Humans of St. Louis: Stéphane Denève

Updated: 2 days ago

In the 2022/2023 season, the SLSO is collaborating with the storytelling nonprofit Humans of St. Louis to share stories about musicians and friends of the orchestra. The series begins with newly minted St. Louisan Stéphane Denève.


Story and Photos by Lindy Drew


An Old Dream...


“It is an old dream of mine to learn how to tango. I’ll tell you why. Tango is one of those rare dances where, physically, looks don’t matter and you can still be extremely elegant. I love videos where you see tubby round men who are bald—not the canon of beauty by any means—and they dance with this attitude and are just beautiful. Not every dance gives that. Dance can be embarrassing. If someone dances badly, it can be so disturbing. But tango seems to be a dance where you can be attractive no matter what.


What I do on stage is kind of contrary to dancing. When you dance, you are inspired by the music and the music inspires you to react to it. Meanwhile, I’m doing the opposite, trying to make the music happen by giving roots to the tree of music that an orchestra can be. When I’m on stage, somehow it can look tense. When I move, I'm showing the music as if it were a dance and engaging a certain groove. I love Bruno Mars! When 24K Magic comes on in the car, I dance and clap and my daughter is like, ‘Dad. DAD. Daaaaad!’ I definitely need to stop all of that when we arrive close to her school.


I’m totally at ease on stage. When I conduct at Forest Park, 15,000 people are looking at me but I show my back to them and never feel vulnerable. Let’s face it, conductors, including myself, may not be beautiful by typical standards of beauty. Yet, what is fascinating is when somebody makes music and loves music and shares music and speaks about something they are passionate about, it’s extraordinarily intriguing.”


To sweat or not to sweat?


“I love to conduct because it helps me stay in shape. Imagine for five or six hours a day, I have my arms up. So my upper body is used to working for hours. I used to have a little tension in my neck and lower back, but it was always because of stress or not being confident enough. A lot of conductors do have back problems and it’s usually not a good sign. Your back shouldn’t hurt and you shouldn’t do something so violent to the point you hurt yourself. But an opera can be four or five hours long, much longer than a concert. And when I used to do those, I’d do a little stretching. But I’m not even doing that now. So, so far so good.


There are concerts in which I sweat a lot and some in which I don’t. It’s alright to sweat because it feels like you’re giving. There’s no rule. In a concert, it’s right to just go for it. But I’m actually always happy when I do not sweat because it often means I was in the flow of the music. So the effort slowed down. When you conduct, you move your arms fast to create tension. You want musicians to give you more, so you express a lot and cut the air. You have to show the beat and the impact and suggest something is solid, like, ‘Bam!’ However, if you experience this magical flow with the music, sometimes there’s a feeling of immobility. It’s like two parallel trains moving at the same speed. From their point of view, they aren’t moving, but they’re still going fast. And with music, I love when I’m there. It’s like this tai chi musical flow that just feels right.”


World Traveler


“When you ask your daughter, ‘What does your dad do for a living?’ what does she say?”


“We have one daughter who is 14. Now, of course, she says, ‘He’s a conductor.’ I wish she would say, ‘World traveler,’ though. Because an important part of my job which I adore is to travel the world. When I travel for an orchestra, there are social events, lunches, and dinners. I’m lucky to meet so many people and interact with them living in the places they are.”


Conductor Hair


“Have you ever seen a photograph of yourself that really surprised you?”


“I just Googled Stéphane Denève, and yes. I’m afraid they’re still there.”


“These are wonderful!”


“I’m not sure we can call them wonderful. What do you think is the reason for conductor hair? I have a theory. Somehow everybody willing, or not, seems to create a persona and you often look like what you are. It’s hard to escape the truth. Artists like painters, writers, sculptors, poets, and musicians—they are often lucky enough to be in an environment that is less rigid about appearance. So they can ‘let it go.’ Something about their look kind of becomes a trademark. But for conductors, my simple explanation is that because we show our backs to the audience, we wear jackets with black tails to cover our bottoms, which is a good idea because when everybody looks at you, they don’t want to be distracted by that for good or bad reasons. So what you see from a conductor are two hands and their hair. I believe it’s a reaction to the vulnerability of showing only your hair. A lot of conductors make it special. One famous hairstyle is from Leopold Stokowski. Even as an old man, he had this white long hair that gave him a certain look. Anyway, in my case, I left my parents when I was 18. I didn’t have much money and didn’t find a hairdresser for quite a long time. So my hair grew by pure negligence. When I went to the Conservatoire de Paris, indeed, I had really long hair.”


