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Becoming Repertoire

By Tim Munro

Stéphane Denève is a passionate guy. But he is never more excitable than when sharing his love for the music of today. Calling himself “an extremely big fan,” he programs the music of living composers on almost every concert.

Still, he is wary of the terms “contemporary music” and “modern music.” He seeks pieces

that audiences want to hear, then hear again. “And that means pieces that the musicians want to play and play again,” he says.

The ultimate criteria for his selection is music that Stéphane believes could become part of

the canon. “I’m searching for pieces that have such depth that, as a listener, you can explore

many layers. We explore pieces that need to be repeated because they are rich and can stand the test of time, can become ‘repertoire.’ ”

He has a particularly close relationship with the music of Guillaume Connesson, whom he

has known since 2000. “It’s music of today,” says Stéphane, “but is very accessible, very emotional, very poetic. Guillaume continues the great tradition of French music: his music is richly orchestrated, colorful.”

And Connesson’s music has a lot of tunes. Such good tunes that Stéphane often finds himself, on an afternoon stroll, humming them quietly to himself.


Almost every one of Stéphane’s concerts this season presents a work by a living composer. Below, the composers themselves introduce their works.

John Williams: Violin Concerto. November 2–3, 2019

“The Violin Concerto is dedicated to the memory of my wife. The twentieth century was a rich period in the production of violin concertos. These works set a very high standard. However daunting these examples of the past may be, the violin concerto continues to fascinate. The violin itself remains an instrument of enormous expressive power, and the urge to contribute to its repertoire is great.”

Aaron Jay Kernis: Venit Illuminatio. November 15–16, 2019

“With this work I left dark thoughts and conflicted emotions behind and find a transformative experience of ecstasy and light. Music is something magical. It goes beyond words into places where chords and sounds take the place of language and punctuation. Sometimes, if I’m very lucky, a chord will burst out inside my head as heightened Technicolor! Hence the subtitle of this piece, ‘Toward the Illumination of Colored Light.’”

Anna Clyne: This Midnight Hour. January 18–19, 2020

“The title evokes the mysterious journey of a woman in the hour of midnight. It draws inspiration from two poems. The first is Harmonie du soir by Baudelaire, in particular his mention of a ‘melancholic waltz.’ My piece draws on folk-like melodies, creating this slightly warped version of a waltz. It also draws inspiration from a short poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez: ‘Music, a naked woman, running mad through the pure night.’ ”

Kevin Puts: Orchestral Suite from Silent Night. February 7–9, 2020

Silent Night was my first opera. It is set around the first Christmas Eve during World War I. It’s based on the true story of French, Scottish, and German troops who decided, spontaneously, to get out of their trenches and stop fighting. They shared champagne, chocolates, and stories about home. They played soccer together. The big question of the opera is: What happens when you get to know your enemy?”

Guillaume Connesson: A Kind of Trane. March 6–7, 2020

“I start from a sensation of colors and visual sensations. And from there I bring together

harmonies, melodies, rhythms. It’s like having a building in the mist. And the mist

lifts from one part of the building. You see one side, then two sides, then suddenly the building appears.”A Kind of Trane is a virtuoso work for saxophone and orchestra. A homage to the jazz musician John Coltrane, each of the three movements carries an evocative title: ‘There is none other,’ ‘Ballade,’ and ‘Coltrane on the Dancefloor.’

Connesson: Cello Concerto. May 8–9, 2020

“The opening of the Cello Concerto is mineral and granitic. Shocks of stones and whip create a lunar landscape. Everything becomes liquid in the second movement. The third is paradise, a garden of birds and insects. The fourth movement is a violently rhythmic dance.”

Lera Auerbach: Icarus. May 2–3, 2020

“I am fascinated by the myth of Icarus. The desire to go beyond boundaries is essentially

human. As a child, I ‘lived’ in ancient Greece. The world of jealous gods and god-like

humans was more real to me than the world outside of my windows, full of bloody red flags

(the red of the Soviet flag) and portraits of Lenin. Icarus’ wings were made by his father,

who warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun. But what teenager listens to his father?”

Pierre Jalbert: Music of air and fire. May 8–9, 2020

“Starting a piece of music is difficult. There’s always some sort of idea, whether it’s a musical

idea, or something outside of music. Music of air and fire has contrasting ideas: quiet (air) and aggressive (fire). The ‘air’ music features the percussionists bowing their instruments in order to create an ethereal sound. This gradually turns into the ‘fire’ music and features the percussionists playing various sets of drums.”

This article appears in the October 2019 Playbill.


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