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Interview with the Conductor Stéphane Denève

Tuesday, 23 September 2014 , ora 11.29
Internationally renowned for his exceptional activity as a conductor and for the quality of his concerts, Stéphane Denève is regularly invited to conduct on the grand stages of the world, alongside prestigious orchestras and soloists. Graduate and winner of the prize offered by the Conservatoire de Paris, Stéphane Denève began his career as the assistant of Georg Solti, with the Orchestre de Paris and the Opéra National de Paris. At the same time he was the assistant of Georges Prêtre and Seiji Ozawa.

Wednesday, 24th September, at the Romania Radio Hall, an evening within the 2014 RadiRo Festival, the conductor Stéphane Denève and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra will offer us a Strauss - Ravel programme.

Mister Denève, do you recall what age you were when you first listened to an orchestra performing in a concert hall? How did you react?

That's a good question. The first time I listened to an orchestra performing wasn't actually live, because I watched Walt Disney's film, Fantasia, at the movie theatre. I remember Leopold Stokowski conducting and shaking hands with Mickey Mouse - I thought then: 'What an interesting job'. I was very young then, and the first orchestra I listened to live was the Orchestre Nationale de Lille, in the north of France. They played in my little hometown in the north of France and I remember being absolutely fascinated by the sound of string instruments. I was around eight years old and before that concert I had listened only to amateur musicians playing wind instruments - my father, in fact, played the tuba a bit. This is how, I was quite impressed by the sound of the string section of the Orchestre Nationale de Lille. The concert took place in a church, and the sounds of the strings in the church were something special to me.

I know that your first experience in front of an orchestra happened very early, at 14.

Yes, it was actually by birthday.

Weren't you afraid then, having such a great responsibility at such a young age?

I have to mention that the orchestra I conducted then was a student orchestra, at the Conservatory where I was studying. Many of the orchestra members were my friends, who although they were older than I was, they were still students. I remember feeling extremely happy and excited; because my opinion is that music is something that has to be shared with others - I love chamber music and I've never liked playing the piano alone. That is why, I felt like a child in a store filled with candy or toys.

What musical piece did you conduct then?

It was a work for students, something very simple, a composition written by Paul Bonneau. I remember it well even now, because I studied it extensively. Actually, that's the story of my life a- even then I was completely prepared before stepping in front of the orchestra. I spend a lot of time studying the score.

You studied at the Conservatoire de Paris and it was probably an exceptional experience; just the fact that you lived in Paris must have been amazing and full of experiences that left their mark on your evolution.


I am sure you have many beautiful memories from that time. Could you share one of them with us?

I was very young when I arrived in Paris, I was coming from a small town, a country town. The most important thing for me in Paris was the fact that I would go to concerts and to the Opera. The Conservatoire offered 10 free tickets for the concerts at Salle Pleyel and 6 free tickets for the performances at the Opera. I can't tell you how many hours I spent queuing up to get one of those tickets. I went there every night and listened to music. The most impressive thing was that I could listen to live performances of artists that I had only listened to in recordings. But if I am to choose, a decisive moment - this, strangely enough, isn't connected to music; a play changed my life - a play directed by Peter Brook. I remember that I had a cathartic moment. My life was split into two then: the life before a show and the life after one. This experience shows that it's possible to make art that changes people's lives, because that's what happened to me. I've seen so many things, so many operas - what springs to my mind now is Patrice Chereau's Wozzeck, which was absolutely astonishing, the concerts conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini and the ones performed by the Berlin Philharmonic with Claudio Abbado as a conductor. I have many, many other memories, because for five years I listened to something different every night. That's the good part about living in a very large city - at one point or another all the big names end up playing in Paris.

You mentioned the joy you felt attending concerts conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. I know you later had the chance to collaborate with him, as well as with other maestros, such as, Sir Colin Davis, Seiji Ozawa, and of course Sir Georg Solti. During your studies in Paris you were a
répétiteur of the Paris National Opera Chorus. How did this experience change your perspective on the collaboration between a conductor and the musicians on stage?