📷| Photos courtesy of Virginia Harold, Chris Lee, and Dilip Vishwanat


Long Term Relationship


“What’s beautiful about my relationship with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is that it was natural. I started conducting in the U.S. more than 20 years ago. One of the first engagements I had in this country was with this orchestra and I loved it. I was invited back many times, which was good because you’re not always invited back. You have to earn an invitation. So I was so pleased to come back. The quality of the orchestra, the warmth of the sound, the hall…


The orchestra… he, she, it? In Italian, they say she: l’orchestra. And in French, it’s l’orchestre, which is masculine. I believe in Spanish, it’s la orquesta, so it’s feminine. Anyway, I was coming back here regularly and they were starting a music director search. I had conducted for them seven times already, so they knew me very well when they proposed the position to me. And it was easy for me to say yes because I was excited to be at the helm of such a jewel in the city. It’s one of the top orchestras in the U.S., very famous and a very important institution worldwide. I did one season as the Music Director Designate, and then in 2019 I officially became the 13th Music Director.


What’s different is that many music directors live in one place and work in another. There’s nothing wrong with that. You can travel easily. People have their families settled somewhere, so they go back and forth, which I did too. Most recently, I was living in Brussels and came back and forth. But I received such a warm welcome and desire to be part of this community in St. Louis that I discussed it with my wife and our daughter. They visited. They loved it. And we said, ‘Okay!’ We found a beautiful house. My daughter started high school, so it was great timing for that. And I’m excited because now I’m able to be a part of and interact with the community even more. It can be done from a distance with technology and packing your schedule while in town. But now it’s every day.”


A St. Louis Family


“My wife and daughter wanted to know what the city has to offer, so we visited a lot of places. Our daughter was very happy to discover City Museum. We visited the Arch and the museum there. We went to many restaurants, which is an important part of everyone’s life—we’re still on the search for the best baguette in town. And there was this feeling that the city is grand, there is a lot of history. Yet, there aren’t too many people here like on the east or west coasts, so you can really enjoy a good quality of life. People from other places should know how pleasant it is to have a house here and to drive without traffic jams. Everything is 15 minutes away. It’s a saying here. And my wife says, ‘No, it’s 11 minutes.’ So I say, ‘That’s because you drive too fast.’ I mean, when we lived in Brussels, my wife and daughter had to drive 40 minutes to an hour to places that normally take like 13 minutes.”



“One thing that is overwhelmingly touching is that people recognize me here. It’s a fascinating thing. Look, I can be a little famous here and there. But it’s usually limited to the classical world. If I go to a concert hall in Paris, people will recognize me, but not in every restaurant. And here I’m amazed at how people have a sense of belonging to the major institutions. We’ve gotten to go to all these places and people here love them. We went to the Saint Louis Art Museum. We love the Missouri Botanical Garden. Of course, people here are also so passionate about their sports. They love the Blues, the Cardinals, and soon the CITY SC team. And you feel people speak about the Zoo with such passion and a feeling that it’s theirs. We were just at The Muny and I was amazed at how proud people feel about it. I see people in shops, like Whole Foods and Schnucks and all these supermarkets, and they say, ‘Hey, Stéphane!’ They call me by my first name, which I love. I hope that living here I will be able to speak with, meet, and interact even more with people. After a performance, I’d love to ask, ‘Did you like it?’ and have more of a dialogue to know what they liked, what they didn’t, what they want more of, and to share our mutual curiosity and passion for this art form.”


Music as a Companion


During COVID, it was touching to see that the SLSO team and our musicians did so much to offer musical emotional relief and healing power in dark times. Music is a companion I have for life. It’s important to know and remember that symphony orchestras have been playing music for the past 300 years. We have music that started in the 18th century and there are so many different types from a Bach piece to a Mozart symphony to a classical Beethoven symphony to the Romantic era and then all these narrative pieces and, of course, ballet, like a Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite or The Rite of Spring. Then there is impressionistic music, opera, vocal music with chorus—it is very special to have a chorus singing with an orchestra because they create this overwhelming sound that washes over you. On top of that, we have all the music of our own time including the repertoire of movies. Technologically, it’s not so long ago that an orchestra couldn’t play live with a movie. Now we have all these offerings. So there is music for everything: Music for families, music for kids. We do a lot with education and schools. There are offerings for different times of the day. And with our new expansion, we will have a menu of possibilities and spaces to welcome even more people.”


It Happens Only Once


“Classical music is still a treasure island to be rediscovered or even, for some, discovered for the first time. There’s not so much presence of it in the media or TV. So we have to build the knowledge that it is there for people. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s actually very easy to understand. There is music for everybody. We play so many different types, for sure there is something that will please your expectations. There’s such a pure pleasure to it that it can give us all some emotional answers. There is also the spiritual aspect of music and the fact that you are in a concert hall and hear acoustic music. I know some people feel that in a big stadium listening to rock n’ roll concerts with the music blasting. And, yet, I think there is something unique to classical in that music from an orchestra is not amplified. We play in a big hall with a lot of people, but it’s so different than even playing in a bar, for instance. Yes, that’s sometimes acoustic too. And it’s fantastic. It is something to experience. However, Powell Hall seats 2,600 people and you get this collective experience of what it means to share human values together. A performance is such a special experience that can be so positive. And it happens only once when you hear it in the moment.”


