Music unites us. Across generations, through time and between cultures, music thrills and challenges us and tugs at our heartstrings in ways that other media cannot. It can make us feel at home, even if home is thousands of miles away in a small town in northern France.
Stéphane Denève knows this as well as anyone.
In September 2019, the French-born musician and conductor began as the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s music director, making him the 13th individual to hold the title in the organization’s illustrious 140-year history. It’s an honor Denève cherishes.
“It’s a very old orchestra – you could feel a lot of tradition and richness in the sound,” he says. “For me, it’s special. It’s really a dream come true to be music director here.”
Denève’s impressive credentials include serving as chief conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra from 2005 to 2012 and then acting as the chief conductor of Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra through 2016, with additional positions and guest conductor stations in several cities around the Western world. He is also currently the chief conductor of the Brussels Philharmonic, a position he’s held since 2015.
Denève first worked with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 2003 as a guest conductor – a title he would hold a total of eight times through 2018. He was named the local orchestra’s next music director in June 2017 and served as its music director designate in the 2018-19 season. During these experiences, he fell in love with the local orchestra.
“It’s about chemistry,” Denève says. “You have to just feel the right chemistry between the conductor and the orchestra, and it seemed that it always worked together.”
There’s no questioning Denève’s enthusiasm. Even over the phone, he’s effusive and lighthearted, playful in his language and his ideas. He readily compares composing and performing music to cooking a meal for your family, likening the two as “inviting people to share something you love.”
His zeal for music has already infected audiences, as the 2019-20 season is well underway. The major theme of this year’s season celebrates America’s connection to France – its composers, its people and the influences the two nations share.
“This city has been linked to France before, and I wanted to make the point that music is something that [brings] us together,” says Denève of St. Louis. “Without music, I would not meet all these musicians all over the world and travel all over the world – and so I wanted to celebrate this great power to [bring] us together and make a season that reflects on the Franco-American friendship. I think it’s so important to exchange culture – the more you exchange, the less you fear.”
The orchestra’s current season is composed of a variety of different performances, including Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, The Damnation of Faust – a favorite of Denève’s – The Nutcracker, a special sold-out concert that was conducted by legendary film composer John Williams, the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra and even a symphonic play led by Denève himself.
“[I want to build] trust with the audience by choosing pieces that please not only me and the orchestra but also that they can love,” he says. “I choose music that I believe is extremely emotional. I want to help the accessibility.”
It’s a goal of Denève’s that he doesn’t take lightly. Before conducting performances, the music director typically addresses attendees – an unusual tactic before any show, but Denève’s way of opening up to the audience and of communicating his appreciation.
Denève also welcomes modernity. He acknowledges the cliché that new orchestral music can be somehow difficult for audiences to appreciate, yet it’s hardly surprising that this music director’s nature leads him to embrace this challenge. As a result, listeners can expect three world premieres of pieces commissioned by the local orchestra featuring more than 10 working composers.
“You have to respect the past to see the future, but my big passion is to identify the pieces that I think could stand the test of time and become the repertoire of the future,” Denève says.
Other efforts to make the local orchestra more accessible include lowering entry costs for a number of shows. The idea is that people will begin to see the orchestra not as something stuffy and unapproachable but as an alternative to a night at the movies – thanks in part to $15 ticket prices. This tactic perfectly jibes with Denève’s goal to make music for the community because he wants the orchestra to be for everyone.
“Music – and symphonic music particularly – feeling the energy and vibration, it’s a very spiritual experience,” he says. “It’s real.”
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, 718 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, 314-533-2500, slso.org