After four years at the helm of Brussels Philharmonic, Stéphane Denève has pushed the orchestra to unheard heights, charming audiences and racking up awards along the way. And so it comes as no surprise that he is prolonging his stay – three more years!
When Stéphane Denève took over from Michel Tabachnik in 2015, he was the next step in an ongoing revitalization of Brussels Philharmonic, an orchestra which for years had been trying to shed the old skin of their past life as the BRT Philharmonic Orchestra. At that time, the man had had a whirlwind of a career as a music director both in Scotland and Stuttgart. But the good-natured and ever so talkative Frenchman was excited about the challenge of leading our capital’s musicians. It was the innovative and liberating programming that wooed him. “Other orchestras work like museums, but Brussels is unique. There’s so much freedom here,” he said then. “And I still feel the same. I always strive to have interesting programmes. Here I can just dream up concerts together with Judith (Van Eeckhout, artistic administrator, jc). And I’ve always been able to incorporate 21st-century pieces.”
The development of contemporary symphonic music is very close to your heart. Are you trying to educate your audiences?
STÉPHANE DENÈVE: I wouldn’t say that. I just love discovering great new things. Whether it’s a new book, a new exhibit, or a new piece of music. And no, that doesn’t automatically mean I don’t enjoy old museums or literary classics. People just seem a lot more open to modern art or present-day writing, but then they have this cliché in their head that the music of our time is intellectual. I want to change their perception. That’s also why we started the Centre for future Orchestral Repertoire (CffOR), to show people that there is fantastic music being written even today. Take the concert Le temps l’horloge by Dutilleux, for example. It was written in 2007 and it is way more accessible than Le poème de l’extase, which was written in the 20th century. And yet people do not know the former.
Does it help to ease people in when you combine contemporary pieces with masterpieces from the previous century?
DENÈVE: It’s not that I make a point of putting an easy piece next to a difficult piece. Every programme is a new journey. Like making a good meal, you have to balance the flavours. Most importantly, we always try to make our programme coherent. For the season finale, all the compositions are linked by poems. Duttileux was inspired by Tardieu and Desnos, there’s Mallarmé in the Debussy piece, Utyos is inspired by Chekhov, and of course there’s Le poème de l’extase itself. We do not throw these things together haphazardly. There has to be a theme or a leitmotif.
Another common thread through your concerts is the canon of 20th-century symphonic music. Just this season you started with the iconic Sacre du Printemps and are ending with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune. What attracts you to this era?
DENÈVE: I’m French so I might be a bit chauvinistic, but especially in Paris it truly was a golden age. The composers really explored the true potential of the orchestra and its colours. That magic of colour is something I’m very sensitive to. When I’m conducting pieces like that from Debussy, which is a work rooted in impressionism, it almost feels like I’m painting the music on a canvas. Recently, when I was conducting in Philadelphia, the concertmaster told me that I was able to show them a new set of colours in a piece. That’s one of the greatest compliments anyone could give me.
In addition to extending your tenure with Brussels Philharmonic, you are also starting a new job in St. Louis. How will you make sure Brussels isn’t playing second fiddle?
DENÈVE: Oh, it won’t. I’ve been going to the States four to five times a year for a while now. Not only to St. Louis but, like I said, also to Philadelphia. I’m very honoured, of course, that I have been appointed to the post of Music Director at the St. Louis Symphony, but that doesn’t mean I’ll have less time for Brussels. If anything, I’ll be guest conducting fewer orchestras, which means I’ll only have to focus on two of them. And that might even be a good thing for Brussels Philharmonic.
When you announced your contract renewal you said you wanted to continue the ambitious programme of the orchestra. But how do you top a season during which you played at Carnegie Hall?
DENÈVE: It’s certainly true that we fulfilled a dream in playing at that legendary venue in New York. It was such an incredible concert and such a magical day. I think it was my best concert ever with Brussels Philharmonic. I feel sorry for the people of Brussels that it wasn’t at home. But we’ve still got a lot of tricks up our sleeve. We want to take our bold, 21st-century programmes on tour without having to compromise. That’s something we’re working very hard towards. Taking the ideology of the CffOR to concert halls around the world.
You talked about themes in your programmes. If you had to find one for next season, what would it be?
DENÈVE: I’d say “The Mount Everests of classical music”. I think you’ll agree with me that the orchestra is doing extraordinarily so we’re up for the challenge of bringing the pinnacles of Western symphonic music to Flagey. I can’t tell you too much about it, but let’s just say 2020 is the year of Beethoven. It will be big.
A contract extension also means you’re staying in our capital a little while longer. You’re not too chauvinistic to dislike living abroad then?
DENÈVE: (Laughs) Oh no, I feel right at home in Brussels. I like the spirit of the city. It’s very open minded and I love how you switch languages all the time. I used to cross the border regularly as a kid, so I feel as though I’m staying close to my roots. My wife loves it as well, she’s Swedish so she doesn’t think it’s too cold here. And most importantly, when I’m on tour, I miss Brussels. I miss Flagey and most of all, I miss the Belga, because after a concert, all you really want is a beer.
LE POÈME DE L'EXTASE 18/5, 20.15, Flagey