Brussel’s Philharmonic’s Stéphane Denève brings his romance with music and Canada to the NAC

Stéphane Denève conducts the Brussels Philharmonic at the NAC on Saturday. Photo: Wouter Van Vaerenbergh, courtesy Brussels Philharmonic

The passionate conductor of the Brussels Philharmonic has a special affinity for Canada. It’s not just that Stéphane Denève has conducted orchestras here, which he has. It’s also something more romantic.

He met his partner Åsa in Toronto in 2004 and, on Nov. 24, 2005, despite his vertigo, he knelt down on the glass floor of the restaurant near the top of Toronto’s CN Tower and proposed. The space had been cleared so the couple could have a private dinner with the help of some members of the Toronto Symphony.

He’s about to make his debut at the National Arts Centre conducting the Brussels Phil and he is looking forward to reconnecting with someone who helped arrange that romantic night.

“One of the people who helped to get CN Tower opened for us late at night is working in Ottawa. She’s named Stefani Truant. I thank her for being our fairy godmother to help my engagement in Canada which has proven to very successful. We have a daughter and we are very happy.”

Indeed Denève is happy in his work too. He leads two important orchestras in cities several thousand kilometres apart — in Brussels and in St. Louis, Missouri.

And he gets to set the programs for each.

In Ottawa, the Brussels Phil’s program is typically Denève.

“I am a French conductor, so I do conduct French music, I have to say. And I have always been very close to Russian music. I love Russian music and it happens that for Deutsche Grammophon, we have recorded two Prokofiev ballets, Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet.”

For the latter he did his own arrangement of the suites that the orchestra will play in Southam Hall.

“I thought it would be great to show it on our tour. If people like it they can listen to it again on a CD.

“We also do something which for me is extremely exciting. Every concert we do I always include one piece of music from the 21st century. We try to find the major pieces of our time and I am extremely pleased to bring a piece by Guillaume Connesson.”

It is called Flammenschrift and it evokes Beethoven’s music and the Romantic era. It will be paired with the Beethoven Violin Concerto played by soloist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider.

Connesson is considered one of the leading lights in French music, Denève said.

“I would go so far as to say he is today the most prominent French composer working. Two weeks ago he won for the second time the Victoire de la Musique as best composer of year in France.

“We have a close connection. I met him 20 years ago and we became very dear friends. I have premiered many of his pieces and recorded four CDs of his music, which is a lot.

“He is a very important composer. His music continues the great tradition of French music. It is full of rich harmonies and it is colourful, well-orchestrated music. I just love it.”

He also loves Prokofiev too, but he did have an issue with the Russian’s suites for Romeo and Juliet.

“What is bugging me is to not be able to ask Prokofiev what he was meaning with his own suites. Of course, I have the utmost respect for Prokofiev. After all, who am I to this man.

“I so love his music; I am passionate about it. I used to play his music on the piano, yet, if I am very honest, I just don’t know what he wanted (here).

“I am not alone.” He was puzzled by some of the musical decisions Prokofiev had made, so he decided to try his hand at an arrangement that blends all three suites into one called Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 (Suite romantique).

He wanted to pull together the emotion and the drama of the music.

“If I can create a few tears at the end of the piece I will be very happy.”

As he writes on the NAC website:

“I have given a great deal of thought to the ideal presentation of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in concert, and I’m sorry – almost embarrassed, in fact – to admit that I’ve never found the different suites of Prokofiev to be convincing. … For this performance I imagined my own suite, which I wanted to be narrative above all. I called it Suite romantique after the initial sense of the adjective, “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is mysterious or dreamed, suggestive of an idealized or sentimental expression.”

Denève is fully engaged in his career in two disparate communities. Travelling between Brussels and St. Louis “is not an easy commute. I really wish I could have my own plane which I don’t. But I feel extremely lucky. I have something which is very meaningful to me.”

He was born very near Brussels in northern France.

“The culture in Brussels is my culture. (The Philharmonic) is definitely the best orchestra in this region. I am pleased to offer to my wife and daughter the culture that is mine. It is a very international, very vibrant city.”

He is equally pleased with his role in St. Louis.

“I have a great love for America. It was my dream to work in that country. When the call came from such a fine symphony I thought this was ideal. So I am spoiled. I have two very fine orchestras in two places that are meaningful to me.”

There is a French influence in both cities, although it’s more obvious in Brussels. St. Louis was founded in 1764 by French fur traders and named after  Louis IX of France.

And, he noted, both cities sit on frontiers of sorts.

Brussels is on the dividing line between northern Protestant and southern Catholic Europe, he said, while St. Louis is the gateway to the American west.

He said he is learning to like baseball and is a fan of the St Louis Cardinals. And, as he noted, the symphony is the second oldest professional orchestra in the U.S.

His musical connections in Canada have been primarily in Montreal and Toronto and apparently his father was seriously considering taking a job in Canada at one point.

“I could almost have been Canadian. When my father was young he had a chance to go live in Canada and be a truck driver and he considered it seriously. In the end he decided not to do it.”

But the son has made the trip.

Brussels Philharmonic conducted by Stéphane Denève 
With soloist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, violin
Where: Southam Hall
When: March 9 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.