Stéphane Denève: A Conductor to Curate Art for All

Jeff Kaliss on October 7, 2014
Stéphane Denève
Stéphane Denève
Photo by Genevieve Caron

Born in the far-northern French town of Tourcoing in 1971, Stéphane Denève has built a conducting career that has taken him across that border into Belgium but also far beyond, into Germany and Scotland, as well as to guest assignments in Austria, Sweden, England, and the U.S. He’s returning in the middle of this month to the podium at Davies Symphony Hall with the San Francisco Symphony, and to the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University, just over the hill from where he wed his Swedish fiancée, Asa Masters, seven years ago, during the Festival del Sole. Like his best man at that ceremony, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Denève has been a champion of the French repertoire, but his Davies and Green program will feature pieces by Barber, Rachmaninov, and Britten, with the latter’s Violin Concerto featuring an SFS debut by Isabelle Faust.

Denève is currently chief conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, and principal guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Next year he’ll assume chief conducting responsibility for the Brussels Philharmonic, and will also direct its Centre for Future Orchestra Repertoire. He spoke with SFCV on his night off in Stuttgart, his English excellent but delightfully inflected by his native French accent and syntax. 

Where am I finding you?

I am actually at home. My little family, my wife and our daughter, moved to Stuttgart last year, even if I’m music director of the Stuttgart Radio since four years already.

What is your daughter’s name?

Alma. Like Alma Mahler. [laughs]

Did you name her after her?

No. We were watching a wonderful movie called Dancer in the Dark, with Björk, and her name in the movie is Selma. I said I love this name, but there is an “S” in it, and I have a little lisp. And my wife, Asa Masters, who is Swedish, said there’s another name which is near, an old Swedish name, “Alma.” And we thought, that’s it!

So I should ask if you’re a fan of both Mahler and Björk.

I am definitely a fan of Björk and I am very curious to see her ninth album, which is coming soon. And, as any musician on this planet, I of course love Mahler! How can you not love Mahler? Funnily, just when I was waiting for your call, I was Googling the Barber Adagio, because I wanted to check when it was premiered, and I saw it was called the saddest piece since the Adagietto from Mahler [Fifth Symphony]. So, you see.

You have an interesting mix on your upcoming program here, of that Barber with Britten and Rachmaninov.

Can I tell you something? I love making programs! … It’s like making a bouquet of flowers, trying to find which goes with the other. Do you know that the three pieces that we will play have been premiered within two-and-a-half years [of each other]?

I did not know that.

And actually, almost in the same place. It’s fascinating, if I may quickly say. The Barber Adagio was premiered the 5th of November, 1938, in New York, with Toscanini, and Barber was 28 years old. It has been played historically during many mourning times. Anyway, then the Britten was also composed in Canada and America, and it was premiered in Carnegie Hall, not very far away, March 27, 1940. And then, at the same time, while this piece was premiered — and I really wonder whether Rachmaninov was there or not — he was in New York at his estate on Long Island, he was performing the Symphonic Dances during that time, and the premiere was January 7, 1941, in Philadelphia, which is not that far away. And the Britten has a Requiem feeling, with the Passacaglia, and the Rachmaninov includes the Dies Irae and is kind of a requiem, as well. So it’s really interesting to put together a Brit, an American, and a Russian, exactly at the start of the Second World War, in New York.

And you chose these three.

When you are a young conductor, you often have to accept programs, but I’m 42 now, I’m not so young any more, and I’m lucky enough to be able to work on programs and decide most of them. Though you have some compromise to do … I’m not into power, but the possibility to propose programs is a great joy to me.

Did you pick Isabelle Faust, too?

I’m very lucky. I already have a list of collaborations with great soloists. It’s very easy for me to try to always have the same people that I love. So it’s quite a rare occasion that I meet with somebody new. The San Francisco Symphony said Faust, and I said, “How interesting!” because I know of her, but I never worked with her.

What was behind my question is, I interviewed Isabelle, and you know where she grew up, don’t you?

You will tell me, Stuttgart?I love making programs! It’s like making a book of flowers, trying to find which goes with the other.… It’s really interesting to put together a Brit [composer], an American, and a Russian, exactly at the start of the Second World War, in New York.


[Chuckles] That’s very bizarre, because she worked in France as well, and she’s my age. And so bizarre that we never met. It could look like I’m bringing her from my new home here, but no.

Even though you’re still what I would call young, you’ve had principal posts around the world: France, Scotland, Germany, Philadelphia. You have one coming up in Belgium, just across the border from where you were brought up. Is there any significant difference making music in these different countries?

Oh, yes! I love to travel, to start with. But what fascinates me the most is that an orchestra is similar everywhere. The musicians started music when they were 5 or 6, they do the same competitions, they do the same repertoire, they rehearse Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday and then they do concerts. But because of what Messiaen would call un fixe, it helps you feel even more the flavor of the differences. It’s a mystery, what the vibration of all those people makes together.

