French conductor Stéphane Denève is back in Hong Kong to conduct Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony for Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HK Phil) on 9 and 10 June at Hong Kong Cultural Centre, as part of the French May Arts Festival 2023.
Stéphane Denève had not been back to Hong Kong since the pandemic and can’t wait to collaborate with HK Phil for the third time and to share his passion with the Hong Kong audience, as he told us ahead of the concerts.
“The pandemic was a very challenging time in many ways. But it also made clear to me that what we, as musicians, do is essential in the full sense of that word. We always need to remember that music is a miracle, and that there is nothing more beautiful than experiencing it together. (…) I’m extremely looking forward to being back in Hong Kong and I can’t wait to share my love for music with the musicians of HK Phil and its public again,” shares Denève.
When reflecting on his journey, Denève feels incredibly lucky and privileged, now travelling to Asia, Europe and the US to guest-conduct the finest orchestras in the world.
Born in Tourcoing, France, in 1971 and now music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the New World Symphony in the US, Denève’s passion for music started at a very young age.
“At 10, I heard one of the nuns at my Catholic school playing the organ and I was so enraptured, I began hiding to listen to her practice. When she discovered me, rather than scolding me, she helped me to find a place in the conservatory nearby Tourcoing. By 14, I was conducting its student orchestra, and I never stopped conducting ever since,” he recalls.
During his learning and throughout his career, he met with mentors among the most renowned worldwide musicians and conductors, who inspired him and gave him the opportunity to play in several orchestras, starting with acclaimed Belgian pianist, teacher and musical philosopher, André Dumortier.
“During my studies in Paris, I was ‘repetiteur’ for the Chorus of the Orchestre de Paris, and this gave me the opportunity to play the piano for conductors such as Carlo Maria Giulini, Sir Georg Solti, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Sir Colin Davis, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Semyon Bychkov. When I was employed as the pianist for the Chorus of the Orchestre de Paris, Georg Solti asked me to assist him by conducting parts of rehearsals, and that’s how I became his assistant in Don Giovanni for Paris National Opera,” explains Denève.
When asked to describe the role of a conductor, which can be vague for neophytes, Denève says that it is “an absolute proof of telepathy” and that the real art lies in how a conductor communicates intentions to an orchestra.
“I adore natural musicians – people like the late Carlos Kleiber – who let the music come out naturally, who follow the natural patterns of musical phrases as they sing. I believe in the ‘tempo giusto’, the notion that there is a speed at which each piece of music sounds best. So as a conductor, my intention is to reveal the inner logic of a piece and make it sound natural. What makes people get together is not per se a clear beating, but the music itself – the phrasing, the pulse, the logic of the music – which is bigger and higher than us. No authoritarian gesture from any person can be as precise as what the music imposes,” says Denève.
The French conductor has conducted orchestras around the world, adapting to each community formed and represented by an orchestra. Traveling and working in different cultural environments has enriched his life as well as the life of the orchestras he has been conducting.
“Each time, it’s a different adventure. Each performance of a piece needs to be a little different, to suit the occasion or the orchestra, since every orchestra is part of its own community and has its own history and traditions. But as a conductor you do shape the sound of the orchestra instantly. I’m extremely lucky to travel the world, meet so many people and interact with them living in the places they are,” explains Denève.
Denève, who has an immense love for French music and is an advocate of 21st century music, has chosen a very personal programme for his upcoming concerts with the HK Phil: Organ Symphony no.3 by Saint-Saëns, Organ Concerto by Poulenc, and Flammenschrift by Guillaume Connesson for the first time in Asia. French organist Olivier Latry will also be featured.
“The three works are from the finest French music there is, and I conducted all pieces many times. Apart from having a real French signature, for example in the rich colours, lush orchestration and beautiful melodies, all works reflect on a rich symphonic past: Poulenc was inspired by Bach, Saint-Saëns was influenced by Schumann, and Connesson – who is a dear friend of mine – refers to Beethoven 5 in Flammenschrift. This work, written in 2012, is performed by many orchestras all over the world, and I’m sure its unique power and energy will enchant the HK Phil musicians and public too!”, shared the conductor with enthusiasm.
More details on the programmes can be found here.
Tickets can be booked on the link here.