St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Music Director Stéphane Denève. Photo courtesy of the SLSO.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) may have suspended its current season because of the COVID-19 threat, but the 2020/2021 season is scheduled to go forward as usual. In February, I sat down with SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève to talk about the new season. Here's part 2 of that conversation, with minor edits for clarity.

CL (Chuck Lavazzi): I was looking at some of the outreach initiatives for next season, like "Stéphane's Seats," which offers a block of free seats for community partners at each of the concerts you lead.

Powell Symphony Hall
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

SD (Stéphane Denève): Yes, I'm very happy that I can invite some people at every concert. Usually I meet those people before the concert, actually, including young musicians and music educators. It's a great thing for me to know for whom I'm making music.

That's one of the reasons I speak to the audience before the concert. It's to have this feeling of who is in the room and to say, "Hey, I'm here to celebrate the music and share it with you." This is a great thing, because they are not far from me and there's a feeling of proximity and of being in a friendly circle somehow. So this is very touching for me and I treasure the "Stéphane's Seats" program.

CL: There's a similar sort of intimate connection in the "Crafted" series, the casual happy-hour concerts that connect listeners more closely to the stories behind music.

SD: Yes, we will expand that. And once again, it's about being festive and being easy. You know I have a lot of dinners with different people, donors and so on, and I always ask, "How do you choose concerts" and "why do you come?" And I'm surprised, even today, at how many people seem to be a little bit nervous about the ceremonial aspect of our concerts.

Of course, we have this grand hall, and that's great. It's fantastic that we have this kind of beautiful cathedral. But on top of that there is a feeling that there are codes of conduct that people may not know and not understand. And my message is always to come as you are. If you have time to read our program notes and other information on line, but if you can't nobody will make you feel bad. Certainly not me.

A lot of people, to feel at ease, they really want to know that there's at least one piece on the program that they really feel comfortable with, and they choose concerts based on that. And I would like, little by little, to get people used to the idea that there will always be something that they will enjoy, even if they don't know the program or the soloist or the conductor. I want our programming to be strong enough so that people feel that a night at the symphony is a successful night, an enriching night, a transforming night. That it's not just about seeing a familiar piece like the Beethoven Fifth Symphony.

So it's about being accessible, inclusive, and just putting people at ease. And I really hope we can achieve that. "Crafted" is exactly about that.

CL: Because there's music, food, and drink.

SD: Yes, so there is fun. And people can also have an extended explanation of the piece, so they can prepare their ears to hear it, so they can enjoy it more.

It's very simple. If we have dinner together and I open a really nice bottle of wine, I will want you to have at least as much pleasure as I have from this bottle, if not more. So before I even poured, I'd say, "this wine comes from there, and it has this kind of taste, and I discovered it this way." So you would have a narrative about it, and the way you tasted the wine would be different, because you would take more time, you would smell it longer, you would enjoy it more.

CL: Because you know more going in to the experience.

Stéphane Denève
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

SD: Yes, and I think it's the same with music. I mean, if you drink the wine without knowing anything and you are a sensitive person you would enjoy it. But I'm absolutely sure that knowing more would enable you to enjoy it more and even change the way you enjoy it.

It's the same recipe with this "Crafted" series. It helps people to enjoy the music more and puts them in a more festive mood. The first one we did was a total success. There was lots of good energy. I spoke for about 15 minutes about the Brahms Fourth Symphony and showed some excerpts. It was fun and a good "happy hour" feeling.

[Note: the next "Crafted" event is May 8th featuring Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." As this is being written the event is still on the schedule. A complete list of cancelled or postponed events is available at the SLSO web site.]

CL: That reminds me of your presence on the podium. You always come in and talk to the audience first. It's like saying, "Welcome to Powell Hall, welcome to my home." It makes people feel welcome and included and there's less of a formal or stuffy atmosphere just because of that.

SD: I love it. For me it's a "win-win" as they say because it helps me feel the energy in the hall and just be in tune and in synch. And for me it's just very normal.

I think I didn't do it only once and that was for Mahler Two [Mahler's Symphony No. 2, known as the "Resurrection" symphony]. And that's because the start of Mahler Two is so dramatic and I didn't want to disturb this for people who know it. And somehow in Mahler Two you feel you're exploring a new world and I'm exploring it with you. So I really cannot speak about it before.

So there will be some occasions when I will not speak, but usually I so love it.

Next: Artist in Residence Nicola Benedetti and big plans for the St. Louis Symphony Chorus.

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