Conductor Stéphane Denève on an upcoming program featuring works all by French composers

Conductor Stéphane Denève on why it sounds better in French

Given his strong grounding in the music of his native France, Stéphane Denève often finds that orchestras where he guest conducts are eager for him to lead a Gallic program, and he is happy to accommodate. “I do it with enthusiasm,” he said, “because I believe that there is a specific sound world, a specific way to do French music.”

The internationally recognized music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida, thinks French music is just as important for the training and enrichment of an orchestra as that of Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms. “It’s a way to work on transparency,” he said, “on listening for very, very soft dynamics and on imagination of color. I’m always very happy to do French music because I think it is an essential part of what makes an orchestra magical.”

A great example of the kind of French programs that Denève typically oversees is the line-up he will lead June 6-8 and 11 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and piano soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

“It’s always very prestigious to be in front of this group — and a bit scary — but I will try my best to have a satisfying, colorful set of concerts and create some French magic together.” 

It opens with Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning), a six-minute work that, in recent years, has arguably become part of the standard repertoire. The sister of famed pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger, Lili was the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome for her cantata, Faust et Hélène. She fell into near obscurity after her untimely death in 1918 from intestinal tuberculosis at age 24 — her legacy suffering from the paucity of works she wrote in her short life and, perhaps more importantly, a longstanding bias in the compositional world against women.

“I’m so sad that we don’t have more from Lili Boulanger,” Denève said. “This is possibly the greatest drama in the history of music. She was a most promising talent, and it’s horrible that we will never know what she could have written. It’s a beautiful thing that her music is now more prominent because she belongs on the list of the greatest French composers.”

Originally scoring this work for several chamber music combinations, Boulanger created an orchestral version in 1918. The two sisters fled Paris because of World War I, and this piece was written in the town of Mézy-sur-Seine about 30 miles to the northwest as the Germans were bombarding the French capital.

Next comes Camille Saint-Saën’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, Op. 103, The Egyptian. Written in 1896, it is the composer’s final work in the form, and he served as the soloist for its debut that same year. Thibaudet, a frequent collaborator with the CSO, is a close friend of Denève. Indeed, the pianist served as best man at the conductor’s wedding. “I met my wife thanks to him,” Denève said. “He is family.”

The conductor had nothing but praise for Thibaudet’s take on this work, with its “fabulous colors” along the way. “He kind of owns the piece,” Denève said. “There was one other pianist I loved doing this piece with — Nicolas Angelich — and I’m so sad that he passed away [in 2022] at 51. A big loss for the world of music.”

The program continues with Claude Debussy’s Ibéria, Denève has long been a big fan of the composer, and he called this 20-minute work “the summit of Debussy’s sophistication and refinement.” “I can’t wait to hear the Chicago Symphony do it,” he said.

The piece has what the conductor called one of the strangest and most unusual moments in all classical music — the transition from “very perfumed night in Andalusia” in the second movement to the awakening of a nearby town in the third. He sang bits of several motifs from this segue, including that for the trumpets and a “cathartic” xylophone solo. “It’s so magical and so special,” he said of this moment. 

Rounding out the evening is Maurice Ravel’s ever-popular Boléro, what Denève called an “orchestral display,” with its insistent rhythmic drive and intoxicating iterative melody.  

“I’m very much looking forward to being back with this great orchestra,” Denève said. “It’s always very prestigious to be in front of this group — and a bit scary — but I will try my best to have a satisfying, colorful set of concerts and create some French magic together.”