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Stéphane Denève: Musical Friendships Are Essential

Updated: Nov 1, 2021

By Tim Munro

Friends are key to life. With them, we celebrate, we cooperate, we console. Friendships relieve stress, enable resilience. Friendships help us feel part of something greater.

Stéphane Denève makes new friends at the 2019 Crafted concert

Friendship is an essential part of music-making, says St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Music Director Stéphane Denève. For Stéphane, music-making is conversation, dialogue. On the podium, he brings us all—guest artists, SLSO musicians, and audience members—into a trusting togetherness.

The SLSO’s 2021/2022 season hums with the energy of friendships. Deep and long friendships alongside budding new friendships. Stéphane invites close musical friends: Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Yefim Bronfman, Lars Vogt, and violinist and conductor Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider.

“Nikolaj is very special,” says Stéphane. “He’s been a dear friend for many years, with a larger-than-life personality. He is one of the top violinists anywhere, and has become a world-class conductor as well.”

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider

The two perform Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. “It is a piece we’ve done many times together. He brings such richness of sound.” They share joyful music-making and joyful merry-making. “We laugh a lot and will eat some very good dinners together.”

Building the friendship

How does a musical friendship build? For SLSO Principal Violist Beth Guterman Chu, the initial visit by a guest artist is like a first date. “We’ve heard good things from colleagues outside of the orchestra, we know there will be mutual respect, but we don’t know if the spark will be there.”

“Like any relationship,” says cellist Bjorn Ranheim, “true trust and meaningful collaboration can only come from fully seeing and understanding your partner.” That way, the orchestra “can see them as a whole artist and leader, and assess if their musical impulses jibe with the voice of the ensemble and organization.”

Ranheim mentions the communication that passes between close artists. “As this relationship grows and the unspoken cues between the artist and orchestra are better understood by all, a true musical dialogue can take place in the creation of a unified artistic statement.”

“You can feel that trust onstage,” says Guterman Chu. “You can hear it in the ease of playing and the depth of colors from the musicians.” A sense of trust allows visiting artists “to take real risks,” says flutist Jennifer Nitchman. “This risk- taking creates exciting and fresh performances.”

(Left to Right: Bjorn Ranheim laughs with SLSO friends during a dinner break while on tour to the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois; Beth Guterman Chu shares a laugh with cellist Melissa Brooks during rehearsal; Jennifer Nitchman (center) performs with new music educator friends at the 2019 Extra Credit concert)

Deep relationships

Nobody knows this sense of trust more than conductor Nicholas (“call me Nic!”) McGegan. Nic returns to the SLSO in December for a program of music by the Bach family. “Coming to the SLSO is one of the highlights of my year,” he says. “This year actually marks the 35th anniversary of my first appearance with the SLSO at Powell Hall. It was a performance of G.F. Handel’s Messiah, and Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson was singing soprano.”

Nic McGegan

“When one is a regular with a group, there is so much that one doesn’t need to say to the musicians. In the same way as one knows how a friend will react or think, an orchestra behaves in exactly the same way. I feel so lucky to have such a long-standing relationship with such a wonderful bunch of people.”

Another returning friend is composer/conductor John Adams. “The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has become my orchestra of choice for recordings,” Adams has said. “I feel very humbled by their devotion to my work.”

Other old friends make welcome returns. Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin brings a program of Béla Bartók and William Bolcom, while violinist Augustin Hadelich plays Samuel Barber’s concerto. Kirill Gerstein plays Thomas Adès’ Piano Concerto with another SLSO favorite, conductor John Storgårds.

New pals

A long relationship is not essential for sparks to fly across the Emerson Concert Stage. “The SLSO is well known for being flexible in sound and style,” Nitchman says. “This flexibility allows conductors to execute their vision, whether it is their debut or they have been here many times.”

In 2021/2022, the SLSO meets many new friends. There is the uncategorizable Dmitry Sinkovsky, who makes his SLSO debut as conductor, violinist, and countertenor. “He is equally phenomenal on all fronts,” says Erik Finley, the SLSO’s Vice President and General Manager. “You’re going to have to pick up the audience’s jaws off the floor.”

Other new friends this season include pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, who brings his revitalizing touch to Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Elim Chan, who is fast taking the world by storm, conducts Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony. Conductor David Danzmayr leads Franz Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, and pianist Awadagin Pratt brings the new Piano Concerto by Jessie Montgomery, an SLSO co-commission.

Jessie Montgomery

Stéphane and the SLSO hope to cultivate a lasting friendship with Montgomery. “She’s a phenomenal composer and a wonderful person,” says Stéphane. “She has a musical voice that is ready to become a classic.” In addition to the new concerto, the SLSO gives the world premiere of a new version of Starbust.

Montgomery is part of a group of composers that Stéphane is gathering round the SLSO. A close-knit group of composer friends that includes, in addition to Montgomery, Carlos Simon, James Lee III, Gabriella Smith, Jessie Montgomery, Stacy Garrop, and Anna Clyne.


Tim Munro is the SLSO’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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