For example, my orchestra here in Germany is very German, but South German, so it has this slight transparency that you find more in Latin countries, but mixed with these very big pyramids of sound: heavy bass, low register. On Monday, I happen to have recorded with Bavarian Radio [Symphony Orchestra], in Munich. And can you imagine? Stuttgart to Munich is only two hours by car, and believe me, already the way the Bavarian Radio plays is such a different thing. There is kind of a [Rafael] Kubelik sound in the Bavarian Radio which is so different.

In your online bio info, they seem tempted to categorize you as a champion of your native French music, and of New Music. I’m tempted to ask you, what’s French about French music, and what’s new about New Music?

[Laughs] OK, how many hours do you have?

There is, all over the world, a lot of really, really great composers, who are writing again ...  a lot of people who are successful locally ... What is missing now is the information about what exists, and what are the best pieces.

Can we just do the précis?

I’ll try my best. What is French about French music is an easy one. The cliches are right, I would say: that it is very colorful, very transparent. It’s true, because our culture is very visual, we like dance, we like fashion, we like painting ... And yes, when I’m conducting French music, I always have a real feeling that I’m painting, putting colors on a canvas. The young [French] composers, like Guillaume Connesson, for instance, they can’t escape this way to write very colorful chords and to have very complex harmonic systems that give different light on the music.

And what is new about New Music, that is very good news! I feel a bit like a preacher: There is, all over the world, a lot of really, really great composers, who are writing again, if I may say — because there was a time when it was not the focus — a music which is based on an idea of lyricism, emotion, beauty, and they focus on those values again, instead of the values of construction, intellectualism, something which has to be totally new. And I noticed, traveling, that there are a lot of people who are successful locally ... What is missing now is the information about what exists, and what are the best pieces. You may have read that I’m taking an orchestra in Brussels and creating a new Centre for Future Orchestra Repertoire.

Let’s talk about that.

You seem to be a very good journalist who did his homework, but I don’t know if you went to my website. On the front page of my website there is something called “An Appointment with the Future,” and instead of myself repeating too much, you can click on this booklet.

Do give us some of your own words now, though.

Alors, we start with a website, we are working on it right now, and it is a big database — all the symphonic pieces premiered since 2000, all over the world, with all information about performance history, length, orchestra size, with links to composers and, I hope, scores and sound files. The database will be accessible for free to everybody. My goal is that the information will be globalized and that people will know just who is there. I could you give you some examples of people in the States who are unknown in European countries, and the opposite.

Will the Centre host seminars and workshops?

I would love to have meetings with other conductors and music directors. And Brussels is a perfect city, very vibrant right now, a center of Europe. It’s really a new adventure. My dream is very simple: If you look at literature, theater, visual art, they all have successful pieces from our time — except classical music. We have kind of successful pieces of art, but I’m afraid there’s nothing as successful as Beethoven’s [Fifth] or Tchaikovsky’s [Sixth] in the symphonic repertoire in our day. And why not? There are artists who could reach this status, but we need to promote them properly.

Let me bring you back to the Festival del Sole in Napa, in 2007.

The Festival was created by IMG. I am an IMG Artist, and I was asked to come and conduct, for several years. My girlfriend at the time, we loved this, because the community in Napa is fantastic. It’s a permanent feast of the senses, because you have the concerts, you have the dinners and discussions …

… and the wine!

Of course! So we love so much the place that we made friends, and two of them, Gerret and Tatiana Copeland [she’s a great-niece of Rachmaninov], are the owners of the Bouchaine Vineyards. So I’d told Tatiana I didn’t know where to do my wedding, and she spoke in my ear and said, “Why you don’t do it in my place?” At first I couldn’t believe it. But it was so genuine and so generous, and I said yes. So I became married in California, in 2007!

Is the fruit of your union turning out to be a musician?

She just started the violin, but I don’t want to push her. She’s a very happy girl, and we’re so blessed, very social. This summer in Tanglewood [Music Festival], she had such a blast with all our friends there. She likes riding horses, drawing, reading, swimming (she was born in the water). So far she hasn’t identified music in particular.

She has plenty of time.

Let me tell you one small anecdote which made me extremely happy. In Tanglewood, there was John Williams conducting — and I adore him, by the way — and the funny thing is, he was conducting, and my little girl was with me, in the audience, and as he started to play his piece from The Adventures of Tintin [based on a cartoon series by Belgian Hergé], I started to say something in her ear about it, and she looked at me and put her finger to her lips and did, “Shoooosh!” I’ve never been shooshed with so much pleasure. I was so happy that she wanted to listen. After, she kissed John and said it was beautiful. She’s 6½!

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