The great opportunity I had as a répétiteur of the Opera de Paris was that of approaching these people, of playing with them, not only watching them from the audience, from the distance, but also feeling their energy. What impressed me the most in collaborating with these people - especially Solti and Giulini - was the fact that you could feel the real passion for music, what I would call 'the sacred fire'. They were both older men, approaching 80 and it was apparent that they lived for music. Music was more important than anything. I realised then that that was my dream - that yesterday, today, tomorrow and 50 years from now, music would fuel my passion, and I would continue loving it deeply. That was a lesson for me - I shared close-up the immense energy of one's love for music.

That was the moment you began working as the assistant of Sir Georg Solti. How did it all begin?

I played him Beethoven's Missa solemnis on the piano (almost by heart) and he was very glad that I followed him with my eyes all the time. I can't say if I'm a good pianist or a good conductor, but I know I'm very good at following a conductor's instructions. I think he was very pleased by that and then we worked on Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and that was the moment someone told him that I was a conductor. He came to me and said 'They have told me that you're a conductor'. 'I'm still a student, maestro, I'm still learning' - I answered. Solti then gave me his score and told me that on the next day he would like to listen to the sound of the orchestra playing, fromthe hall, so he asked me to conduct the orchestra in rehearsal. It was a huge shock for me. I took the score home and, after a short night, on the next day Solti let me conduct the Orchestre de Paris for a few minutes, and it was the first time I conducted the orchestra in front of him. He seemed pleased and a few weeks later he wrote a letter to the director of the Opera de Paris, entreating him to hire me as an assistant conductor of the performance of the opera Don Giovanni. So, that's how our collaboration began.

How long did you work as Solti's assistant?

Only two years, because unfortunately he passed away. I was very sad, and coincidence would have it that the day of Solti's death was on the same day as Diana's funeral - Lady Di. On that day I arrived at the Opera de Paris having cried, with bloodshot eyes and visibly affected, and people thought I was crying for Lady Diana. But on that day I mourned Solti.

After that you worked with other maestros - Georges Prêtre and Seiji Ozawa. How did these professional encounters come to be?

The connections with these musicians were through the Opera de Paris. My entrance into the Opera de Paris was due to Solti, but the director of the institution was also very kind, and because of him I continued conducting even after Solti's death. Here is where I met Georges Prêtre - whose assistant I was for the performance of Turandot, and also Seiji Ozawa - with whom I worked on the Dialogues de Carmelites. These where fantastic opportunities, I love these two men, with whom I've maintained contact. With Seiji Ozawa I actually worked last year, in September during his festival in Japan, I conducted Ravel's L'heure espagnole, and he conducted L'enfant et les sortilèges. So, we shared a Ravel evening, Seiji and I - I adore him, he's a wonderful artist.

You're also conducting Ravel in Bucharest, together with opuses by Richard Strauss. What were the criteria by which you chose this repertoire?

This is an interesting story. When you're touring with the orchestra - and I have to say that this is my first time in Bucharest - you want to give your best. This is a German orchestra, from south-west Germany, with two elements I adore - on the one hand, profoundness and warmth of sound, and, on the other, transparency of sound. They worked extensively with Georges Prêtre and with Sir Roger Norrington - with whom they practiced the non-vibrato technique. So, I tried to highlight these two elements. As luck would have it, in 2014 we celebrate 150 years since Richard Strauss' birth, and that's why I wantto honour this composer with Don Juan and Tod and Verklarung, which I've joined with opuses by Ravel. I think that in a strange way, the eccentric orchestration of Strauss goes well with Ravel's colourful one. I'm very pleased with this programme, and absolutely delighted that or Scheherazade I will collaborate with a wonderful artist - Ruxandra Donose, whom I've known for 15 years. She was my Melisende in Cincinnati, in 2000. I adore her, she's a very accomplished artist, and I am very happy to play Scheherazade for her. For 4 years now, when I began working at the Stuttgart Orchestra, we've been recording Ravel's entire work. So, we play a lot of Ravel together and we're excited to show what we've accomplished so far.

