'An Unexpected Life' — Stéphane Denève's Surprising Path To Leading St. Louis Symphony

Sep 20, 2019
Originally published on October 7, 2019 10:11 am

In a cramped hallway outside Stéphane Denève’s new office at Powell Hall, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra chief executive Marie-Hélène Bernard had a warning for the orchestra’s new music director. 

There’ll be a lot of microphone reverb when he talks to the audience at the orchestra’s Forest Park concert the next night, she said.

“Like Woodstock!” he exclaimed, and pantomimed playing guitar to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

A crowd of 20,000 at Forest Park is not quite Woodstock, but it’s also a world away from Denève’s humble origins. This weekend, he leads his first concerts as the orchestra’s artistic leader.

Ushering a visitor into his office, he showed off the piano that had been delivered the day before. The music director for the nation’s second-oldest symphony orchestra briefly turned into a piano-lounge player, taking requests. 

“Anything you want to hear? What do you like?” he asked. 

A request for pop music resulted in a bit of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and the ballad he sang with Paul McCartney, “The Girl Is Mine.” Then Denève played a bit of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 and demonstrated how it influenced Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Sonata No. 1.

His knowledge of music is extensive. But if anyone in St. Louis is expecting the new leader of the orchestra to be stuffy and reserved, they’ll be disappointed. 

The new job is his first as music director at an American symphony orchestra. Like many conductors, he leads another orchestra, the Brussels Philharmonic in Belgium. Brussels isn’t far from his birthplace in the north of France. His wife and 11-year-old daughter live nearby. 

Denève, 47, also is the principal guest conductor at the Philadelphia Orchestra, and in the past has been music director for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and chief conductor for Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. 

The job here is a milestone for the Frenchman, but it’s just the latest step on a path that he started out on long ago. 

“I decided to become a conductor quite early,” he said. “I can now maybe reveal it. For too long I thought it was too pretentious, but actually, I never doubted I would do this art, let’s say, or this activity. I was quite sure from early on that that was my way.” 

Denève said he knew at 15 that he was born to conduct. His first time leading a student ensemble came a year earlier. But he may not have been sent to study music seriously at a small conservatory near Lille if a nun at his Catholic school hadn’t discovered him as a 10-year-old, hiding in the chapel so he could listen to her play the pipe organ.

“I thought the sound of an organ was extraordinary. I was really enchanted, literally, by it,” he said. “She saw me, and she said, ‘Maybe you want to learn piano.’ So I did. And then she noticed that I had good ears, that I had a little talent, I think.” 

The nun asked his parents to send him to conservatory, which they did. First he studied piano. At 13, he was allowed to audition for a conducting class that he wasn’t old enough for, after his mother protested that he was already tall enough to do the job. 

“That’s how I got the virus, I must say, and I decided to become a conductor quite early. I really knew in me that I would do that,” he said. “From very early on I really got the pleasure of sculpting the sound. Of communicating the joy of music with people.” 

Denève first worked in the U.S. as a guest conductor in 1999, and made his debut with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra four years later. He proved popular with St. Louis audiences and returned seven times as a guest conductor before he was selected in June 2017 as the next music director, following the departure of David Robertson, who held the post for 13 years. Denève is just the 13th person to hold that job in the orchestra’s 139-year history.

“The chemistry between Stéphane Denève and the St. Louis Symphony is palpable,” Bernard, the orchestra’s president and CEO, said when the announcement was made

Denève’s first season at the helm in St. Louis will blend French and American influences. The program this weekend includes popular pieces by French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, complemented with George Gershwin’s “An American In Paris.” 

The new music director recruited famed French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet as the orchestra’s first artist-in-residence. Thibaudet will appear with the orchestra several times throughout the season, including for a performance described as a symphonic play about the life of Ravel. 

Denève described this season as the start of his “marriage” with the orchestra, which makes Thibaudet’s presence particularly fitting: He was the best man at Denève’s wedding. 

Though Denève said his artistic and professional path has been clear to him since he was 15, the musical life initially came as a surprise. 

“My father was a construction builder. My grandfather was a construction builder. My great-grandfather was a construction builder. I was meant, indeed, to continue that. I was meant to have this life in a small town in the north of France,” he said. 

Thanks to music, that all changed.

“It’s an unexpected life. So how could I not be cheerful and joyful that I have this life?”

 

Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.

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