Conductor Stéphane Denève strives for grazioso balance with home and career

February 23, 2016
By Eric C. Simpson
Stephane Deneve conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra this week in three concerts in South Florida. Photo: Tom Finnie

Stéphane Denève conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in three concerts this week in South Florida. Photo: Tom Finnie

In every industry, “work/life balance” is a hot and often sore topic. Juggling the demands of a career with making time for friends, family, and personal interests can be a struggle for corporate lawyers and small business owners alike.

Orchestral conductors are certainly no exception—making guest appearances on podiums all over the world and often holding leadership positions with orchestras on multiple continents, the most sought-after maestros travel constantly, and are often away from home for weeks at a time.

For Stéphane Denève, being away from his wife and young daughter is the only drawback to a dream job.

“I’m very privileged to have a job that I adore,” said Denève on a phone call from California, where he was preparing for concerts with the San Francisco Symphony. “I love to travel, I get to work with great musicians.

“There is one price to pay, actually, and I would say maybe only that one, which is to be often not with your family. Many other professions, of course, have that problem, not only traveling musicians; but we are one of them, and I have a little girl who is soon to be eight years old. Thank God for Skype.”

“We used to travel a lot together. But since she cannot miss school as much as she did before, now I have a new policy with my agent that I’m never more than two weeks abroad until I have one week of work at home, or in a place where my family will be—so I’m maximum two weeks away from home now.”

Denève’s current U.S. trip wraps up with a three-concert stand this week in South Florida, where he will lead the celebrated Philadelphia Orchestra, an ensemble he admires for its distinctive character.

“You have many great orchestras in this country really, but Philadelphia has something very special,” he said. “there is the history of this orchestra, the Philadelphia Sound.”

“People say that orchestras tend to sound the same, and I would disagree with that. I would say that there are still a lot of differences—but on top of that I really feel that Philadelphia has something that’s very unique.

“It has a lot to do with a kind of richness in the orchestra sound which is . . . very silky, vibrant. I recently recorded with them some Stokowski arrangements of Pictures at an Exhibition; I cannot imagine any other orchestra that would have this colossal, very deep sound, where you really feel that they have longer bows in the strings than anybody else in the world.”

Currently principal conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Brussels Philharmonic, Denève has also enjoyed a close relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and in the 2014-15 season was named its principal guest conductor.

“With this Florida tour I will have done already sixty concerts with the orchestra, and more than eighty different pieces,” he says. “It’s quite surprising how much repertoire and how many concerts we’ve already shared together, and that’s why this position of principal guest came fairly naturally—I really felt it was just a way to officialize our special commitment.”

In addition to the promise of regular appearances with the orchestra, Denève’s position offers him more freedom in selecting his programs than is usually afforded to most guest conductors. “It comes with many duties, first, I would say, to be bold . . . It is great that with this titled position you can take more risks in programming, with more rare and special repertoire, take risks in different formats, and I take this as a huge opportunity to be creative.”

The conductor with daughter Alma outside La Scala in Milan.

The conductor with daughter Alma outside La Scala in Milan.

Born on the southwest side of the Franco-Belgian border, Denève, a one-time protégé of the great Georg Solti, began studying conducting when he was only thirteen years old. After graduating from the Paris Conservatoire, he landed his first major conducting position in 2005, when he was named music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, a post he held until 2012. Now forty-four, Denève is enjoying an exemplary conducting career, frequently making cast appearance with the world’s leading orchestras.

Denève’s history with the Philadelphia Orchestra goes back even further than his 2007 debut. The ensemble, he said, was “one of the very first orchestras I heard in my life, because I saw Fantasia at the movie theater when I was a very young child, and I absolutely adored Fantasia. And that was maybe one of the reasons that I became a conductor—because you could shake hands with Mickey Mouse, as Mr. Stokowski did!”

Has there been a Mickey Mouse moment for his daughter, Alma? Not yet, says Denève. “She started the violin a little bit, but I’m doubting that she’s really interested. She’s very much interested in everything—she likes many types of sports, and she loves to paint, to do art. Music she likes very much, but I don’t think she will follow this path; but she’s still young, so we’ll see.”

There is one aspect of being a world-renowned conductor that does appeal to his daughter, however. “I recently had a few articles and a lot of CDs in Europe, so I was in many musical magazines, and it’s funny because she’s very jealous. She said, ‘Dad when’s the next time that we can do a photo together so that I’m with you in the magazine?’”

Stéphane Denève will lead the Philadelphia Orchestra 8 p.m. Tuesday and 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, and 8 p.m. Thursday at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami.

Tuesday’s program offers Prokofiev’s “Montagues and Capulets” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 and Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with soloist James Ehnes. Both the Wednesday and Thursday programs present Berlioz’s Overture to Beatrice and Benedict, and excerpts from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.;

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