HE comes, he conducts, he is invited back. That, without exception, has been the story of Yannick Nézet-Séguin's life for the last five years, beginning with guest appearances in Europe and Australia. Last season he ran true to form with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Now Mr. Nézet-Séguin (pronounced nay-ZAY say-GHEN) makes his New York debut, leading the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. Already, he and Jane Moss, Lincoln Center's vice president for programming, have opened discussions about future collaborations.
At 34, Mr. Nézet-Séguin, a French Canadian, serves as music director of the Orchestre Métropolitain in his native Montreal and the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the Netherlands, and also as principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic. Last summer he made his debut at the Salzburg Festival in Austria with Gounod's "Roméo et Juliette," under potentially dicey circumstances. Many critics knocked the project in advance as excessively commercial. Still, it had been artfully assembled as a vehicle for the soprano Anna Netrebko and the tenor Rolando Villazón, Salzburg superstars, with the American Bartlett Sher, a festival newcomer, directing.
But by July, delirious anticipation had curdled into wary curiosity. Ms. Netrebko, pregnant, had dropped out early on, leaving the field to the unknown Nino Machaidze. And the ebullient Mr. Villazón, though present, was still shaky after a prolonged self-imposed silence that had had fans biting their nails.
In a way the situation resembled that of Mr. Nézet-Séguin's American debuts, when he won over audiences whose attention going in was on marquee-name soloists (André Watts in Philadelphia, Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Boston and Martha Argerich in Los Angeles). But at the dress rehearsal in Salzburg (a gala rite of passage in itself), the diminutive, almost elfin Mr. Nézet-Séguin had a capacity audience at rapt attention within moments of raising his baton. Usually the orchestral fabric of "Roméo et Juliette" evokes brocades and velvets. With the Mozarteum Orchestra in the pit, his supple, winglike cues summoned up silks and satins.
"I feel the most successful moments in 'Roméo' are the intimate ones, in the love duets, when the instrumentation is reduced almost to Mozartean proportions," Mr. Nézet-Séguin said in an interview days later. "It's not a question of volume. You need articulation, a Classical touch."
Unlike most in the audience that day, Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, had been primed. On the recommendation of the Met's artistic staff, Mr. Nézet-Séguin had already been signed for a new production of "Carmen," opening this New Year's Eve. Over breakfast the day after the dress rehearsal, Mr. Gelb offered Mr. Nézet-Séguin four more productions through the 2013-14 season.
"Since first-rate conductors are in very short supply," Mr. Gelb said, "we're hoping he will emerge as one of the great new talents. Certainly he will have ample opportunity to prove himself at the Met." (Mr. Nézet-Séguin's operatic repertory, developed chiefly in Canada, runs from "L'Incoronazione di Poppea" to "Wozzeck." Next summer he returns to Salzburg for "Roméo" and "Don Giovanni.")
On a recent call from her office, Deborah Borda, the president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, described Mr. Nézet-Séguin as "one of the most charismatic of the host of young conductors who have emerged out of nowhere, and one of the most effective."
"He has that rare gift to seduce not only the audience but also the musicians in the orchestra," she added. "He is very self-assured and confident, as a conductor must be, but he's also a very insightful man. He has his own vision and goes after it. He inhabits a very interesting world. We're looking forward to a long, very meaningful relationship."
And this at a time when the Los Angeles Philharmonic is bringing on a charismatic young lion of its own in the person of Gustavo Dudamel, its new music director.
As a product of the state-financed Venezuelan music-education network known as El Sistema, Mr. Dudamel, 28, had a head start that his Canadian colleague did not. Mr. Nézet-Séguin's parents, both professors of education, started him on piano lessons when he was 5. When he was 10, he said last month from Montreal, it came to him "like a religious calling" that he was meant to conduct orchestras. Innocently, he called the conservatory in Montreal to let the people there know. Moving at his own pace, he worked his way through the recommended curriculum.
A former boy chorister with the Choeur Polyphonique de Montréal at the Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, he became music director of the choir at 19. Among his chief role models Mr. Nézet-Séguin cites Joseph Flummerfelt, formerly artistic director of the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., where Mr. Nézet-Séguin spent two summers as a teenager. For a choral specialist to graduate to a comprehensive symphonic and operatic career is almost unheard of.
Mr. Flummerfelt remembers their sessions well. "I've worked with hundreds of students over three decades," he said recently from his home in the Berkshires. "But say that name, and I see vividly this very young man who came into a summer workshop and conducted the Kyrie of Beethoven's Mass in C major with an intuition for color and shape that would have been remarkable in anyone. He was immediately able to grasp a suggestion, extrapolating and going even further. It was a wonderful creative interchange."
Mr. Nézet-Séguin calls those sessions with Mr. Flummerfelt the only significant conducting lessons he ever had. "Flummerfelt had a such a relaxed way of approaching the sound, with relaxed gestures and breathing," he said. "Today I regard those things as my fundamentals, as much for orchestral work as for opera and choral music."
So how much of Mr. Nézet-Séguin's expansive podium style is traceable to his origins as a choral director? "I learned early in Princeton that everything you do has an impact on the sound," he said. "I do move a lot. But I try never to be calculating or self-conscious about what I do. Maybe I just conduct big because of my small stature."
As another great influence, Mr. Nézet-Séguin cites the Italian maestro Carlo Maria Giulini, who died in 2005. Mr. Nézet-Séguin had the good fortune to spend a year with him in 1997-98, his last period of active conducting. "Young as I was, he treated me almost as a colleague," Mr. Nézet-Séguin said, "always putting my questions back into my own hands. Giulini always said that the gesture must be the extension of your thought. When something goes wrong, it's because you don't have a clear idea. When the idea is simply the extension of your thought, the gestures will be clear and immediate."
Mr. Nézet-Séguin has directed the Orchestre Métropolitain since 2000, and such is his loyalty that in December 2007 he turned down an offer for a debut with the Berlin Philharmonic on short notice in favor of his scheduled Christmas concerts in the Montreal suburbs. Founded in 1981 by graduates of Quebec music schools, the orchestra markets itself, with its $3.2 million annual budget, as a sort of people's choice, David to the Goliath of the $19.4 million Montreal Symphony Orchestra, directed by the big-name Kent Nagano. Though hardly the biblical prophet without honor in his own country, Mr. Nézet-Séguin is a much greater celebrity in London and Rotterdam than he is at home.
Yet on his watch the Métropolitain's programming has grown markedly more ambitious. Its recordings on the Atma label range from "La Mer" by Debussy and symphonies by Bruckner to concertos by the film composer Nino Rota. In all of them the individuality of instrumental voices, the rhythmic zest and the sense of unfolding melody are remarkable.
Arthur Kaptainis, the music critic of the Montreal newspaper The Gazette, reports some unevenness in the orchestra's concerts. But when Mr. Nézet-Séguin made his first appearance as music director designate of the Rotterdam Philharmonic in November 2007, Mr. Kaptainis wrote, "Conducting from memory, Nézet-Séguin was riding the orchestra he will take over in September like a thoroughbred, never whipping it like a mule." (New Yorkers can hear him with the Dutch ensemble in Lincoln Center's Great Performers series in February at Avery Fisher Hall.)
With his boyish face and a teenage rebel's spiked hair, Mr. Nézet-Séguin does not look like much of an authority figure. In a world hungry for fire-eaters, he strikes a curious balance between troubadour and philosopher.
"I'm a generalist by choice and conviction," he said. "My main goal always is to be true to the composer. You shouldn't try too hard. Working up revolutionary ideas for the sake of being different is a mistake. As an artist, you're on a lifelong quest to be yourself."