Take a Bow: Celebrating Denis de Coteau’s legacy at SF Ballet
De Coteau takes a bow after Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake with Sabina Allemann and Ashley Wheater, 1992
Denis de Coteau’s leadership of SF Ballet Orchestra spanned three decades, beginning in 1968 as assistant conductor and ending in 1998, when he departed as Music Director Emeritus, having led the orchestra as director for 24 years. To those who knew him, de Coteau’s musical excellence and long tenure are only part of his legacy: he also had a gift for comedic flair, an indefatigable spirit on-stage and off, and the utmost appreciation for ballet music and its role in the greater discipline.
“Our ensemble is so wonderful playing Swan Lake because it sounds like a symphony orchestra,” de Coteau said in an interview with the Oakland Tribune in 1998. “In ballet, even if the dancing and sets and costumes and choreography are all beautiful, if the music isn’t, the whole thing fails.”
It’s this raison d’être that charged de Coteau to formalize the SF Ballet Orchestra, once called the Performing Arts Orchestra of San Francisco, and conduct thousands of performances at SF Ballet. In the press, he was celebrated for his interpretations of Tchaikovsky ballets, but also lauded for approaching avant garde works with ease. In private, he was known as a mentor, colleague, and friend. De Coteau passed away in 1999 at the age of 70 after a battle with cancer. To celebrate the new Denis de Coteau Fellowship, presented in partnership with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, we asked current and former members of SF Ballet Orchestra to share memories of their longtime director.
Denis de Coteau Recollections
By current and former members of SF Ballet Orchestra
Principal Cello, 1980–2011
I played in the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra for 31 years before retiring in 2011, most of those years under the music directorship of Denis de Coteau. What I remember most were his unwavering dedication and work ethic, his good humor and sense of fairness, and the courage he displayed during his long final illness when he continued to conduct at a remarkably high standard in spite of the rigorous medical procedures he was forced to undergo.
Patricia Van Winkle
2nd Violin, 1975–2017
It was a real privilege to be able to play with Denis, he was such an incredible musician. In the fall of 1975, he was instrumental in forming a regular orchestra for the San Francisco Ballet. After our first Nutcracker that year, our first major project was Romeo and Juliet. He scheduled many rehearsals to make sure we were ready. It is a score with a wide range of emotions which Denis encouraged us to express in the music. It was quite an experience and I don’t think we ever got tired of it. Denis told me that he had conducted over 3,000 performances of Nutcracker and in every one he made a point of being fully present on the podium. He had excellent stick technique and was always prepared. He cared about the music, but he also cared about us as individuals.
To hear Patricia Van Winkle elaborate on these memories, click the play button below.
2nd Violin until 2007
It was one of the great good fortunes of my life to be chosen as a founding member of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, and to play for so many years under Denis. He was a musician first and always; he never forgot what it was like to be on the other side of the podium and always treated the musicians as peers, colleagues and collaborators. He knew that it took all of us working together to make the music happen.
He also never forgot that our job was to serve the dancers. We needed to not only give them the tempos they needed to be at their best, but also the emotional energy to create a fully engaging artistic experience for the audience. Denis found a way to do this while still staying true to the integrity of the music. When I think of Denis, I feel both respect and affection. He was an extraordinary man and he is still missed.
To hear Yehudit Lieberman speak these memories, click the play button below.
From L to R: de Coteau on the cover of SFCM’s program for his performance, 1988 // Courtesy of SFCM;
de Coteau circa 1970s // Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design; Oakland Tribune’s “A musical advocate” feature story from 1998
Viola for 34 years
My acquaintance with Denis began as a 15 year old violinist in the Stanford summer youth orchestra. I remember him as a giving educator who was fun and inspiring and attended not only every rehearsal, but every picnic as well. I knew Denis for 36 years and some of his tricks and jokes never changed. One day while conducting the youth orchestra, he took my violin, gave me the baton, and I conducted an orchestra for the first and last time in my life.
Years later, as a member of the Ballet Orchestra, Denis did the very same thing. While Jean Luis LeRoux was conducting a rehearsal of Romeo & Juliet in the Opera House, Denis leaned over the pit and said, “Go watch, and I’ll play your viola!” I thought he was kidding, but he appeared at our music stand, so I gave him the viola, stood at the pit wall and watched the fight scene in Act 2. Denis was a mentor in my youth, and a loyal colleague as an adult. And his mark on the growth and development of our orchestra from its inception will never be diminished. I know I’ll never forget him.
