LENOX -- Call him an opera conductor, call him a symphony conductor -- just don't call him a specialist in French music.
Stéphane Denève, who leads a mixed German and French program at Tanglewood tonight, has been called all three things at various points in his career. He loves and conducts all sorts of music, including the new, he insists.
"I don't feel that specialized," he says in fluent but French-flavored English. "I just want to be specialized like in being good."
He is French, of course: big, bushy-topped and debonair. But he and his family -- wife Asa and daughter Alma, 5 -- are moving from Glasgow, where he conducted the Royal Scottish National Orchestra for six years, to Stuttgart, where he took over the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2011. He'd rather live in the United States, he says.
Like everybody else, conductors have their little secrets.
Denève's is the link among the three seemingly unrelated works he'll do tonight with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The opening work, Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration," gives a clue.
After it comes Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, with Lars Vogt as soloist. Its slow movement has long been portrayed as Orpheus' descent into, and return from, the land of the dead.
The evening's finale is Poulenc's Stabat Mater, with its portrayal of Mary at the cross, weeping for Jesus -- who, of course, will rise from the dead.
Voila! A program about transcendence of death.
Denève says he's not out to prove anything, but "I feel sometimes our world is driven by information, by news, by pitch, and life is not a pitch." Instead, he wants to get at the deeper meanings of existence.
Two of the BSO's heroes are also Denève's heroes. He
admires Charles Munch (BSO director, 1949-62) for his "natural" approach to music and musicians, and Serge Koussevitzky (director, 1924-49) for his commissions, such as Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, that went on to become bulwarks of the repertoire.
"I'm only an interpreter," Denève said in an interview on a quiet day at Tanglewood. "I'm not a composer, and I say that with no fake modesty. It's just that, if in my life I'm lucky enough to commission the right piece, the right person, and if I bring to this world even one masterwork, I would have actually something in my life."
Denève was born 41 years ago in Tourcoing, in the north of France. Little did he know, as his website puts it, that he would someday be "conducting and recording the music of Tourcoing's most famous son, the composer Albert Roussel,"
Starting music studies on trumpet at 8, Denève trained in conducting and vocal coaching at the Paris Conservatoire, where he graduated with first prize. As pianist for the Orchestra de Paris chorus, he caught conductor Georg Solti's attention. He became Solti's assistant at the Paris Opera and London Philharmonic.
In time, he also assisted Seiji Ozawa at the opera. An admirer of the former BSO director, he'll return to Ozawa's Saito Kinen Festival in Japan this month to conduct half of a twin bill of Ravel operas. Ozawa, though ailing, is scheduled to conduct the other half.
Vignettes from the career of a typecast conductor:
When he began his career, he was doing mostly opera, including a lot of Mozart. He was quite successful, he recalls.
"So anyway, here I am. I was the new Mozart opera conductor. Okay. Right. So I had this image. Then actually I started to do more and more symphony, and I wanted to be not too much French." He piled on the Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann, later adding Mahler and Bruckner.
That, too, was successful, earning him the image of a romanticist conductor. Meanwhile, he was also having success with French orchestral music. He recorded all of Debussy and most of Roussel.
"Now I had to fight to keep opera in my schedule," he remembers, "because I'm very much asked for symphony."
He's flattered and happy that people consider him in the great French tradition but, "more than that, I love every music and, yes, I do a lot of German repertoire in Stuttgart."
His repertoire extends to Gershwin's "An American in Paris," which he'll do at Tanglewood on Parade Tuesday night, and three programs, including "A Bernstein Extravaganza" with the New York City Ballet, with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Saratoga next week. And there was the exhilarating all-Debussy program he conducted and coached with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra last month.
Stuttgart, according to this conductor, is "a very musical city," with abundant orchestras, choruses, opera and a Bach academy. His radio orchestra, he says, reflects a continuing German respect for the arts.
"You really feel that they are not doing music for a living. They're doing music because it shows this life. And I feel it in every rehearsal."
But it's America he longs for as he and the family sojourn for 10 days in a borrowed home in Lenox, which, he says, lacks only a piano. From there he's making forays to conduct the Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras at their summer festivals.
"I adore this country, actually, and my wife and I, we would love to live in this country," he declares. Touring in summer to lead its great orchestras "is just a treat. It's a very great way to spend a vacation."