Stéphane Denève goes for eternal theme in upcoming New World Symphony concert
Stéphane Denève, the New World Symphony’s artistic director, leads the orchestra in “Denève: Prokofiev’s Romeo + Juliet,” on Saturday, Oct. 14 and Sunday, Oct. 15 at the New World Center, Miami Beach. (Photo courtesy of Rui Dias-Aidos/New World Symphony)
In September, New World Symphony artistic director and conductor Stéphane Denève stepped onto the stage wearing a blue, silk Japanese jacket he most likely picked up traveling in Asia on tour with an orchestra.
It was a definitive choice since a digital projection of Hokusai’s famous very blue “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” to accompany Claude Debussy’s “La Mer.” Being one to engage his audience even before a note begins, a projection on the large screen, the same one that would soon cast the image of “The Great Wave” showed a black and white photo of Debussy, the famous Hokusai ocean print hanging not far from where the composer was seated in his studio.
Denève loves a back story such as that — he feels that it adds an element to an audience’s experience rather than immediately back to the audience on the podium letting the music start right in.
As he says, he likes a narrative. On Saturday, Oct. 14, NWS opens its season with a program that Denève says follows the narrative of eternal life and love.
There have already been two concerts with the new artistic director, who is only the second to be in that position in the history of the orchestra. “Denève’s Debut” was in April and then aforementioned blue-themed program in September, but the maestro says this is the official opening.
“Those were pre-concerts — this is the start of the season,” he says, adding that this is the first concert of 2023-2024 with the Saturday night simulcast of New World’s Wallcast, a 7,000-square-foot projection wall, in its SoundScape Park.
New World’s Wallcast events have hundreds of people on the lawn outside of the Frank Gehry-designed building on blankets, on beach chairs, tailgating with picnic baskets, and all the while listening to classical music.
The Wallcast, a draw to New World Symphony by many who may never purchase a ticket to the orchestra’s concert, is another perfect fit for the artistic director – the idea of accessibility for audiences to experience classical music, whether they ever step inside the door or not.
“Coming to see the orchestra isn’t supposed to be mystifying,” he says. Whether someone is inside the hall or outside on the lawn taking in the music, he wants his audiences to know that “you can come with whatever knowledge you have about the music. I’m always sad when people go to a museum, and they are worried that they don’t know what to say about the art. The purpose is to create something that interacts with you – making you at ease to discover. Not ‘What should I think? What should I say?’ ”
And that’s again where the idea of a narrative for his concerts comes in. This weekend’s “Denève: Prokofiev’s Romeo + Juliet,” features three pieces with the first by Baltimore-based composer James Lee III titled “Visions of Cahokia,” a composition that was commissioned by the St. Louis Symphony, of which Denève is music director. The piece premiered with that orchestra in January of 2023. Lee, who Denève notes will be in the audience for the performance, has a history with New World Symphony. The composer’s “Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula” was premiered by NWS founder Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra in October of 2011. Denève has also included the work in the St. Louis Symphony’s repertoire.
“He is a really wonderful symphony composer,” says Denève of Lee. “I have performed four different pieces of his.” “Visions of Cahokia” fits the eternal life-love throughline of the concert. Located across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Cahokia was the largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico, and, at its peak from 1050 through 1200 had a population between 10,000 and 20,000 people.
While most of the ancient city, which was somehow abandoned in 1400, now lies buried under highway and development in St. Louis, Denève says that Lee’s composition brings to light the story of the eternity of a civilization.
The second piece, which features pianist Gabriela Montero, is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18.” Listeners may recognize melodies of modern songs that were swiped from the concerto: Frank Sinatra’s 1945 “Full Moon and Empty Arms” and Eric Carmen’s 1975 “All by Myself,” songs about lost love and longing.
As the finale, Denève says he’s recast Sergei Prokofiev’s “Suite from Romeo and Juliet.” “Every conductor, including myself reworks the selection. The ballet is 2½ hours long and he actually wrote three different suites that kind of don’t work together.”
Not for Denève’s season-opening theme.
“My selection is more about finding the narrative arc and trying to really convey the emotional story and this idea of eternal love” of Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed lovers.
“I love the dialogue that these pieces form,” he says, comparing them to planets orbiting each other in perfect harmony.
For the people inside the concert hall and those who’ll camp out on the lawn for Saturday night’s Wallcast, Denève has a request. “Come as you want. Come with an open mind and we will transport you,” he says with confidence.
WHAT: New World Symphony: “Denève: Prokofiev’s Romeo + Juliet”
WHERE: New World Center, Michael Tilson Thomas Performance Hall, 500 17th St., Miami Beach.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 14 (with Wallcast and live webcast) and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15;
COST: $75-$125; Wallcast free.
INFORMATION: 305-673-3331 or 800-597-3331, also nws.edu
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