Stéphane's Reflections in the Time of Coronavirus
In the first of a series of three interviews, SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève tells Creative Partner Tim Munro about the challenges posed by this strange time.
When I reach Stéphane by his preferred mode of digital communication (“I love Skype”), it is early afternoon at his home in Belgium. His computer is propped on a tower of scores, and Stéphane sits—jacket on, hair somewhat contained—at a piano strewn with music.
“Conducting,” he says, “is something of an addiction.” With a baton, Stéphane feels like he can sculpt sound as if it were matter. But, for now, Powell Hall is silent, and Stéphane’s concerts have been canceled for at least ten weeks. “I’m now longing,” he says, “for this extraordinary physical contact with music.”
Across the world, people are striving for ways to find beauty and meaning in the silence. How is Stéphane coping? “I have mixed emotions. I am frustrated and sad to not be where I should be. But sadness and anxiety don’t help.”
Stéphane says that his wife fears periods when he—very rarely—has too much time on his hands. “She says I go nuts!” Instead, he thinks of this time as a forced sabbatical—“to take a break, to try to rethink everything.”
To avoid cabin fever, Stéphane gives structure to his days. “We wake early and have family breakfast,” he says, “then my daughter Alma has school via iPad and Zoom. Putting aside the frustration and anxiety, this it is a wonderful moment to be with our family.”
Stéphane bought himself an elliptical, and spends 45 minutes each day working out while watching Netflix. “I thought, the guilt of the price of this object would oblige me to do it,” he laughs. “And behind us is fields and woods. We also find time to walk in nature.”
Then, each day, after an obligatory session of emails, he turns to his concert grand. “I’m glad that I’m a pianist: I can still touch music.” The piano is the instrument of his childhood, and now, “in this troubled time, piano is an escape into what I know, into what is really comforting.”
Normally covered with orchestral scores, at the moment Stéphane’s piano resounds with music from his past. “I am re-memorizing works I learned as a child. There is some Bach, there is lot of Rachmaninoff.”
He also serenades his wife with music she loves. She watches the HBO show Westworld, so he plays Debussy’s Rêverie, a piece that plays an important role in the show. He also shows me a transcription of Keith Jarrett’s Cologne Concert. “My wife listened to that a lot!”
Hanging out with Stéphane—even over Skype—feels like a musical salon. There is singing, piano playing, generous conversation, big ideas. It is impossible not to come away filled with inspiration, with hope.
“This is a difficult time, but I am optimistic by nature,” he says. “We all take things for granted, because—voilà—but what we as musicians do is essential in the full sense of that word. We need always to remember that music is a miracle.”
Recently, Stéphane had a realization. “What a wonder it is for me to be in front of these amazing musicians,” he says, “to perform this amazing music. When you think of the evolution of the instruments, the evolution of the music. It’s so special, the orchestra, this orchestra.”
And he is proud of how the SLSO administration has handled this complex situation. “Their first concern was the health of musicians and audience members. They didn’t want to take any risks with their lives.”
Stéphane’s mind also goes to substitute musicians, those without the confidence of permanent employment. “They are the most fragile,” he says. “This situation is so, so dangerous for them.” As a successful conductor, Stéphane counts himself lucky to earn a good living, and he responded by making donations to organizations that support freelance artists.
He points to a photograph with pride of place on his piano. “This is my teacher, André Dumortier.” A memory returns. Stéphane was seventeen, playing a piece by Bach for his teacher. He finished playing, and there was silence before Dumortierspoke.
“He said to me, ‘Well, I’m happy for you, because from now on you will be never alone.’” Stéphane now knew that music could always provide an escape, “the possibility of conversing with composers, their scores, what they want to express…”
With music, we are never really alone.
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.