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Arts & Culture

'A dream come true': Meet Stéphane Denève, the New World Symphony's new artistic director

Stéphane Denève, the new Artistic Director of the Miami Beach-based New World Symphony
New World Symphony
Stéphane Denève, the new Artistic Director of the Miami Beach-based New World Symphony

Since its creation, the New World Symphony has evolved into a world-class orchestra under the guidance of conductor and co-founder Michael Tilson Thomas.

But earlier this year, the Miami Beach-based orchestra announced he would step down due to health concerns.

This fall, the New World Symphony revealed that renowned conductor Stéphane Denève would step in, becoming only its second artistic director in 35 years.

Tilson Thomas, who conceived the New World Symphony as a training ensemble for young classical musicians in preparation for professional careers, will now be its artistic director laureate.

“The whole music world really treasures what he created here,” said Denève. “The spirit of this institution, the incredible number of great musicians he nurtured.”

As he settles into the role, Deneve told WLRN his obsession with classical music in his native France began with the help of his very determined mother — and a very observant Catholic nun.

This interview was edited lightly for clarity.

WLRN: When you were growing up, how were you first introduced to classical music?

Denève: I was at Catholic school. And there was this old nun playing the organ in the school chapel. And I was absolutely fascinated by those otherworldly sounds coming from the organ. So I was hiding to listen to her and she discovered me and said "What are you doing there?"

And I told her that I loved the sound of the organ. She [offered] to give me some piano lessons— and of course, I accepted. She noticed that I had a little gift, let's say, and asked my parents to send me to the Conservatoire [the Paris Conservatory]. I was 10.

Your first experience as a conductor came earlier than most, at age 14. How did that come about?

I was way too young to enter the conducting class of [the Paris Conservatory]. The director there said "I'm sorry, but he's too young. Let's wait until he's 18 or something."

And my mother said to him, "Well, he's already very tall for his age." And the director said, "Okay, okay." (Maybe to get rid of my mother). "Bring him next week. I will test him."

And luckily, he saw something in me and decided to accept me in his class. And I owe him a lot — and my mother too! — because I could then start to conduct very early, which was great.

You've had extensive experience working with youth orchestras. What is the one quality a young classical musician should have if they want to succeed in such a demanding, competitive profession?

Love for music. Enthusiasm and passion. Those qualities are first because they help you master all the technical aspects and become an ambassador of music for others.

What is your favorite classical piece of all time?

My favorite piece changes every day. Musicians, I think, are very unfaithful with composers. We love a certain composer one day and then the next, you study another piece and then you feel it's the best ever.

But if you forced me to a choose a piece to bring with me to a desert island, perhaps I would choose an opera by Claude Debussy called "Pelléas and Mélisande." It is an incredible piece. It was the first opera I conducted when I was a student at the Paris Conservatory. It's very close to my heart; I love Debussy.

What were your first impressions of South Florida when you first visited?

I was just amazed that there was an orchestra so close to the beach! And I remember being just so happy to be able to make music with great young musicians and go so quickly to the beach. Or to walk through the beautiful streets of South Beach.

When the New World Symphony called you with the news that you were selected as Artistic Director — only the second in the symphony's history —what went through your mind?

It was a dream come true. I have loved and treasured this institution since my debut here as a guest conductor in 2006.

What Michael Tilson Thomas has achieved over 35 years here is phenomenal. So it was an incredible honor to imagine I would continue his great legacy.

Christine DiMattei is WLRN's Morning Edition anchor and also reports on Arts & Culture.
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