Introducing Stéphane Denève

Getting to know the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's next Music Director

By Benjamin Pesetsky

Last June, Stéphane Denève was named the 13th Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, to begin in the 2019/2020 season. This month, he appears on the SLSO’s podium for the first time since the announcement—offering an early peek at the orchestra’s next musical leader.

Born in France in 1971, Denève is chief conductor of the Brussels Philharmonic, principal guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, former music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and has been a frequent guest in St. Louis since 2003. With the 18/19 season, he becomes the SLSO’s Music Director designate.

In a recent, casual conversation, he talked about his life and work—and about what he’s looking forward to most about St. Louis.

Could you tell me about your hometown and childhood?
I’m from Tourcoing, in the north of France, on the border of Belgium. People there are known for being very warm-hearted—it’s said they have the sun in their hearts that they don’t have outside. My father had a very small construction company and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. I am one of three siblings—I have one older and one younger sister.

What were some of your earliest musical experiences?
First, listening to my father play the tuba in my village’s amateur band. Later, for a few years, I joined the band as a trumpet player. When I was in Catholic school, I would hide and listen to an older nun playing the organ, an amazing instrument that fascinated me. She gave me my first piano lessons and very soon sent me to the local conservatory.

Beyond music, what were your other interests growing up?
I was very social as a child and had a lot of friends. I was passionate about many things, particularly science and computers, and I even did some programming when I was a teenager. Because of my strong interests in biology and mathematics, I could have become a medical doctor. My mother wanted me to take that route, but instead I became a musician. Well, I hope I can heal souls, at least!

When was the first time you conducted?
I first conducted at the age of 13 in a conducting class at the conservatory I attended in the north of France. My first concert was of an unknown little overture by the French composer Paul Bonneau—on the day of my 14th birthday, the 24th of November.

Jumping ahead, you now have a family of your own. What does your life look
like today?
I’m a very, very happy man, indeed! My wife, Åsa—whom I met in Toronto in 2004 and married in Napa Valley in 2007—is Swedish (her name is pronounced Awsa), and we have a daughter, Alma, who is almost ten years old. She was born in Scotland in 2008. Our daughter speaks Swedish, English, French, and a bit of German. I travel a lot, but luckily, I adore that!

How do you explain to strangers—say, on an airplane—what you do for a living?
People are often very curious when they see me reading a large score, surprised that I read it like a book, and that I hear the music in my head.

If they are curious about the role of a conductor, I tell them that a conductor is like a theater director, that you have the same freedom with a score that you have with a play. The difference is that I try to inspire my “actors”—the musicians—live, onstage. I unify their energy with my gestures and—sometimes, it seems—even with telepathy! Making an orchestra play together is only the start of my work, not the end. Adding humanity, drama, colors, and a vast range of emotions is what a conductor should do.

Do you have some favorite books, movies, and popular music?
I just read a play in French by Paul Claudel, L’annonce faite à Marie, which I really loved. I’m currently reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari, which is a fascinating book. I enjoyed the films Moonlight and, especially, Manchester by the Sea. And I just saw the new Star Wars—I’m of that generation and I really love John Williams. I do like pop music, and my daughter makes sure to have me listen to her playlist on Spotify! I listen to Zara Larsson, Ed Sheeran, Galantis, Bruno Mars, and I particularly love Björk and jazz artists like Bill Evans and Chet Baker. I would love to work with Björk. She’s wonderful and unique.

What are your favorite foods to eat at home in France, in St. Louis, and
anywhere in the world?
At home, my wife, Åsa, cooks very well. She makes a delicious roasted lemon chicken and a marinated salmon with mango salsa, and I like to do my own barbecue. In St. Louis, I’ve eaten at The Crossing and at 801 Chophouse, which I both enjoyed. I love a good steak! I like Japanese food and have a deep affection for Tokyo, which has so many fabulous restaurants. I also adore Italian food. When in Rome for my birthday, I was lucky to experience a fine restaurant by an Italian chef who had been working for years in Japan. It was a fantastic blend of Japanese and Italian flavors.

If you could meet one of the composers of the past, who would it be and why?
I would love to meet Mozart, because he was so full of life, as his many letters have shown. But one is not enough—I would love to meet Beethoven, Debussy, Liszt, Bach, Rachmaninoff… I would want to get to know their personalities and see their daily lives. And I’d love to ask Beethoven about some of his crazy tempo markings.

What has drawn you to the SLSO over the years?
I love the musical refinement of the orchestra, and I look forward to discovering the sound that we will craft together. It is a fascinating thing—when making music regularly with an orchestra—to build an identity together. The reason I wanted to come back, year after year, is the immense talent and musical DNA of the orchestra, and the amazing acoustics of Powell Hall. I cherish the friendliness and warm-heartedness of the SLSO—absolutely one of my favorite orchestras.

How did you feel upon being named the SLSO’s next Music Director?
I felt extreme enthusiasm because I love the country, I love this city, and I love this orchestra! To be named music director of this great orchestra was very thrilling, very rewarding for me. This next chapter for me is like opening a blank page, and saying now you will write something. I’m entering middle age, a more mature age, and it’s very organic for me. I was very, very pleased because it felt like it was logical—it felt right.