Yannick receives his eighth honorary doctorate from Drexel University in Philadelphia and delivers the keynote address at the commencement.

It was in Philadelphia, in the Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies stadium, during the convocation of Drexel University, that Yannick received on Friday, from the hands of President John Fry, an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters for his leadership in elevating the arts in Philadelphia and beyond. In a speech that was both true and moving, Yannick then delivered a powerful testimony inviting graduates to become committed actors in the society of tomorrow.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin's allocution

Good afternoon!

I am thrilled to be with you today at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies home field, in my adopted hometown. This moment is particularly special for me, as both my mother and father spent their lives in higher education. This occasion helps connect me to them and to their vocations, and allows me to honor them and the friends, family, teachers, and supporters who helped to shape my life.

President Fry, thank you for the invitation to address the Drexel Class of 2023, and for the privilege of receiving an honorary degree from a university with an extraordinary commitment to equality. You have been a transformative force in our community, and I am grateful for your leadership and dedication to this great university and to our beloved city of Philadelphia and its orchestra.

To the graduates … congratulations on all that you have achieved to reach this profoundly important moment in your lives. Though your journeys here may have led you down some detours—much like the ones you probably took to get to the ballpark today—you made it. Perhaps, now, you find yourselves at a juncture with more possibilities than ever before. I invite you to think about the opportunity of this moment musically, as if you are creating a playlist or a concert program, like I do on a regular basis. In the last few years, I have learned to question the lenses through which we view history and through which we experience our lives. With this awareness, my colleagues and I at The Philadelphia Orchestra have been immersing ourselves deeply in the music of systemically marginalized composers such as Florence Price, William Grant Still, Gabriela Lena Frank, William Dawson, and Valerie Coleman, among others. I often ask myself, where would we be if different choices had been made thirty, forty years ago? Music by these BIPOC and women composers might have rightfully claimed a regular place in the musical pantheon today.

As you begin to program your lives, the choices you make matter. They form a narrative, they reflect your values, they take you on a journey.

As I stand before you, honored to be your commencement speaker, I am reminded of the incredible journey that brought me here. In my musical life, I have avoided restrictive labels and categories, and I fought hard against them in my youth. Picture this: a devout Catholic, closeted gay man, living in French-Speaking Canada. Can you imagine the chaos? I’m personally lucky that I have always had the support of my parents and my family, but the fact that today I can openly live my truth is nothing short of a miracle. That I am married to the love of my life, Pierre Tourville, was beyond imagining. But here we are, living the dream. And while we might not have to worry about waking up from it, we do have to stay in tune to what’s happening around us. Sadly, we’re witnessing some troubling trends: book banning, discrimination, and senseless violence fueled by hatred. The question we must ask ourselves is: how can we respond to all this madness? Especially in a world that seems increasingly divided. For me, the answer is with music. And, for you, well, the answer lies within you, and now is your time to seek it, to pursue it, and to implement your vision for a more inclusive world. You can help carry the torch of change, unity, and compassion. Think of your time at Drexel as your own personal symphony. Every class you attended to every exam you passed; every friendship you made to every late night on Lancaster walk; every memory you made along the way, formed the notes and melodies of your unique composition.

It’s time for you now to reflect on that symphony, on everything that brought you to this very moment. Think about how you can use that knowledge and those experiences to make bold choices going forward—choices that express your stance on the things that matter most to you and to your communities. As you make those choices, embody the virtues that Drexel University instilled in you: integrity, empathy, respect, humility, courage, generosity, an appreciation for cultural differences, a fierce commitment to justice, and humane leadership.

This is your moment to be actively inclusive. On my playlist, the music of Beyonce, Jill Scott, and Lil Nas X is shuffled with that of Mozart, Bach, and Florence Price. I choose beauty of expression and originality over style or genre. And I am captivated by artists who have something to say. You, too, have something important to say. This is your chance to seek your own expressive voice, with your own words. Give those words space and time and share them generously and widely.

Dear graduates, you are about to build the program of your lives. Choose the repertoire well. Be creative and be bold. Embrace your beliefs and your interests. Seize with urgency and passion the subjects you have chosen, and always be receptive to new ones. Be sure to leave space for the next generation to be just as inspired and to challenge new norms. Program your lives with joy and openness. Sit next to someone different than you. Make your choices and build a better world. I, for one, can’t wait to experience it.

Congratulations, DREXEL CLASS OF 2023!

"Opening night at the Met/Times Square puts him at the epicenter of the music world."

Montreal Gazette, Septembre 2015.