TORONTO — Montreal conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin says he employed a secret weapon in teaching Bradley Cooper how to conduct like Leonard Bernstein in the upcoming biopic “Maestro” – an earpiece.
The star baton wielder says he occasionally had the A-lister don the device so he could guide Cooper through arm and hand movements that would be believable for music-savvy viewers as well as those familiar with Bernstein’s distinctive physical style.
Nézet-Séguin served as "conductor consultant" on the upcoming Netflix film, which Cooper co-wrote, directed and stars in, and says there’s far more to conducting than just waving a stick around.
The Grammy winner says he’s seen plenty of movies portray conductors badly and he wanted to ensure “Maestro” was an accurate depiction of the craft.
Nézet-Séguin says the hardest part for most actors is to keep accurate tempo with the baton, especially while the other hand moves fluidly to convey expression.
“Maestro” opens in select theatres Nov. 22 and hits Netflix on Dec. 20.
“I can imagine how it is if there's a movie about tennis and the (actors) hold the racket badly," Nézet-Séguin says during a recent interview about another film he consulted, “Days of Happiness.”
For that Quebec-set music-filled feature, Nézet-Séguin says he choreographed movements for actress Sophie Desmarais to follow so that she could realistically embody a young conductor struggling to find her voice.
The approach was different for Cooper because, unlike Desmarais and her fictional character, the “Star is Born” actor was tasked with imitating a well-documented historical figure.
Cooper studied videos of Bernstein to nail down the way the “West Side Story” composer moved his body but that mimicry only captured part of who the man was, says Nézet-Séguin.
When it came to Bernstein’s technical prowess, that was trickier to master.
“I was there to actually try and frame it (and say), 'Yeah, but the beat needs to be believable,'” says an animated Nézet-Séguin, who gesticulated freely while speaking as if conducting his own undulating delivery.
“Because you know, there is a code there. The first beat has to be down, the upbeat has to be up and the side. And this I had to do and help him, guide him on this.
"Because he had all the mimics and everything of Bernstein – it was fantastic – but the right hand was not what it should be.”
Nézet-Séguin, who also conducted the music for “Maestro,” described Bernstein as a longtime “idol.”
“He also is very physical and every part of his body is expressing and so I always loved that. But of course the movie is also about tortured relationships and complicated moments with him being a closeted gay (man) but being married, which is very far from what I am,” chuckles Nézet-Séguin, who is openly gay and married to Pierre Tourville, a violist with Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain.
“Different times, that's for sure."
So much has changed about how conductors are perceived as well, adds the 48-year-old Nézet-Séguin, whose bleach-blond hair and navy blue nail polish belie the stereotypical image of the staid and hoary conductor.
Cinema has been slow to catch up to the modern reality, he says, pointing to “Tar” as especially incongruous to the cultural and social overhaul that he insists orchestra leaders have by and large embraced. Cate Blanchett stars in "Tar" as an imperious savant who gradually unravels when forced to confront her own toxicity.
The days of the ego-driven, domineering taskmaster are gone, says Nézet-Séguin, who juggles duties between orchestras in Montreal, New York and Philadelphia.
“Ahead of its time, I think, conducting had to examine what it is to lead because it's all about emotions – music is emotional,” he says.
“So you can't just decide, ‘Oh, I'm the traffic cop and it works.’ You have to connect to a deeper level. And therefore you have to accept your own vulnerability as a conductor because you're first and foremost an artist."
"Of course, there is a certain charisma involved and you need to be able to project your emotions to a certain degree, but it's true that it will work only if you're really true to yourself, which means also accepting your own flaws."
To feign perfection doesn't work anymore, he says.
"I don't think it ever really worked, honestly."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 25, 2023.
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press