Balance and Connection


“When some think of a symphony, they just imagine Beethoven playing and that’s it. But, no, there are so many other fun things. I like to ignite the curiosity in people to let them know they may have a very different type of experience to start with. Then the thing I love is to make people feel at home with us together. I always imagine we are in an immense salon, inviting people, like, ‘Let’s have a drink and I will explain what we’re about to play.’ At the start of each concert, I speak briefly to welcome the audience. Then, in the most simple way, like a chef’s menu, I tell them, ‘This is what we’re playing today. I paired this appetizer with what you’re about to hear because this arrangement of flavor will match the first course. After that, you will have a second course that will include…’ So I explain what the musical journey will be and what the traveling will look like. And I try to make the audience feel totally at ease and relaxed like nothing is expected from them. It’s not intimidating at all. It’s just about enjoying the music and sharing it together.


I want people to know the power of music can enrich their lives more than they think. It gives balance, which is why I think we all connect through it and believe in it. I see it in people’s smiles. Sometimes when we’re playing very emotional music, I hear people cry and it’s very touching. We’re creating a rainbow of emotions. I love this art form because what’s so unique is the length. In concerts, with Pop artist songs, there are maybe two or three minutes until one song changes to another. In classical, we play this kind of cathedral of pieces of vast proportions—symphonies that can last an hour or more. You are taken through a longer journey where time can disappear. It’s a trip. I never took any drug in my life. I never even tried to put a cigarette between my lips. And I know I will never need that because I have music.”


A Conductor's Job


“A conductor leads the orchestra and we have 43 weeks of concerts during a season. We usually rehearse at the beginning of the week and play a program one, two, or three times at the end of the week. A music director leads between 10 to 14 weeks. I’m directing 12, so I’m creating the journey of 12 programs so they make sense. I’m also responsible with the orchestra administration for who is conducting and which soloists are invited for the other weeks. We have classical weeks and we have offerings for the festive times of the year like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then we have film and pops concerts all year, and this fall we had a collaboration with The Muny that was a big operation. Working with the team, I help oversee and decide the whole season. It’s a very complex process and it’s a fascinating process.


I spend way more time programming than anything else. I listen to a lot of music to document what is happening in the music world. Then I’m like a painter in front of a canvas or a chef in front of his stove: ‘What will I paint today? What will I cook today?’ Obviously, there’s the desire to do a particular piece because it speaks to you and you want to do an interpretation of it. I have my dreams and I could do 100 years of seasons just with the pieces I want to play. But I have to select what is possible and which soloists to work with, too. This orchestra has always welcomed the top soloists in the world. So I want to continue the tradition and invite the best. But inviting the best means they are only free certain days in a calendar year, so I have to grab that possibility. It’s a jigsaw puzzle. I have this ingredient and I know I have to cook with it. I have to keep track of what was played recently to not repeat anything. And I have to search new composers who create great new music.


In the end, if someone only comes to one concert, it should be unique. It should always be something special. If that is the first concert in someone’s life, I have to balance it to make sure there’s not too much of one thing and not enough of another.”



“Every concert is different and has a different atmosphere, so you cannot give everything to each one. I usually try to give a piece in the repertoire that people know and want to hear again. And I try to mix that with a piece that’s rarer and more curious just to show that people can discover things they didn’t know that are as interesting as a piece they do know. Then I almost always add music of our time so people can hear what may enter the repertoire of the future, what could stand the test of time, and what could become a masterwork forever. I try to mix those elements even though you can’t do it perfectly. It takes a lot of discussions and a big part of my work that people don’t see.”



Powell Hall


“What renovations are taking place and what can people expect?”


“It’s a major change indeed which will affect the experience for visitors and artists. Powell Hall is an aging building, approaching 100 years, and improvements are needed to reflect our current society and how we experience live music. My belief is that going to the symphony should be an experience the whole evening. It has to start way before the concert and take place during the intermission and after. A night out at the symphony should not just be sitting and listening and then leaving. So what we will do is keep the beautiful and legendary foyer, inspired by Versailles, and expand the public space so that there is better accessibility for people.


There will also be new space for visitors and audiences. It will be modern while dialoguing with the building’s history to show we are both celebrating the past but looking forward to the future. The acoustics will stay. We treasure the interior of the hall which is so special so the beauty of that will stay. But we will also add space to welcome people all day long for education programs, chorus rehearsals, and interacting with the city. Finally, the musicians will have more space—which they should have had for a long time. It’s an overdue renovation and it’s starting. Even in my office, the room isn’t soundproof. So if I play piano, all the rooms around hear me. Then again, sometimes people are okay with it.”


