Interview: Stéphane Denève, musical director of RSNO

St�phane Den�ve, outgoing musical director of RSNO. Picture: Robert Perry
St�phane Den�ve, outgoing musical director of RSNO. Picture: Robert Perry
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SEVEN years well spent at the helm of the RSNO comes to an end next week for Stéphane Denève, but why exactly is he going?

Saying goodbye is never easy. But it’s the inevitable task facing Stéphane Denève as he embarks tonight on a ten-day roller-coaster ride that is his swansong as musical director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO).

With two spellbinding programmes to conduct – one this weekend featuring Samuel Barber’s gorgeous Violin Concerto and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, another next week ending with James MacMillan’s riotously satirical Britannia and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé – and the coincidental release this month of a major double disc recording of Debussy with the orchestra Denève has helped transform over the past seven years, it’s an experience he is finding a little hard to come to terms with.

“This has been my first musical directorship, so it’s the first time I’ve ever had to leave an orchestra,” he says. “Right now I’m so busy anyway, having just returned from conducting in Santa Monica. I’ve already completed a season in my new post at the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, and I’ll spend the summer conducting in the States again. But when I do finally have time to reflect on my time at the RSNO, I honestly don’t know how it’s going to affect me.”

I’m chatting to him in his south Glasgow home, which he and his family intend to stay in for the foreseeable future, and Denève is every bit as affable, honest, larger-than-life and passionate as he was the first time we met back in his early RSNO days. Audiences, now used to his opening repartee at concerts, will instantly relate to that. Denève has made genuine friends of the folk he entertains. Is it no accident that RSNO audiences have steadily increased in recent years?

“That’s just one of the facts nobody can deny. Otherwise it’s difficult for me to talk objectively about whether my original aspirations for the orchestra have been met. But I can tell you for certain that we do bring music to more audiences, we have more full houses, more young people, which is hugely rewarding for me.”

Clearly none of that could have happened without accompanying artistic success, and the fact that Denève as musical director – unlike his immediate predecessor, who was nominally only principal conductor – has exerted his influence over the programming of entire seasons.

“I really cared a lot about making good programmes. It’s a fascinating process to learn what works, and what doesn’t.” He cites several of the themes that have embellished recent seasons: the literature theme; the 10 out of 10 contemporary series; this year’s exploration of the Auld Alliance; the popular Naked Classics concerts with Paul Rissmann, which Denève wishes could have been captured and marketed on DVD; and, more generally, a permeating presence of French music, ranging from mainstream Debussy and Ravel, and the glittery revelations of Albert Roussel’s music (captured on disc as well as in concert), to Denève’s special relationship with the music of Guillaume Connesson.

Stemming from that, who would deny that the RSNO is now playing with heaps more character, unanimity and self-belief, particularly when it comes to French repertoire and the sensitive sound world associated with anything from Berlioz to Dutillieux?

“When I arrived I changed the layout of the strings and focused on the sound, which is a very big preoccupation of mine. It’s all part of the live concert experience, which is so much more special than listening to a CD. The human interaction is so important: what happens when we are all sharing emotions; the magic that results from hearing this incredible quality and complexity of sound.

“I think that we now play Debussy and Ravel in a way that is wholly idiomatic and quite convincing. But I don’t just look for a special sound in French repertoire. I want to achieve a special sound for any composer, and I hope that the RSNO has become much more flexible in doing that.”

Nonetheless, Debussy has held a special place in the relationship, with performances this season to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, and more especially the current release of Denève’s multi-disc recordings of the composer’s major orchestral works (which will be the subject of Monday’s classical CD review).

“There is so much more to say about Debussy, in Jeux, for instance, I wanted it to be more narrative than usual,” – something we all experienced in December in a stunning live performance enlivened by surtitles to elucidate the storyline.

Denève is a man of steely determination, an aspect of his personality that may at times have been interpreted by some RSNO players as ruthless and uncompromising. But it gets results. “I’m very demanding of the players, and I have the feeling that there is more tension, more energy in the orchestra to play well all the time, to really be more competitive and on the ball than they were when I arrived.”

Nor has he compromised with audiences, who eat up his French charm regardless. “I really feel we’ve changed the dynamic with audiences who, when I came here, would only come out for Dvorák or Tchaikovsky because they knew it. Now they come to the RSNO just because it is the RSNO and know they will have a good night, even if they don’t know one or two names on the programme. It’s essential that continues. I’d hate for the old conservatism to come back.”

So why go now, when the RSNO board made efforts to keep Denève a little longer?

“Sometimes people don’t notice when they’re past their peak. I didn’t want that to happen with my first ever orchestral tenure.

“I feel we did a lot and I wanted to leave at the peak of our development. When I got the proposal from Stuttgart, it kind of made sense. Here was a new adventure.”

One, in fact, already set to benefit from a brand- new symphonic work Denève has commissioned from James MacMillan. Will he come back as an occasional guest conductor?

“I’ve refused to come back for the next two years, because it’s only fair to leave space for my successor [Peter Oundjian] to do his own thing. But I’d be happy to return in three seasons. I want to enjoy that comeback feeling, rather than feel I’ve never been away.”

So it’s au revoir, Stéphane, not goodbye.

• Stéphane Denève’s farewell performances with the RSNO start tonight in Aberdeen, continue tomorrow in Edinburgh and on 5 May in Glasgow, with final concerts next week in Edinburgh and Glasgow. See Denève Conducts Debussy is available on Chandos