To hear Susan Bates speak these memories, click the play button below.
2nd Trombone, 1978–2018
In the late spring of 1989, the Ballet was performing in Paris at the Theater of the Champs-Élysée. One afternoon when the theater was dark, Denis and I went on a self guided walking tour of the theater and lobby imagining what it might have been like on the night of the premiere of The Rite of Spring. That walk with Denis is still a vivid memory for me.
To hear Hall Goff share this memory, click the play button below.
Joanna Berman ushers de Coteau on stage after the world premiere of Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet, 1994
2nd Violin, 1977–present
I have been playing with the Ballet Orchestra since 1977, though I first played with Dr. de Coteau in 1970, when he was directing the Oakland Youth Chamber Orchestra, of which I was a member. In 1972, this orchestra was invited to play in the Herbert von Karajan International Festival of Youth Orchestras in Berlin. The orchestra placed 4th and received an Honorable Mention and Von Karajan said, “We were certainly impressed with the impact your orchestra has made on this festival.”
Dr. “D”, as he was affectionately known, was a dedicated pedagogue who expected and inspired excellence. As music director of the SF Ballet Orchestra, he elevated the stature of the ensemble from a pit orchestra to being a featured element of the performance. His thorough knowledge of the scores helped us sculpt musical phrases which contributed to the beauty of the dance. Off the podium he was affable; on the podium he was the consummate musician. This combination contributed to the beautiful fabric of our orchestra today.
To hear Marianne Wagner share additional memories about de Coteau, click the play button below.
Double Bass, 1982–present
I met Denis in 1973 when I joined the Oakland Youth Orchestra he conducted. I was self-taught on bass at that time but they needed players, so I was accepted. The youth orchestra toured to Berlin where Denis and the orchestra won the silver medal. Nine years later, after I graduated from Juilliard, (and before that from Stanford, where Denis got his doctorate), I won the audition at SF Ballet. Denis was the first to call me at home to congratulate me. He was a great musician because he was a great person first. I will never forget him.
To hear Shinji Eshima share additional memories about de Coteau, click the play button below.
2nd Oboe and English Horn, 1978-present
I played under Denis for many years in the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. I was always struck by his generosity, his empathy that he had for all of us as members of the orchestra. He was always available, and you could ask him any question; he made us feel as if he was a colleague. Many members of the orchestra were assisted by him in their personal lives, but no one knew about it because he didn’t discuss it publicly. He was a wonderful leader and I believe that our orchestra still has many members that played under him, who have continued this idea of unity and community within the San Francisco Ballet organization.
To hear Marilyn Coyne elaborate on these thoughts, click the play button below.
From L to R: The Argus announces de Coteau’s guest appointment at the Oakland East Bay Symphony, 1989;
de Coteau in rehearsal with the SF Ballet Orchestra, undated // Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design; The Oakland Post’s announcement of de Coteau’s receipt of the Prix de Martell award, 1992
Principal Double Bass, 1975–2020
Denis had the ability to make everyone in the Company feel respected, from the guards that protected our cars in the parking lots to the members of the Board. We were all treated with the highest regards, not only as artists and employees, but also as human beings.
2nd Violin, 1975–2014
I met Denis de Coteau at Cal State East Bay where he became the conductor of the school orchestra. He was very inspiring and fun to work with. He also gave me and others a start in the music business by recommending us for good-paying jobs that were around at the time, such as Circle Star Theatre, where we played for major celebrity acts. So much fun! I became an extra with the SF Ballet orchestra playing Nutcracker in 1975. Later, after the Oakland Symphony went bankrupt and came back with a very reduced season, I worked more of the regular season. I loved playing Schumann’s 2nd symphony with him. He had beautiful stick technique. I think he also genuinely loved working with the dancers.
Associate Principal 2nd Violin, 1993–present
I joined the Ballet Orchestra as a permanent member in 1993. I remember Denis for his terrific sense of humor, and his telling corny jokes right before we would enter the pit. He was a terrific musician, and had wonderful baton technique; he had the ability to show the different tempi for each dancer with amazing clarity, and we always hit the last note of the male variation right as the dancer would land some fantastic leap. When I first got the position in the orchestra he was extremely supportive, even sending me a letter before I received my official tenure, letting me know he thought I was doing a great job and to just keep doing what I was doing. That meant a lot to me that he went out of his way to make me feel comfortable. He was always a great supporter of the orchestra and laid the foundation for this incredible ensemble that we enjoy today.
