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Stéphane Denève: Gifted French Conductor Champions Music of his Country and Century

January 21, 2016

photo-by-Drew-Farrell-(2).JPGStéphane Denève has championed the work of his countryman, Guillaume Connesson which makes this a good time to talk about John Williams.  Yes, that John Williams – the guy whose music is once again blaring out of movie theaters the world over in the wake of the recent Star Wars movie.  It turns out, Williams was an influence on both Denève and Connesson.  "Guillaume and I share a fascination for all things 'extra-terrestrial' (and looking at the success of Star Wars 7, we are not alone...)," Denève says, "but especially the sense of 'space', I mean that feeling of infinity, which maybe only music has the power to describe or inspire."

The piece Denève conducts with the San Francisco Symphony is called A Glimmer In An Age Of Darkness (Une lueur dans l’âge somber in the original French), and is part of his larger Cosmic Trilogy – of which two-thirds were commissioned by Denève during his time leading the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  "What I found remarkable," he says, "is that those pieces are able to continue the great tradition of colorful French orchestral style, but with a poetry, an imagination, even a 'groove' of our time!" The first part of the trilogy, Aleph – about the Big Bang – was actually written for Denève as a wedding present.  The conclusion, Supernova, portrays the slighter smaller bang of a star exploding.  As for the middle movement, Denève explains that "for me it is a very moving, very tender (a quality you find in John Williams music too), very comforting experience.  It is a kind of hymn to the beauty of our universe, its potential of life, purity and beauty."

All of this suits Denève perfectly, for two reasons.  First, as he told Philly.com recently, “Every note has meaning for me. Every bar has a scenario. I'll hear a melody and invent a text. I'm a very narrative conductor. I stage the music in my head." Connesson’s music has a strong narrative, even cinematic quality that is a natural fit.  But the second, and perhaps more important reason, is that Denève hears in Connesson’s music the type of sounds that can keep orchestral music relevant in the 21st century. "When I arrive at the great climax near the end, right before the quiet coda," he explains, "I feel that the two main themes finally played together is nothing less than one of the glorious moments of French orchestral history!"

Credit_-_SWR_-_Uwe_Ditz_1.jpgOf course, only the passage of time will reveal if Connesson’s Cosmic Trilogy will be among the masterworks of the century, but Denève also champions the works of many other composers, like the Bay Area’s John Adams, as well.  And as part of his work in Brussels, he runs the Centre For Future Orchestral Repertoire, which aims to become a central database for new scores with the hope of helping at least some of them become part of the “standard repertoire.”

Denève is excited enough about the Centre that he has moved with his family to Brussels.  But he is still the epitome of the modern globe-trotting conductor: he is Principal Guest Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Music Director of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony, and a sought-after guest conductor around the world.  SFS listeners first heard him with the orchestra in 2009, and he has at least one additional tie to the area – his aforementioned wedding took place in a Napa Valley vineyard.  Wherever he goes, his mission is clear: “to identify the pieces of today that orchestras want to play and audiences want to come and hear.”

If you go:

Stéphane Denève conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Connesson’s A Glimmer in an Age of Darkness, Prokofiev’s Selections from Cinderella, and Nielsen’s Violin Concerto featuring violinist Nikolaj Znaider, 8 pm Feb 18 and 20, and 7:30 pm Feb 19. Davies Symphony Hall (415) 864-6000 sfsymphony.org