Music

Stéphane Denève, only the second artistic director in NWS history, has plenty to be excited about

Written By Michelle F. Solomon
March 29, 2023 at 2:54 PM

Stéphane Denève leads New World Symphony at its 2023 gala in March. He’ll make his public debut as the orchestra’s new artistic director on Saturday, April 8, in a concert at New World Center. (Photo courtesy of Kristin Pulido, Blooming Photo Co.)

It’s the second conversation, albeit over Zoom, in recent weeks that New World Symphony’s new artistic director, Stéphane Denève has made himself available one-on-one to get acquainted.

This time, the maestro is speaking from a hotel room. “Here I am in Vienna, and I can prove it,” he says, turning the computer screen around to show the view from his window, displaying a picture-perfect landscape of the Austrian city.

Denève has just begun a tour with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, his fourth season as the thirteenth music director of the orchestra. It’s a lightning schedule throughout Europe with performances in Vienna, Brussels, two performances in the Netherlands, and then ending in Madrid.

Stéphane Denève leads the New World Symphony in a 2018 performance as guest conductor at New World Center. (Photo courtesy of Rui Dias Aidos)

Only nine days after the whirlwind, he’ll step onto the podium in Miami Beach at the New World Center on Saturday, April 8, in a program titled “Denève’s Debut.” It will be his first public appearance with the orchestra since being named New World Symphony artistic director; only the second person to hold the esteemed role in the symphony’s 35-year history.

It was in 1987 when renowned conductor Michael Tilson Thomas along with philanthropists Lin and Ted Arison co-founded the New World Symphony, an intensive and highly competitive three-year postgraduate fellowship program to prepare musicians for professional careers in orchestras and ensembles throughout the world.  Tilson Thomas was also instrumental in the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center, now a landmark in downtown Miami Beach, which opened in 2011.

On March 2, 2022, a new chapter for the New World Symphony would begin. Tilson Thomas released a statement that he was stepping down from the role he had held for more than three decades after announcing his diagnosis of Glioblastoma Multiforme, a type of aggressive brain cancer. “Currently the cancer is in check, but the future is uncertain . . . recurrence, is, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception,” he wrote.

The 78-year-old assumed the role of artistic director laureate and almost a year to the day of the announcement, on March 4, 2023, was at the New World Center for a gala in his honor where he took to the podium on the Michael Tilson Thomas Performance Hall stage to lead the orchestra with guest artist, friend, and colleague, cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Michael Tilson Thomas at the podium conducting New World Symphony with guest cellist Yo-Yo Ma in March of 2023 at a gala in Tilson Thomas’s honor at New World Center. (Photo courtesy of Kristin Pulido, Blooming Photo Co.)

After a search for a replacement, the New World Symphony’s board announced in September of 2022 that they had found the right person to continue and nurture Tilson Thomas’s dream project — a 51-year-old French conductor who had, since 2006, led the NWS as a guest conductor. Denève remembers meeting Tilson Thomas when he made his debut that year.

“We had lunch together and spoke about Beethoven, and he got carried away by emotion. I thought, ‘What an artist, what a real artist.’” Denève says he had always admired the conductor, listening to his CDs as a teenager growing up in Roncq in northern France. He recalls seeing Tilson Thomas live at a performance hall in Paris. The renowned interpreter of the works of Gustav Mahler was conducting “Symphony No. 10,” the composer’s final work before his death.

“That concert changed my life and to this day remember it as a very cathartic experience,” says Denève, who now looks forward to working with Tilson Thomas in his role at New World Symphony. “I am only the second artistic director for a good reason. He’s really the father of this institution and I respect him so much for that. He will continue to be present in his musical home,” he says.