To hear Craig Reiss share additional memories about de Coteau, click the play button below.
De Coteau with Gina Ness and Alexander Topciy after Smuin’s Cinderella, 1985
1st Violin and substitute, 1997–present
I first met Denis when I auditioned for the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, where he was conductor, in 1977 as a high school sophomore. I was playing a violin concerto with my mother on the piano. When I finished my piece, Denis jumped out of his chair and said with his arms outstretched, “Where have you been all my life?” Needless to say, I was very embarrassed. Denis’s jokes were legendary!
A year later, I took my first professional audition with the Ballet just to see what it was like. I made the finals and was fortunate to be asked to play with the SF Ballet Orchestra in The Nutcracker as an extra. I realized early on that Denis treated the Youth Orchestra like a professional orchestra. He was a workaholic who would conduct rehearsal on Sunday afternoons with the Youth Orchestra before heading to Ballet performances on Sunday evenings. At the same time, he was conducting the orchestra at Cal State East Bay.
To hear Robin Hansen elaborate on these memories, click the play button below.
2nd Violin, 1990–2018
I loved working with Denis. He had an energy that really drew you in. He made me feel that my contribution really counted and like a colleague, not just another employee, even when I sat in the back of the 2nd violin section.
The last time I saw Denis, the power went off all over the city as I was driving [into my] audition. When I got to the ballet building, Denis was sitting next to a Christmas tree in the lobby. While I waited for my name to be called, we had a nice conversation and he let loose with a one liner and I remember laughing out loud as I walked down the hall into the audition room to play. Typical Denis: it was perfectly timed and designed to make me feel comfortable. It was an honor to play with him. He was a wonderful musician and human being.
To hear Katie Button elaborate on this memory about de Coteau, click the play button below.
The Brooklyn Paper announces de Coteau’s return to East New York for San Francisco Ballet’s tour to Brooklyn Academy of Music, October 26–November 5, 1978 // Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design
Former Principal Viola, current section viola 1989–present
When I joined the orchestra one of my earliest impressions was how reliable Denis was [in his conducting]. There was never any doubt as to the tempo, and the rhythm was always rock solid. Another quality I quickly came to appreciate was Denis’s concern with making the most of the music: since we performed a wide range of works, from established masterpieces to some frankly uninspired ballet repertoire, it made our work much more rewarding to know that the conductor was doing everything he could to help us play musically in all circumstances.
Denis had a great sense of humor. Even jokes you might have heard before always seemed to acquire a new and charming twist in Denis’ delivery, and his good-natured approach to life in general contributed to making the Ballet Orchestra the most congenial and friendly professional orchestra I have played with. I feel fortunate to have worked with Denis at the Ballet.
2nd Horn, 1990–present
Denis was music director of the Ballet Orchestra when I got my job in 1990. He was one of the easiest music directors that I’ve ever worked with. He really looked out for the musicians, and treated the orchestra like we were equals, like we were all in this together. Denis’s comments were always respectful and professional.
Curtain call after Ashton’s La fille mal gardée with Evelyn Cisneros and Anthony Randazzo, 1992
2nd Violin, 1977–2018
The thing I remember most about Denis is that he always had a joke or story to tell. He would take me aside like he had something personal to tell me, then tell me the story. Of course he told the same story to other people but he never told me the same story twice. He remembered. Denis loved to make people laugh. He wanted people to be happy.
Associate Concertmaster, 1978–2015
One of my fondest memories of Denis is his excellent conducting of Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. We performed it so many times over the years, and Denis conducted it with such musicality and integrity. I always loved playing it—one of the high points of my career in the orchestra.
Assistant Concertmaster, 1991–present
My first experience in the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra with Denis was at one of the Nutcracker performances. I was new in town as a sub violinist back then.
It was amazing to watch his relaxed body, to feel his inner rhythm. I remember how easy it was to follow his phrasing throughout the entire piece. He knew exactly how much to speed up or slow down for each soloist, too.
After joining the orchestra, I often couldn’t tell if he was joking or telling something serious at the rehearsals. I had to figure it out quietly by listening to and watching my colleagues’ responses. Now many years later, I realize that it was something quite special to see such relationships he had with his dancers and musicians that were based on trust.
Denis de Coteau with San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, 1990 // © Marty Sohl, Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design
Header Image: Denis de Coteau during a performance // Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design