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Connection: A Conversation with Stéphane Denève

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

Stéphane's Reflections in the Time of Coronavirus

In the third of three interviews, SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève talks with Creative Partner Tim Munro about musical loves and future projects.

“It’s hard for me to choose between children,” says SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève, laughing. I’ve quite clearly given him an impossible task, asking him to name highlights from the SLSO’s 2020/2021 season.

“Every program is carefully worked,” he says. “Nothing is chosen lightly. There is no program that is not a project, where there is not a narrative idea.” He cannot choose.

But at this uncertain moment, Stéphane is happy to be looking towards the future. To a time when we can all gather together, when he can join again with his “very, very, very, very fine” orchestra.

Stephane Deneve and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Stéphane is looking forward to being reunited with the SLSO

Stéphane and I speak by Skype from opposite sides of the Atlantic. He erases that distance with warmth, with easy intimacy. Stéphane uses one word again and again: love. Love, uniting everything he does as a musician, everything he does as a communicator.

For instance, Stéphane loves Arthur Honegger’s oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake, which the SLSO will perform in November. Joan is “a strong, emotional piece,” and a massive project, uniting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, St. Louis Children’s Choirs, actors, and vocal soloists.

Honegger’s full-throated retelling of Joan’s story reminds Stéphane that all music comes back to the voice. “I love singers,” he says. The voice is the first human expression of music. “The first thing a baby will reflect on is the voice of their mother and father. It is the first musical instrument.”

A beautiful voice can always make Stéphane cry. When he and his wife watch American Idol, he is often surprised to find himself moved to tears. “One sound can make me cry. The strongest emotion I get is from voices.”

And the 20/21 season is threaded with the sound of the human voice. In March 2021, the orchestra and chorus will perform Francis Poulenc’s Stabat Mater alongside the final scene from the Dialogues of the Carmelites.

Stéphane loves Poulenc. “Love, love. Love.”

“Poulenc is like Mozart,” he says, turning to his piano to demonstrate. “There is an ambiguity in Mozart.” He begins to play. “This sonata [K. 331] is in A major, but is still extremely sad.” He plays a different piece. “This concerto movement [from K. 466] is in a minor key, yet there is such an expression of hope.”

Stephane Deneve at the piano
Stéphane at the piano in his studio at Powell Hall

Poulenc shared Mozart’s capacity to express ambiguity in music, he says. “What appears profane can be very sacred. And behind triviality is something that is so human, so fervent.”

At the other end of this scale is Mahler, whose Third Symphony will be played by the SLSO in October. “Mahler’s music is extremely unambiguous,” Stéphane says. It demands a vulnerability that can be terrifying. “There is nowhere to hide. You have no choice: you have to be him.”

Stéphane brings another of his musical favorites next season: the SLSO’s new Artist-in-Residence, Grammy-winning violinist Nicola Benedetti. Stéphane has worked with Benedetti for many years, and he feels a great kinship with her as a musician and as a person.

“I connect with people that are entirely themselves,” he says. “I don’t like pretense, I don’t like false attitudes.” And Benedetti, he says, has a kind and generous heart. “She is extremely caring.”

From the beginning, he says, “she has always been more than just a soloist.” Through her education and engagement work, Benedetti has brought the healing power of classical music around the world.

“I thought she would be right for this season: a kind of heroine.”


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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