By Eric Dundon
Twenty years ago, an article ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch describing the “major success” of the second classical concert of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s 2003/2004 season. Sarah Bryan Miller, the Post-Dispatch’s late classical music critic, wrote the concert was “solid, expressive, full of contrasts, from the subtlest pianissimo to hard-charging Big Moments.” The concert included Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Joseph Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony N. 4—“one of the most successful concerts of recent seasons,” Miller wrote at the time.
The conductor on the podium: a young Stéphane Denève in his SLSO debut.
Two decades later, Denève is now the SLSO’s Music Director and has built an album of exceptional musical and community memories with the orchestra and with St. Louis, which he now calls his permanent home with his family.
In his debut program, Denève recalled a sensitivity with which SLSO musicians performed that he hadn’t previously experienced with an American orchestra.
“I was impressed by the finesse of the music-making,” he told Gazelle Magazine in a recent interview. “I remember the Haydn Piano Concerto very well. It was the best classical playing I heard in the U.S. The musicians played with flair.”
It was the start of what continues to be a long a fruitful partnership. Between 2003 and 2017, Denève collaborated with the orchestra six more times, each with strong words of praise from critics and resounding appreciation from audiences.
“The SLSO was at its best,” Miller wrote for the Post-Dispatch in a November 2011 performance Denève led of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.
Denève’s “expertise resulted in a sweeping performance” of Richard Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony in March 2017, KDHX proclaimed.
Over the years, Denève has directed every SLSO ensemble, including the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, with which he has led treasured performances of Hector Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9; the IN UNISON Chorus at Forest Park and at the 2023 observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day; and the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra in a side-by-side collaboration with the SLSO.
On June 7, 2017, Denève was named the next Music Director of the SLSO, calling the appointment “a real dream come true.”
“It’s extremely rare in life that you have the feeling that a fantastic opportunity arrives at the right moment with the right people in the right place and for the right reasons,” he told the Post-Dispatch about the appointment.
He spent the 2018/2019 season serving as the Music Director Designate, engaging even more deeply with the institution and getting to know St. Louis more.
His first concert as the 13th Music Director of the SLSO took place on September 12, 2019, at Forest Park in front of a crowd of 15,000 people—an annual tradition he has labeled his favorite concert of the year. His first concerts at Powell Hall opened with the world premiere of a fanfare by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts to celebrate the start of his tenure.
Denève has brought many world-renowned soloists to St. Louis to collaborate with the orchestra. None was bigger, however, than the legendary composer John Williams, who shared the stage with Denève at a sold-out concert on November 1, 2019. In his inaugural season, Stéphane championed the orchestra throughout the community, participating in Family Concerts and non-classical programming and engaging with St. Louisans at community events.
The warm and welcoming energy he received from the region was a primary factor in making his permanent home here, he said.
“I realize how important the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra to St. Louis and to its greater community,” he said.
Denève says there are too many artistic highlights to name in his 20-year relationship with the orchestra, from engaging with students and audiences throughout the Midwest in a three-city university tour in 2022 to showcasing the SLSO on an international tour with stops in Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain in 2023.
Stéphane leads the SLSO’s in a variety of performances this season, in the orchestra’s homes away from home as Powell Hall undergoes a transformative expansion and renovation. He invites the community to enjoy the orchestra, their orchestra, as he builds the next chapter of his collaboration with the institution and community.
Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Manager.