A Passionate Engagement

by René Spencer Saller

Stéphane Denève
Stéphane Denève | photo credit: Bram-Goots

Music Director Designate Stéphane Denève is an extremely busy man, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. 

The multilingual maestro, who turns 47 on November 24, will conduct four programs in the 2018/2019 season—what he calls his “engagement season” with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The first of these, on November 10 and 11, is “all about love at first sight.” In the 2019/2020 season, Denève will, to borrow his charming analogy, “get married” to the SLSO, becoming the thirteenth Music Director in the orchestra’s 140-year history.

Now, as an in-demand guest conductor, Principal Guest Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Music Director of the Brussels Philharmonic, his concert schedule is often booked solid. But no matter how much he travels the world to conduct, teach, and record, he always puts family first: his wife, Åsa (pronounced OH-sah), and his ten-year-old daughter, Alma.

When we catch up by phone, it’s 9 a.m. in Brussels, where the three live. Denève has just returned home from driving Alma to school, and he’s in a wonderful mood. “It’s strange because for scheduling reasons when you are appointed to an orchestra, you have to wait basically two years before starting the marriage,” he says. “And so I’m very impatient to be back in St. Louis in November. It has been too long!”

Stéphane Denève
A young Denève.

After leading the SLSO eight times since 2003, you already seem to have an excellent rapport with the musicians.

Stéphane Denève: It started fantastically well. I remember conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and I thought, “This is a really great orchestra and a great hall.” I always wanted to go back, and they wanted to have me back, so when they proposed [the directorship], it felt really organic.

How is being Music Director Designate different from guest conducting?

SD: For me, a very important part of music making is to trust people. What I like to see developing is a very fine-tuned knowledge of each other, and indeed we will go even deeper with this trust when we work together regularly this season. 

In America, being a music director is quite different from Europe. You have more responsibility for the whole meaning of the institution, and how you want to interact with the community. I’m excited to be closer with the orchestra and discover even more in the music we make together.

How do you expect your role to change in the 2019/2020 season, when your tenure as Music Director starts officially?

SD: I’m a communicator: I love to share my passion, and I love to communicate with people, to create something truly accessible. 

Over my eight years as Principal Guest Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, something very special happened. Since I speak very briefly at the start of each concert, people started to get very warm and friendly with me, and when they would see me on the street, they call out, “Hello, Stéphane!”

I hope that this will also happen for me in St. Louis, that I will get to know the people for whom I’m making music. When I’m at home, I often play the piano for people after dinner, and I explain, before I play a piece, “Oh, look at that; I love that thing!” And a concert is just a very large salon: You have this passion about why you play music and what you want to express, and [you all] enjoy it together.

The power of music is to bring us together. Whatever our religion, race, or language, we can speak a common language. It’s something that I treasure.

When you brought us the Connesson piece last season, that went over very well.

SD: I hate the cliché that new music has to be something difficult and dissonant, something you’re obliged to present, while the real great tunes or great music will come later in the program. That’s a cliché because it has been like that, because a lot of these new pieces didn’t please the musicians and audiences.

I’m searching for those rare pieces that are interesting, rich, and also have a direct emotional impact. That is the only way that we’ll continue to be in sync with our world. And the music of Guillaume Connesson, who I think is the best French composer living today, is also fantasically appealing for the musicians. They love to play it, and the audience seems to love to hear it.

Stéphane Denève
Denève, the orchestra's next Music Director, conducting the SLSO in 2018 | photo credit: Dilip Vishwanat

How do you determine if something is strong enough to earn a place in the repertoire?

SD: Taste is subjective, of course, but for me the way to tell if a piece is strong is to see how the musicians react to it. Sometimes when I study a piece I get extremely passionate about something, and my passion is not shared. I’m very sensitive to that, and I don’t want to impose something that reflects only my taste.

Music is my life. I sing it in my head every second, and I’m very emotional about it. Because of this lyrical and emotional aspect of the music, at least so far with every piece that I have truly adored, this love has been shared by musicians and audiences.

The American scene is very vivid, very rich. There are a lot of great composers, and great young composers. The SLSO has a history of doing a lot of American music, and I would like to continue that.

In the history of the orchestra, the longest tenure of a conductor was from a Frenchman: Vladimir Golschmann [SLSO Conductor from 1931 to 1958]. He did a lot of premieres as well of French composers. So I think that makes the DNA of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra very good for me, because it’s a good mix of what I am and what I love.

Early in your career you worked with legendary conductors like Sir Georg Solti, Georges Prêtre, and Seiji Ozawa. How were you mentored, and how do you apply these experiences to the students that you now mentor?

