A Conductor's Role: A Conversation with Stéphane Denève

Updated: Apr 15

Stéphane's Reflections in the Time of Coronavirus


In the second of three interviews, SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève tells Creative Partner Tim Munro about his growing relationship with the musicians of the SLSO.

Gathered onstage were the combined forces of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the St. Louis Children’s Choir, and a stellar team of soloists. On the docket, Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust.

“We made every piece of the puzzle,” says SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève, who was on the podium that day. “All the pieces were perfect, and we were about to fit them together to unfold the beauty and drama of this masterwork.

On Thursday of that week, the decision was made to cancel the SLSO’s performances of Faust. Stéphane is convinced it was the right call, but was left with a case of emotional whiplash. “The Berlioz was so promising,” he says. “The vocal soloists were fantastic. The orchestra and the chorus were so ready…and the kids, the kids!”


Stéphane rehearsing The Damnation of Faust with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus

I’m speaking with Stéphane by Skype just two weeks after that day, yet mid-March feels like a faraway land. And Stéphane rarely looks into the past. “Music is so intense and strong in the moment,” he says. Musicians are used to living in the present, so “it’s very hard to look back.”

But Stéphane is delighted to reflect on one thing: the growth of his relationship with the SLSO. “They are such a musical orchestra!” he says, and with an orchestra like the SLSO, “which is at a very, very, very, very high level,” a conductor has one real job: to help people listen to one another.

“When you work a lot with an orchestra,” says Stéphane, “the visual aspect of the conductor is less and less important.” Visual clarity remains important, but conductor and orchestra can come to understand each other “in a telepathic way.”

He plays a chord progression on the piano. “This resolution, for instance—some conductors would impose when to play it by focusing on showing a very clear beat.” He demonstrates with his hands, showing in great detail where the musicians should play.

Surely a clear beat gives the best result, right? Stéphane thinks the opposite is true. “When musicians follow a seemingly safe beat,” says Stéphane, “they may rely too much on the visual information and sometimes listen a little bit less carefully. It will never be as good as when everybody is feeling—purely musically—where it should be.”

Stéphane’s approach is different. “I open my hands in an inviting way, meaning: ‘I trust you. I trust that you know where to play the next chord, I create the space for you to capture this miraculous accuracy.’” He demonstrates over our Skype video connection, breathing and lifting his hands, then lowering them together in a gesture almost of supplication.

There is a certain mystery in how this process works, he says. “There must be some enigmatic variables—resonance, acoustic, mathematical, harmony of the spheres, a flow of shared musical energy—telling us where to place this last chord. I have the wondrous opportunity to mediate this flow. I love it!”

When answering my questions, Stéphane speaks with enthusiasm, often at length. He apologizes for digressions, for his long answers. But I am always carried along with him. Stéphane’s ideas are so refreshing, his attitude so disarming.

If we think of the conductor as an autocrat, then Stéphane is here to warn you away. “Nothing can make musicians play together,” he says, “other than the music itself. I should not get in the way.”

So what, then, is his role? “The conductor makes sure the flow of the music is channeled into an intense and inspiring journey. I show character, I help the music to have a meaning, a soulful presence.” It is almost like chamber music, I suggest. “Yes, and with the SLSO we have such a fine, chamber-music-like communication. It is the key.”

In St. Louis, he has sensed a deep connection with the broader community, right from his first concert as Music Director, in Forest Park. “I was overwhelmed by generosity, by the welcoming spirit.”

Most importantly, Stéphane felt he could be fully himself. “This is very precious. There are some places,” he says, “where expectations of how to behave and what to believe are stifling. I hate that. I hate snobbery.”

Stéphane—with StéFAN in hand—jokes with the crowd gathered on Art Hill for the annual Forest Park concert in 2019

St. Louis fits his personality. “I like to be warm, to be friendly. I like to laugh.” And, he adds, “I think that humor will save the world. For me, it is a way to love.”

Stéphane stops for a moment. He thinks back to an image from the last day of Faust rehearsals. At a rehearsal for the children’s choir, he was standing near tenor soloist Michael Spyres. While listening to the choir, Spyres’ face shifted.

“I could see that he was experiencing a moment of ecstasy—of bliss—listening to these angel voices,” says Stéphane. “It was so touching. I will remember this moment, a moment of heaven.”

Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly-behaved orange cat.


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