Yannick Nézet-Séguin is the new conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Unfortunately, he has a name that nobody can spell or pronounce. Wasn’t there a John Smith available?

by Jim Harris

Prediction: Yannick Nézet-Séguin will never become a household name here in Philadelphia. This is because the vast majority of Philadelphians, including many classical music fans, either can’t remember or can’t pronounce the name of the orchestra’s new conductor. In fact, Nézet-Séguin recently took first place in the “Most Unpronounceable Local Celebrity” contest, narrowly beating out TV news anchorwoman Renee Chenault-Fattah for the prize.

The judges found his name, “unnecessarily long,” “way too fancy” and “like, totally foreign-sounding.” Not surprising, considering he is a French-Canadian. (Even his nationality is hyphenated.) Pronouncing Yannick’s full name has proven so linguistically challenging to the average Philadelphian’s vocal capabilities that the police have begun using it as a sobriety test:

“Sir, please step out of the car and repeat after me — ‘Yannick Nézet-Séguin.’”

“Uh … can you spell that for me?”


“Can you use it in a sentence?”

“Okay. Please say ‘Yannick Nézet-Séguin,’ or I am going to arrest you for drunk driving.”

“Nameep Nuhnay… Labonn.”

“You have the right to remain silent…”

“Oh great. I wish you had told me that in the first place!”

Since initiating this new procedure, DWI arrests have risen by 45%.

Unfortunately, attendance at Philadelphia Orchestra concerts has not risen so dramatically, and declining attendance has also plagued other orchestras around the country. I would submit that this is due to the number of conductors with baffling, complicated names, like Jaap van Zweden in Dallas, Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles and Osmo Vänskä in Minnesota. Their names are a veritable labyrinth of dots, dashes and sounds that only a frightened wolverine could make. What these conductors need are some short, catchy celebrity names like “Sting,” “Fabio,” or “Carrot Top.”

Oh, the orchestras’ managers are trying all sorts of other gimmicks to pull in new young audiences. Here in Philly, for example, they just performed Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” with the addition of modern dancers, bombastic video projections and a trapeze artist, because heaven forbid you should have to listen to a piece of music without 12,000 other things going on at the same time or leave a modicum of unused brain space available for exercising one’s imagination. Next, they’ll be tearing off their clothes and running out into the audience like some sort of Fringe Festival freak-out.

In addition, the Philadelphia Orchestra has been commissioning well-known composers to write pieces for some of the ensemble’s very talented first-chair musicians. Clever idea, but so far, two of the contracted composers have not completed their pieces in time for their scheduled performances. This has not, however, deterred the orchestra from commissioning even more new pieces for next season.

So, apparently composers don’t really need the work or the money badly enough to finish their compositions on time. Some of them have used the excuse that they are “perfectionists,” although their definitions of perfection don’t seem to include meeting deadlines. Are there any unemployed people out there who know how to read a calendar and would like to get good money for putting notes on paper? Contact the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In the end, though, it’s the conductor/music director who either pulls in audiences or turns them off. Maybe if Yannick would just adopt a cool name like “U-Neek” or “Yanni Gaga” and also spend more time here in Philly, folks could warm up to him. He actually only spends about 10 weeks a year conducting here, plus he’s also Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic. He also just signed a personal, long-term recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. Apparently the Deutsche still use Grammophons.

The bottom line is, we know he’s going to leave us. They always do. We need a home-grown hero, someone who can settle down here, rub elbows with the people, and appreciate us for what we are — Philadelphia, the city that loves you back (as long as you eat cheesesteaks and win a sports championship).

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