By Tim Munro
Stéphane Denève can’t cook.
“I never had the patience,” he says with a laugh. But he does understand that it is key for a chef to have the desire to share. To share a love for food, to share knowledge of what makes food taste wonderful. Stéphane, who begins his tenure as the St Louis Symphony Orchestra’s 13th Music Director this month, feels that same desire.
“When I play something at the piano,” he says, “I always want to say, ‘Oh, wait-wait-wait!’, and then explain why I think it is great. It is human to want others to have the same pleasure.” I am chatting with Stéphane over a shaky Skype connection. Stéphane loves Skype. He keeps it on for hours each day whenever he is working (which, it turns out, is most of the time), and he is often willing to chat. Not because of loneliness, or because Stéphane likes the sound of his own voice.
But because, at his core, Stéphane is a communicator.
In 2005, when Stéphane began his tenure as the Chief Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, he made a decision. At his first concert, Stéphane (with trademark curly hair-triangle) strode purposefully to the podium and, instead of turning to the orchestra, picked up a microphone, turned to the audience, and spoke.
“I welcomed the audience, just naturally.” In other words, he shared. Shared his love for the music, shared why he put the program together, shared what makes the concert special to him. It was a vulnerable moment, but the feedback was immediate and positive. There was no turning back. “I love to look at people,” says Stéphane, “to see who I am making music for.” Speaking to an audience helped Stéphane feel that he was in someone’s living room. Rather than a mass of people, the audience was transformed into a collection of individuals. “When I turned, I felt like I embraced people, and could say, ‘Let’s do the journey together.’”
This month, Stéphane brings this same welcoming spirit to the SLSO. In events that touch every facet of the organization, he embraces all of us, takes our hand for the journey ahead.
And he is carrying on a proud tradition. David Robertson, the SLSO’s previous Music Director, also had this zeal for direct communication. Stéphane acknowledges that this more “human” approach can result in the loss of a certain “mysticism.”
“Big Hollywood stars of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s were gods,” he says. “You couldn’t imagine what they were like in real life.” Reaching out to an audience can risk losing “the magic of the Romantic vision of the mysterious musician.”
But Stéphane soon found that he could change a listener’s experience “with just one word.”
An audience member might be leaning back in their seat, feeling distant from the experience. A genuine and personal introduction draws them forward.
“Just one word can create the right energy between the performers on stage and the audience.”
Stéphane speaks fast. Sentences spill, one into the next. Thoughts wind quickly down garden paths. His break-neck conversation speed seems to emerge organically from a combination of razor-sharp intelligence, as well as a child-like wonder and joy.
His English is expressive, full of a certain “French-ness” that allows for unexpected, elegant turns of phrase. And his face is constantly opening into a smile, like when I ask him about another aspect of his commitment to communication: his love for a giant range of musical styles and genres.
“My rapport with music started with two elements,” he says.
First, sacred music: Stéphane remembers being captivated by the sound of the organ, which gave him a sense of “the spiritual power of music.” Second, the trumpet: he played cornet in a local wind band with a motley repertoire, from Beethoven’s Pastoral to jazz to pop.
These experiences taught him that music is present in every aspect of life, “from the song of your mother when you are a baby, to the sound of restaurants. Music is always there, in many forms.” He zooms in on two very different works of art: a Bruno Mars song and a Mahler symphony.
“The mystery of a great song can be as inspiring as the mystery of a great symphony,” he says. Both contain genius and both can provide joy for audiences.
But Stéphane is clear about one thing: “You have to respect the length of a Mahler symphony, to respect that someone dealt with a structure that is monumental, that he created a form, and also musical material to nourish it.” He mentions John Williams, whose music is featured in several SLSO performances this season.
“Some would call his music ‘trivial’ because it’s movie music,” he says, “but I love his music.” Stéphane has been unafraid to program Williams’ film music alongside more standard “concert” repertoire.
“I’m very at ease with mixing different experiences,” says Denéve, who compares this “mixing” to our Skype conversation. “It’s very possible to speak about something light, then the next second to touch something spiritual, and then the next second we can go back. Life is made of different layers.”
And, appropriately, our conversation eventually turns to more light-hearted topics (Scandi-noir, Tasmanian holidays). But before it does, Stéphane touches on the spiritual for a final moment. “The world has changed for the better,” he says. “It’s much more inclusive. We can see that we are the same, that we are aiming for the same thing. That’s what music is about. About being willing to share the emotions that we all have. That’s a way to feel the unique thing in humans that, despite our differences, of age, of color, that we still can feel the same things.”
This article appears in the September 2019 Playbill.