You've spoken about the sound of the SWR Stuttgart Orchestra and, because you direct a lot in the United States of America, I would like you to tell us if the orchestras there have a different approach from those in Europe.


What are the main differences?

They're definitely very different. In America there are many orchestras, some more Germanic than others. I conduct, for example, in Chicago and Cleveland - both have certain qualities that closely resemble those of German orchestras. America and Europe are very, very different when it comes to rehearsals. In Germany we have more time for rehearsals, the musicians don't come very well prepared, and they're willing to try new things; especially, with the Stuttgart orchestra, there's a tradition to be open, to experiment with sound. The first rehearsal isn't great, there are many things to set in place and we study a lot, but during this process we already have in mind the artistic finish; I have the possibility to tell them what I want and I can 'mould' them in order to get what I want. In America everything is at a faster pace and very professional. So that by the time you start the first rehearsal the product is almost complete, almost perfect (especially with a high-profile orchestra, such as, the one in Philadelphia, for example). Of course it's interesting - you begin and everything is already there, but there's not a lot of room for personal commentary or poetic details. You have to be a lot faster and professional. It's a different way to study and make music. Germany has, of course, a particular style of sound, especially in the brass instruments section, and the balance of the orchestra is very different from that of American ensembles. I travel a lot and I've come to realise that it's different to conduct one German orchestra as opposed to another.

What's the relationship between age and the music industry nowadays? A conductor that is, like yourself, 42 years old, is still considered young or has he already reached maturity?

Things change a lot, and this is a very interesting subject - the idea of age and maturity. I think that the world is moving faster and faster, at the same time we need 9 months to bring a child into the world and a few years to make good wine. The same thing applies to conductors. I strongly believe that I'm in an ongoing process of growth, I'm not a finished product and I don't think I will ever be, but I think that maturity is a process that mustn't be hastened, accelerated. What's interesting is that for a while now, especially over the last 10 years, the world has placed great value on energy because it is eye-catching. It's fascinating because it was a trend that began with Daniel Harding and continued with Gustavo Dudamel and Yanick Nezet-Seguin - all of them conductors that began collaborating with important orchestras and top institutions at a young age. Of course, I'm also lucky enough to work with major orchestras, but I don't think we can say that all of a sudden we're more mature than before, because it's not true. We offer the kind of talent that we have at our age and I hope that all of us, myself included, will mature appropriately - I hope I'll be making music in a different way 20 years from now. Even though nowadays the world values youth, energy and blinding qualities, I think that we should not forget what is brought by experience, age and maturity to the depths of music. So, I am convinced that music requires maturity and I appreciate this value;there are a lot of older conductors, from the golden generation, for whom I have the deepest regard. In fact, the SWR Radio Orchestra had a Romanian conductor between 1971-1977.

Yes, Sergiu Celibidache.

It's very strange, but he's still present in the genetic make-up of the orchestra; the musicians remember his work quite well, and certain people I've met played for him and it's very touching to witness that as a conductor you can become a part of history and you can leave such a strong mark that people will remember you 40 years later.

Do they have pleasant memories of him or otherwise?

Celibidache is known as a very difficult person, he liked working very slowly and lingeringly, he was very special in a lot of ways and very controversial. I conducted the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra and talked with several musicians, and Celibidache is still idolised and respected there. Of course, when you're so special and have a strong 'flavour', you can incur some love-hate relationships. If you eat a tasteless apple - everyone will like it, even though they won't love it, but if you eat a delicious apple, full of flavour, some will love it and others will hate it. Along with flavour there come very strong reactions, and Celibidache was certainly someone who provoked passion - either hate, or love. There are a lot of videos of his conducting the SWR Stuttgart orchestra and he's fascinating.

Irina Cristina Vasilescu
Translated by Mãdãlina-Ioana Bãnucu and Elena Daniela Radu
MTTLC, the University of Bucharest