SD: You learn conducting by watching what other conductors do. When you see them doing something good, you can learn from that; when you see them doing something not so good, you can learn what not to do (laughs).

Because I was the pianist for the Orchestre de Paris for five years, I played piano under many great conductors and for soloists and the chorus in rehearsal. Each gave me something a bit special.

Solti had this fire for music, and he would search forever to get the right phrasing, the right atmosphere. I was extremely impressed by his energy. Then in the case of Prêtre it was his colors, a kind of freedom, an operatic world that totally inspired me. With Ozawa it was the sensuality and sense of balance in the body, amazing legato, and pure phrasing; it was beautiful to see.

I see many young conductors who want to do things right, to be clear, to be liked for the wrong reasons, to make it simple. For me the most important thing is the meaning. What is the mysterious meaning of the piece that can touch people’s hearts? Music is a way [to speak] from one heart to another.

Stéphane Denève
Denève leading the SLSO in 2018 | photo credit: Dilip Vishwanat

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a conductor? What drove you to pursue conducting rather than another form of musical expression?

SD: It was very, very early. I played trumpet in some amateur bands. I wasn’t able to go to concerts, unfortunately — my parents were not very rich. But I would see conductors on television, and I thought it was just magic, to paint music by waving your arms in the air.

I did play the piano, but for me it was a lonely thing. You practice alone, and I never wanted to practice more than two hours a day. I’m quite social. I wanted to make music with other people.

When I was thirteen, in my little conservatoire in the north of France, the director had a little conducting class. He told my mother that I was too young, because he taught only adults. I think that she was quite pushy, and probably to get rid of her the director said, “Bring him in, and I’ll test him.”

He tested me and saw something. He let me in his class, and on my fourteenth birthday I even conducted a five-minute piece for a concert. I loved it so much that I pursued it quite strongly.

Let’s talk a little bit about the first of the four programs that you’ll be conducting this season, on November 10 and 11. I’m especially excited about Lieberson’s Neruda Songs because I love the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s recording on Nonesuch so much.

SD: She was really a very special person, and her death was very tragic. [This piece] truly belongs among the masterworks of the 21th century. Its emotional impact is immense.

My project for my season as Music Director Designate is very simple. I thought, I will get married to the orchestra in 19/20. So let’s try to build the romance! I have four programs this season, and I wanted to explore the different sides and activities of a romance.

So this first program is about love at first sight and the power of love. There is one fantastic scene from Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, the scene that begins with [sings the theme], which inspired Wagner’s famous motif for Tristan und Isolde. We do Neruda Songs, which is an expression of love, and finish with Scriabin’s Poème de l’extase [Poem of Ecstasy].

Then we have a program with serenading and promenading, where we do [Vaughan Williams’] Serenade to Music. So we will be in love with the music itself. We’ll play the Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, which is about the love of nature, and Brahms’s Second Symphony, which is the most pastoral of his symphonies.

Then the “Fantastic Night,” with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and also Ravel’s Scheherazade, which is about a lady who had to tell one tale every night, for one thousand and one nights, and then Nyx, which is a piece by Salonen that I hope you will love, too.

You have an impressive catalog of recordings to your name. How is the experience of recording different from live performance?

SD: There are two types of recording, studio and live recording. Live recording is a compromise: you get the emotional flow of the concert performance. There’s a certain energy to a live performance that’s unique.

But best is studio recording. With technology we can cut and paste in such a way that we create a piece that could never exist otherwise. You can isolate one instrument, or move a microphone a little bit, or create some effects here, a little bit more reverb there. For me it becomes an art form in itself.

Stéphane Denève
Denève conducting at the age of 17.

What do you do for fun?

SD: Family time is number one. Alma, my daughter, is ten; I just drove her to school this morning. The most important thing is to try my best to be a good father. I’m not always at home, but I’m never more than two weeks without them.

I’m very social, so what we do a lot, with my wife, is socialize. Åsa is a very good cook; I’m extremely lucky. We love cinema, so we go to the movie theater quite a lot; I’d say once a week. They’re not very recent, but I loved Lady Bird and The Shape of Water. Just last week I went with my daughter to see the new Winnie the Pooh movie, and then a few days ago with my wife we saw a documentary called Cutie and the Boxer.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—René Spencer Saller

René Spencer Saller is an award-winning freelance music writer and lifelong St. Louisan. She began writing for the SLSO in 2012 and also contributes program notes to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Tippet Rise Arts Center, in Montana.