Hidden from small

A Close Encounter with Principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève

March 26, 2015

Stéphane Denève chuckles when he remembers the “bad joke” he told at the recent Valentine’s concert with The Philadelphia Orchestra. He was explaining his title, principal guest conductor, and he told the audience, “I’m not married to the Orchestra, but I get to be the principal lover.” (Well, it was Valentine’s Day. And did we mention he’s French?)

Photo by Jessica Griffin

All kidding aside, Denève says the appointment caps his deepening relationship with the Orchestra, developed over some 40 concerts and 70 different pieces they’d already performed together. “The fact is, we got to know each other more and more. This led to a very natural feeling of being a part of the family of The Philadelphia Orchestra. I take it as a responsibility to give always more and deeper, to both the Orchestra musicians but also to the community.”

Denève’s next round of concerts offers him plenty of opportunities to highlight his rapport with the Orchestra. On April 16-18 he turns to the animal kingdom for a dazzling program featuring the pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton performing Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals; Roussel’s The Spider’s Feast; Poulenc’s Suite from Les Animaux modèles; and the highlight, a live accompaniment to the Oscar-winning animated film Peter and the Wolf, with the Orchestra performing Prokofiev’s beloved score.

There’s an additional performance of Peter and the Wolf on a Family Concert on April 18 at 11:30 AM, but this time in the more usual format, with narrator and without the accompanying movie. Denève hastens to say the other programs are definitely for grownups. “This is such great music, so much fun, but it is usually limited to children’s concerts, so adults never hear it. But these are masterworks that deserve to be played outside of children’s concerts. It’s extremely rare to hear it in a regular subscription concert.”

His second set of concerts, April 23-25, features one of Denève’s musical heroes, the legendary film composer John Williams. Denève says the first time he cried at a movie was thanks to Williams’s heart-tugging score for ET: The Extraterrestrial. He grew up loving the music from Star Wars and Indiana Jones; later he came to appreciate Williams’s non-film/concert music as well.

“I feel the concert music isn’t played enough. There are many beautiful pieces that deserve not to be overshadowed by his film music; likewise, some of his film music can be played within a normal concert repertoire.” Philadelphia audiences will have the opportunity to hear some of Williams’s concert music next season when Denève leads a two-week celebration that features Yo-Yo Ma in the Cello Concerto and James Ehnes in the Violin Concerto. In addition, Williams himself conducts the Orchestra in a special benefit concert on May 4, 2016.

This April’s concerts have Williams in excellent company. Excerpts from his Close Encounters of the Third Kind share the program with Magnus Lindberg’s Graffiti, based on actual wall writings from the ancient ruins of Pompeii, and selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

Photo by Pete Checchia

“I’m extremely excited about this program; I really think they are three masterworks, and the Close Encounters won’t sound ‘alien,’ if I may say, to the other pieces. It’s absolutely gorgeous, complex, lyrical. It belongs in the concert repertoire. We want concerts to be ‘cool’ and to be surprising, and to be sometimes—sometimes—different. And I really feel I have the space to try that.”

(There’s a special LiveNote Nights performance of the Romeo and Juliet selections on Wednesday, April 22; this shorter concert starts at 6:30 and features our cutting-edge LiveNote mobile app; more info here.)

Ask him about the fabled Philadelphia Sound, and you can hear the excitement in his voice. “It’s a miracle that they can create this very specific sound. In a world where people say sometimes that the orchestras have become more and more standard, I think [The Philadelphia Orchestra has] something very special. The first time I conducted them, I thought ‘wow, this orchestra just has no limit!’ It is an orchestra that allows conductors to dream some more, because they can offer to go the next step, to go higher and somewhere else that you’ve never been before.”

Denève marvels at the strong identities of the individual players. “It’s an orchestra with so many personalities, somehow it was extremely easy for me very early to know all their names, just because they all exist individually. Yet there is also respect for each other, and admiration for each other among the musicians; they listen, and this is the key. They are something extremely special.”

So, is this legendary sound intimidating for a conductor? Denève laughs. “No, it’s something I enjoy!” More seriously, he adds: “What I found very touching, ultimately, is that I have an incredible confidence when I conduct The Philadelphia Orchestra. I feel they leave me space to concentrate on the music and not have to worry about the technical aspect of things. They allow me to be a better conductor because they let me just concentrate on the right thing. That’s fantastic.”

What’s he most looking forward to about his next concerts with the Philadelphians? “I have to say I miss the Orchestra! I conducted them last summer, and only once in February. I really can’t wait for April to come!”