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Denève Celebrates ‘Being Together’ As Symphony Concerts Resume In Powell Hall

SLSO music director Stephane Deneve conducts Gershwin's "An American in Paris."
Dilip Vishwanat
SLSO music director Stephane Deneve conducts Gershwin's "An American in Paris."

As the coronavirus pandemic endures, capacity crowds won’t be returning to Powell Hall any time soon, but spring shows signs — and sounds — of hope for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra,

“It feels wonderful to make music,” exclaimed Stéphane Denève on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. The French conductor and symphony’s music director joined the show just minutes after conducting a concert in the second of an eight-week concert series bringing up to 300 people per show to Powell Hall.

“We can indeed space people in a very safe way,” Denève said. “But there's still a feeling of being together because music is the shortest path from one heart to another, and we just feel we are together vibrating with the music.”

Despite the hurdles of the pandemic, the symphony has continued to offer plenty of digital content, and radio rebroadcasts continue Saturday nights.

But even as musicians (and others in the organization) accepted temporary pay reductions, the inability to fill seats with paying concertgoers has dealt a blow to the organization’s bottom line.

Philanthropy only covers two-thirds of the symphony's budget, said Marie-Hélène Bernard, president and CEO of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. "So, yes, we have taken a hit. But I would say among major orchestras in the U.S., the St. Louis Symphony is probably doing better because our community is extraordinarily generous.”

A federal loan from the Paycheck Protection Program also helped, and even if concerts that only fill 300 seats in Powell Hall don’t quite pencil out, Bernard said the symphony sees the importance of maintaining live concerts. Resuming live concerts isn't about the money so much as the organization's mission: "We're very committed to make sure our community stays connected through music.”

Those concerts will continue with Denève guiding the orchestra and its artistic vision, at least until 2026.

Earlier this week the French conductor signed a four-year contract extension. Denève began his tenure as music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 2019, and he often describes the relationship as a “musical marriage.”

“I just want to continue this fantastic musical journey together. And it was a very obvious decision for me, and everybody seems happy. So it's just wonderful,” Denève said.

Bernard was effusive in her praise.

“He is totally, entirely committed to St. Louis and our community. And I think he understands audiences and he understands what it takes to bring new people to enjoy the music that he programs. He's a born communicator, and his enthusiasm is actually so inspiring,” she said.

Over the next five years, Denève said he wants to highlight “the great music of today … from a lot of female composers, a lot of composers of color, and that we present the world we are in and music that everybody can love and enjoy.”

Denève said he believes the St. Louis community is ready for pieces outside the classical canon.

“We can together grow into more understanding about the different ways to express the world today. I have no doubt about that,” he said. “It’s all about how you present it. I love to speak onstage and explain why I love a piece and sometimes change some passive listening into some active listening. That's what it takes, just to take people on board and to just speak with your own passion.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.