Stéphane Denève becomes only the second artistic director in more than three decades of New World Symphony. (Photo courtesy of Jay Fram)

Denève’s debut concert will offer a sense of where the new artistic director will lead the fellows, introducing new works that he wants to explore together with the musicians and audiences — finding those “new classics” that he says can begin as a premiere and then maybe enter into repertoire,” he says, adding that he is fascinated by the idea of how a piece of music “sticks.”

“Even in pop music . . .like the Beatles who composed thousands of songs, yet there are only a few of them that entered the canon. Even Mozart composed almost 700 pieces, but only a few entered the repertoire forever. It is fascinating to search and find that rare crème de la crème piece that can become the classic of the future.”

The Saturday, April 8 program features three works that have never been performed at New World Center including Henri Dutilleux’s “Métaboles.” “It’s a beautiful piece by a French composer that was commissioned by an American orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra in 1959 and (music director) George Szell premiered it in 1965. Richard Strauss’ monumental “Ein Heldenleben—A Hero’s Life,” is also on the program. “It is one of the biggest pieces written for an orchestra and the fellows are extremely excited to play it,” says Denève.

While each piece is equally exciting, he is looking forward to a work featuring baritone Davóne Tines. “He is a real creator in addition to being a great baritone and is engaged in the music of today. He’s created this new format where there is a concerto for voice and orchestra,” explains Denève.

Entitled “Sermon,” Tines begins his three-song cycle with text from James Baldwin, then into John Adams’ “Shake the Heavens” from “El Niño,” a Langston Hughes poem, “Hope,” is followed by a piece composed by Tines and Igee Dieudonné. “And then directly, and without interruption, we hear Jessice Care Moore’s ‘Exegesis,’ and he finishes with a long aria from “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” by Anthony Davis,” says Denève, his voice reaching a crescendo in excitement.

Denève uses the word cathartic again like the emotional moment he was in the audience drinking in Tilson Thomas’s performance in Paris. “I think what is very important is that sometimes you want people to have a cathartic experience — where people go from listening and hearing into being moved into action, into changing their lives or changing the lives of others,” he says.

Baritone Davone Tines is the featured soloist in his “Sermon,” which he’ll perform on Saturday, April 8, with New World Symphony. (Photo courtesy of Bowie Verschuuren)

The music director adds that he is excited to be part of working with the new generation of musicians that are the current fellows at New World Symphony. “They seem to be much more in sync with the world we live in and go beyond just playing great music. They have the desire to interact and this is exactly what this piece of music is about – going beyond music to share ideas.”

While he’ll spend much time in Miami Beach, he doesn’t have plans just yet to make a permanent move. He just settled with his wife and 15-year-old daughter in St. Louis last summer after moving them from Brussels and he will continue as music director of the St. Louis Symphony. This year, he’ll also begin his tenure as principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic.

“Music directors many times live in one place and work in another. You can travel easily. And who wouldn’t want to come to Miami Beach whenever possible?” he says.

New World Symphony in concert at the Adrienne Arsht Center in the spring of 2022 with Stéphane Denève conducting. (Photo courtesy of Rui Dias Aidos)

On the heels of Denève’s debut, New World Symphony announced its 2023-24 season The new artistic director will lead the fellows of New World Symphony eight times throughout the season in programs inspired by tropical landscapes, including a Sept. 16, 2023, performance of Claude Debussy’s “La mer,” Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” and Adolphus Hailstork’s “An American Port of Call” and in the finale concerts on May 11 and 12, 2024 with a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and John Williams’ first “Violin Concerto.”

Tilson Thomas also returns in eight performances bringing with him guest artists, pianists Emanuel Ax and Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the music of some of his personal favorite composers Aaron Copland, Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, as well as his own work “Agnegram.” To see the complete season, click here.

WHAT: “Denève’s Debut” with New World Symphony

WHERE: New World Center, Michael Tilson Thomas Performance Hall, 500 17th St., Miami Beach.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, April 8

COST: $35, $50, $60, $75, $85, $100

INFORMATION: 305-673-3331 or 800-597-3331, also nws.edu

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