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A modern-day hero

Since the day and the hour that he arrived in Scotland to take up his post as music director and principal conductor of the RSNO, Stephane Deneve has spoken from the heart to his audiences.

He is driven by his passion for music and has been unafraid, in a very French way, to express that passion from the stage.

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He is completely uninhibited in his expression, whether he is talking about sentiment, love, the feelings he has about music, or the colours and moods that touch him in making music.

Gradually over the last five years audiences have steadily warmed to the big Frenchman and his manner. He has built a huge and intimate rapport with his growing audience who follow him faithfully, listen to him avidly, and believe what he says.

He has drawn them into his spirit and mindset. He has drawn them into his life. Personal anecdotes pepper his introductory chats. When he got married we learned about that. When his daughter Alma was born, he did that papa thing and produced photos of her onstage. Nobody cringed. Audiences lapped it up. They adore him. More than one member of the Deneve following has remarked to me that his chat before he waves the baton has become an integral part of the evening’s entertainment.

What this all amounts to can be summed up in a single word: trust. His audience now trusts him up to the hilt. Wherever he goes, musically, they have followed. He has done multiple standard repertoire works that have been new to him. The audience has trusted him without cynicism to produce the goods and he has never let them down.

Interpretations of individual pieces of music we can argue about until les vaches come home, but on the night Deneve has never produced a dud. The sense of trust and loyalty that exists between le chef and his rock-solid following is almost palpable. And now he wants to call on that trust. He is about to launch the RSNO’s new winter season. A feature of that season will be performances of 10 pieces of contemporary music, all written in the first decade of the new millennium. The series is called Ten out of 10. The new(ish) pieces will be integrated into regular mainstream programmes, but much, if not most, of it, is a long way from the traditional fare presented to RSNO subscribers.

Deneve created this new strand. He did the research. He is responsible for it and will conduct eight of the 10 works himself. And he understands, too, what the issues are for concert-goers. So I invited him to address the issue, and his audience if he felt so inclined, with his usual candour, on this page. What’s it all about, I asked him.

“I’m genuinely suffering from this cliché that modern music is something ugly, difficult, dissonant, intellectual, unpleasant, whatever. This cliché, alas, hasn’t changed for the main audience in perhaps the last 40 years.”

Modern music, however, has changed, he says. There is no single species, feels Deneve, which can be called “modern”. There is, he says, “so much cross-over into different styles that it is impossible to generalise about modern music”. But he is excited by new scores he has come across which, he says: “speak of our time, which have a flavour of our time and the poetry of our time”.


So he proposed a thesis to himself and the RSNO executive: that the orchestra conduct a review into the first decade of the millennium to try to identify 10 pieces from the period which might endure and secure a niche within the mainstream repertoire.

It was hard work, he says, convincing his employers in the RSNO that it was a viable proposition without scaring the hell out of the existing audience. Once he got the go-ahead, he did something interesting, which says something about the man. Where some directors would jealously guard their new baby, keeping it very much to themselves, Deneve opened the door to suggestions: he wrote 80 letters to fellow conductors, soloists, agents, publishers and others in the business whose judgment he trusts.

“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I am informed, I am following musical developments, and I already had many ideas myself. But maybe there was something I had missed. It’s a big musical world out there, with much growth in many different territories.”

So he asked his trusted contacts each to nominate three pieces that they had been excited by in the last 10 years, and which they believed, with exposure and championship, would stand the test of time. And indeed, he took on board some of their suggestions.

He reiterates the message he sent to his professional colleagues and contacts: “Trying to identify and promote the masterworks of our time is vital for the future of our symphonic orchestras.” And that, in a nutshell, is what the new series is exclusively about.

Very few, if any, of the 10 pieces by James MacMillan, Guillaume Connesson, Kajja Saariaho, Helen Grime, Magnus Lindberg, Oliver Knussen, Christopher Rouse, Peter Lieberson, John Adams and Esa-Pekka Salonen will be remotely familiar to the bulk of RSNO concert-goers and subscribers.

“I’m doing this because I love this music, and I do it because I want to share my love for it: it’s genuine. All these pieces for me definitely carry enough substance, colours, meaning and quality to interest people.

“The real difficulty of course, is when you are hearing something for the first time. It’s difficult to take it in, understand it and become familiar with it. But this is the right moment for me to say something very subjectively: dear audience of Scotland, trust me. Do this journey with me. Just listen to this music. It is very good, very inspiring music. If Stephane says it’s okay, then give it a go. You can hate it, but come and hear it. I think this music will stand the test of time.”


RSNO/Deneve: Usher Hall. Friday September 24; Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Saturday 25; both at 7.30pm

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