Surround Sound


“As someone who lives and breathes music, how is the sense of sound heightened in you?”


“Just yesterday, my wife and I emptied an ice maker in our new home. I was like, ‘Honey, we don’t need this ice maker. We have a fridge that makes enough.’ It’s a nice unit, but it makes so much sound. So we turned it off and it was like, ‘Ahh!’ My wife sometimes hates me in restaurants too because I’ll ask to please lower the music. I’ll say, ‘Honey, I cannot stay. It’s just too loud.’ Because if there is music, I cannot not listen to it. It’s never background noise for me. Like, the HVAC happening in the next room over or this refrigerator here in my office humming the sound of a B-flat. A tritone—a certain combination of two notes like C and F-sharp—can be very annoying, too. It’s hard for me not to listen.


You know, before moving into our new house, I never had a HiFi system to listen to music. Some people have fancy speakers. I’ve never owned those, never spent money on them because my head is singing all the time. You’ll even see me seated or waiting somewhere with just my finger slightly conducting. I try not to do it too obviously, but I’m singing the piece I’m studying that day. So since I hear music in my head, I don’t need more. But the house came with a Sonos system. My wife said, ‘Look, we can listen in different rooms!’ And I was like, ‘Ugh. Yes, but blast it when I’m not there.’”



“It’s so important to hear the sound of nature. We hear a lot of birds where we’re living now and I love the sound of the owls and the wind through the leaves. I’m always sad when visiting industrial cities and you just hear car sounds. I think it’s one of the many reasons why people become mad and experience burnout, because that is not what our genes had in mind for us millions of years ago. All these sounds that get our attention now and the amount of information is too much for our brains. We worked hard before; I don’t think we’re working any harder today. But people have too much heavy stimulation and it’s harder for us to concentrate.


I think it’s amazing for people to have an experience in a concert hall where they don’t touch their phones. They’re not distracted; they don’t even have to speak. They are just there with one sense that is being stimulated and sounds they may have never heard before. The feeling can really ground you. That’s why I have no doubt that classical music has a future. What we do is too precious.”


Collective Achievement


“I like to have fun! If you see me going to an office, I interact with everyone in the most social way possible, asking about their families or joking and making them laugh. What I like very much about here—and maybe it's because it's not like New York or other cities where it’s go, go, go, all the time—is that we can talk to each other in a more relaxed way. People in America are very good at chit-chatting. They laugh, joke, and are then on to something else.


But, really, the most rewarding thing is the feeling of being together when we collectively achieve something—at the end of a concert, when we all believe that, as we say, ‘Music happened.’ I mean, we do a job in which we’re rewarded with smiles, screams, and applause. Like every artist, I love being rewarded by seeing an audience erupting with enjoyment. Musicians feel the same. They stand up and receive it and it’s an immense privilege to be rewarded publicly like that. For me, the reward is also just having fun with everybody. And a smile, for me, is key.”


Humble Backgrounds


“I wish the perception that most musicians come from privileged backgrounds changes. You would be surprised how many started playing an instrument coming from a poor background. I will use myself as an example. My father was a construction builder and my mother did not work outside the home. Their income was very low. I was lucky to enter an amateur brass band playing the trumpet. Then there was an old nun in my school who played the organ. She saw me hiding and listening to her and gave me some lessons. In Europe, a lot of music schools offer instruments with a nominal fee to take lessons, so it is possible to learn how to play music.


A lot of people in this orchestra are from humble backgrounds. I don’t think we represent any kind of elite. Because, as an orchestra, we all represent a part of society. It is true that the concerts we put on are expensive to produce—there aren’t a lot of shows that have almost 100 people on stage and that has a cost. But we have many tickets that start at $15 and we have so many free community concerts and events like our annual Forest Park concert each season. It’s important to know there are seats available in Powell Hall for the price you’d pay at a movie theater. My goal is not only to make this clear but to enhance it by making this place more accessible to everybody. We create a lot of initiatives to make this happen, like my ‘Stéphane Seats.’ There are times I meet people in the community, I get to invite them to a concert, and I am so happy to say, ‘Hey, it’s on me.’


But, at age 18, without any support from my parents, I went to Paris and lived in a flat that was about 10 square meters, and I used two of the 10 already! I had to do a lot of jobs, like accompanying choirs and playing at weddings. Since I was a young adult, everything came from me moving my arms in front of musicians. And it’s true, I’m very lucky now. I work a lot internationally, which allows me to have a nice house and my daughter to go to a nice school. All that is certainly a privilege. But this came from only one thing—making music.”


Is there anything else you’d like to add?


“Thank you for your interest. And for including me. I am a human of St. Louis.”


 

Originally published by Humans of St. Louis in November 2022.