first came to Philadelphia at Dutoit's invitation and said he felt an immediate connection with the orchestra, which he called "an immensely virtuosic ensemble" with heart and spirit.
"What's even more striking is the generosity of the players. It's generosity of sound, of wanting to do more, wanting to be even more focused, wanting to reach an even higher goal," he said. "I don't feel anybody jaded, and it's part of a big group to have a certain proportion of each orchestra people who have been there, done that. I don't find this in this orchestra."
The 11-year-old orchestra hall has undergone remedial work over the past several years to fix its imperfect acoustics. Nezet-Seguin said there are very few acoustically perfect halls — only two in his view, Tokyo's Suntory Hall and the Berlin Philharmonic — so the goal is to determine how to best play to the room's strengths.Comment on this story
"It's a very clear hall and you cannot hide anything there, which is a good thing," he said. "Without revealing all of our secrets, we can certainly play in a more sustained way, the way we release the sound to create more sense of resonance."
He also remained mum on programming details for his inaugural season next year but said it will "honor the tradition of the orchestra by being forward looking, forward thinking."
"This goes back to Stokowski and even (Eugene) Ormandy: What has made the famed history of this orchestra is the way of making programs different, having new works commissioned and world premieres, visual settings of the orchestra, of the hall, to accompany every concert," he said.
"So anything we will do more in that sense is not breaking with tradition but more honoring our own."