Saturday, August 8, 2015

Stéphane Denève Creates the Repertoire of Tomorrow

By Erica Miner

French conductor Stéphane Denève ( has come a long way from his birthplace in the border town of Tourcoing in northern France to his compelling presence with orchestras throughout the world. 

The former music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is now Principal Guest Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and chief conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, and a frequent guest conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He recently was named Chief Conductor of the Brussels Philharmonic and inaugural director of the Centre for Future Orchestral Repertoire (Cffor). I caught up with him just before his appearance with the BSO conducting in the traditional Tanglewood on Parade concert ( 

EM: You are from Tourcoing in northern France, birthplace of composer Albert Roussel. How did you get from there to the Paris Conservatoire. What was that journey for you? 

SD: I was at the Conservatoire in Tourcoing, where I was learning piano, and chamber music, and I was very happy. I started conducting very early. My first concert was the day of my 14th birthday. And then I created my own little orchestra with young musicians from the north of France. Then I decided to go to Paris, and I did the competition to enter, which was very hard, and I just got it and it was very natural. But my real mentor was actually a Belgian teacher called André Dumortier. He was an old man, he died in 2004 at the age of 94. It was with him that I became the musician I am now and the man I am now. That said, I went to Paris quite early, and learned there. 

EM: After that you had some mentors who were very famous. 

SD: Yes, of course I was lucky enough to become a pianist of the Orchestre de Paris for the chorus, and played the piano for many great, great conductors including Solti, and he noticed me. 

EM: Just from your piano playing. 

SD: Yes. 

EM: And did he foster your baton technique? 

SD: Oh, it was more about music and not really about technical stuff. Because I think in a way technique is very individual. It’s just a way of communicating what is important. 

EM: There were a couple of others. 

SD: Yes, I was also a student of Georges Prêtre and an assistant to Seiji Ozawa, with whom I created a nice relationship. Even recently I went back to Saito Kinen, Japan, to share an opera program with him. I conducted L’Heure espagnole for him and he conducted L’Enfant et les sortilèges, a masterwork. It was wonderful. 

EM: After that you worked with John Williams, and have a very special relationship with him. 

SD: Yes, I met him for the first time in 2007 in Los Angeles. I always admired him since I was a child and of course I admired his music. And I connected very much not only with his film music but also with his concert music. Very early on, at the end of the 90s in Paris I conducted his Tuba Concerto, for instance, and other pieces, and then I met him again here in Tanglewood and was fortunate to spend more time with him. He’s a wonderful man. After my own teacher André Dumortier that I spoke about before, he’s (Williams) really the man who’s been most inspiring for me. He’s a great composer, and we are in touch now sometimes to discuss some scores. He has such an ear and is so deep and tender and generous and humble. He’s really a model for me. 

EM: He sounds like a wonderful man to work with and have such a good relationship with. 

SD: Oh yes, he’s amazing. 

EM: Finally, about your new post in Brussels and the new music.

 SD: Yes. What I just realized in the last ten years, I would say, as a musician was that what excited me the most was to work with living composers. I do believe there is a lot of music being written now, in our day, which is more accessible, emotional and melodic than there was before, since the Second World War. And it’s a great time indeed to identify which of those pieces could become the real repertoire of tomorrow, and stand the test of time. So that’s what I’m creating in Brussels. First with the orchestra we will play a 21st-century piece every concert. Never a full concert of that, just one or two pieces maximum, mixed with normal repertoire, the core repertoire. And I will also with the new Centre, CFFOR ( we are working right now on a big website giving the database of what exists to start with, and of course to try to help people to know what to listen to, and to identify and promote the rare pieces that become our repertoire. We are in big need, in panicking need, of new repertoire for the symphony    

EM: Are there any composers you prefer, that you have in mind? 

SD: Of course, but the CFFOR will be open to any style and any composer. 

EM: And any country. 

SD: And any country, of course, yes. I do have some special relationships I can name. Guillaume Connesson in France, James MacMillan in the UK, Magnus Lindberg in Scandinavia. Of course John Adams, and Peter Lieberson, John Harbison - wonderful. So I love many composers. The only thing is just that we should have a better diet of new music and have it more and have music that will please the audience and become repertoire. Voilà.

Photos used by permission of: Hilary Scott

Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

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