Louis Langrée lived up to CSO’s tradition of embracing the new

With the 2010-11 season, conductor Paavo Järvi wrapped up a decade as the Cincinnati Symphony’s music director, and speculation swirled through local media about who might succeed him. 

A Cincinnati Enquirer assessment of the orchestra’s “hot picks” featured nearly two dozen possibilities, including a handful of bigger names and some “other” candidates. Like sports-page musings about a team’s next head coach, of course, such exercises amount to educated guessing. 

To be fair, though, the paper’s crystal ball for the orchestra included several conductors who have indeed gone on to lead major orchestras – just not Cincinnati’s. Those included Hans Graf (Houston Symphony), Carlos Kalmar (Oregon Symphony), Gianandrea Noseda (National Symphony), Robert Spano (Fort Worth Symphony and Washington National Opera) and even Paavo’s younger brother, Kristian Järvi (radio symphony in Leipzig, Germany).

Louis Langrée (Photo by Chris Lee)
Louis Langrée
(Photo by Chris Lee)

Further down in the “possible” category was a French conductor who had led New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival since 2003. Described by the New York Times as “affable,” this conductor was seen to have breathed new life into both the orchestra and the festival. In his March 2011 CSO debut, he was a hit with musicians, and critics praised the warmth of his performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1.

He was quickly hired to lead an are-we-sure-about-this return engagement that August. The program included two repertoire mainstays, Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Both the orchestra’s players and management eventually decided, yes, they were sure.

And so, in April 2012, Louis Langrée was named the CSO’s 13th music director. It was a lucky pick all around.

Fast forward 12 years, and Langrée’s journey here has come full circle. In May, he will lead his final two programs as music director of America’s fifth-oldest orchestra. Like many of his programs here, the May concerts look both backward (including Beethoven 7) and forward, with premieres each weekend.

Langrée spoke with Movers & Makers in early February – between rehearsals for performances of Brahms’ “A German Requiem” – about his years in Cincinnati and his thoughts on the orchestra and the city he came to love. 

Tradition of innovation

Louis, as he’s known to most of those who work in Music Hall, came to the CSO knowing enough about its present but surprisingly little about its past. As he learned, he said, “I was amazed!”

Like any 126-year-old institution, the CSO has a long tradition. What surprised Langrée, though, was how deeply and broadly innovation was ingrained in those traditions. The orchestra has been quick to adopt not just new music, but also new technology. 

“It’s a tradition to be experimental,” he said, checking off a list that includes being among the first orchestras to make recordings and the first to perform on a national radio broadcast. It continued through LumenoCity, the outdoor show that brought the east façade of Music Hall to life using cutting-edge lighting technology as the orchestra performed a live accompaniment in Washington Park. The success of those annual events led directly to today’s BLINK festivals.

“For three nights, there were 15,000 people each,” Langrée said. “For those 45,000 people who came, they didn’t feel, ‘Let’s go to listen to a classical music concert.’ They didn’t know what to expect, but they wanted to be part of something unusual, which was experimental.

“That speaks about this institution. There are so many orchestras who cultivate the repertoire and others that are more experimental.” It’s clear he’s proud to put the CSO in the latter category.

LumenoCity said a lot about the city, too, Langrée said. With all those people packed into a small space (the first year’s crowds far exceeded expectations), “there were no problems, no aggression. It was like a big smile over the city.”

Fanfares for pandemic times

Then there’s the experimentation in music. During Langrée’s tenure, the CSO has commissioned 65 new works, more than under any previous music director. They include works by Julia Adolphe, Daníel Bjarnason, Jennifer Higdon, David Lang, André Previn, Caroline Shaw and Zhou Tian. 

The crown jewel of the list is the searing Symphony No. 6 by Christopher Rouse, who succumbed to cancer shortly before the premiere performance in 2019. “It was sublime and unbearable,” Langrée said. A recording of that powerful performance is available to stream at cincinnatisymphony.org.

The largest category of commissions came in response to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Langrée cited the orchestra’s response as another example of its embrace of experimentation. In addition to concerts that were canceled when the world shut down, so were several premieres. The pandemic was hard on creators, too, Langrée said. “No one commissioned anything of these composers.”

The CSO, of course, famously commissioned a series of fanfares during World War II. With another big anniversary year at hand, the orchestra asked, why not do it again, but with a twist? The result was the Fanfare Project, a series of commissions for 22 fanfares for solo instruments.

“There are works in every field, every genre. Any style,” Langrée said. “I loved that, this sense of experimentation.”

Building community

Over a dozen years, Langrée has led hundreds of CSO performances. “Somehow I remember each one,” he said, “each program.” Asked about favorites among those, he doesn’t hesitate with a shortlist.

  • September 2022, after the pandemic, the CSO returned to live performances in Music Hall with Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”). “The symbolism of course was more than music,” he said. Surprisingly, it also was his first performance of the work.
  • Langrée’s first concert as music director, in November 2013, featured Maya Angelou narrating Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.” (It was paired with a 2010 work by Jennifer Higdon and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.) Angelou died the next spring, “and then we asked young composers to write pieces inspired by her poems. It was very special.”
  • The February 2020 recreation of one of the most famous nights in classical music history, the 1808 Beethoven Akademie concert. Though it already included the premieres of the fifth and sixth symphonies, Beethoven wrote the Choral Fantasy as a finale – in case the audience wasn’t suitably impressed! Besides the appeal of four hours of Beethoven’s music, the CSO performances became a community event, with a two-hour break that offered a Viennese biergarten dinner.
  • The two-year focus on the works of Brahms that complemented the four symphonies with musical connections to other composers. The standout for Langrée was the March 2016 program that paired the Brahms Symphony No. 2 with the Berg Violin Concerto and Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Blue Danube” waltz. 
  • Connections with the community. Besides LumenoCity, Langrée was enthusiastic about MusicNow, the collaborations with Bryce Dessner and his group, The National. People who came out of curiosity or to see Dessner were exposed to music like Edgard Varèse’s “Amériques” and Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Polymorphia.” The response of the diverse audience was exciting, he said. Not everyone liked every piece, but what was important was that they came for the challenge.
Louis Langrée composer/guitarist Bryce Dessner at MusicNOW in 2015 (Photo courtesy CSO)
Louis Langrée composer/guitarist Bryce Dessner at MusicNOW in 2015
(Photo courtesy CSO)

Cement of the city

Praise for Cincinnati audiences is a recurring theme for Langrée. “I love this city, I love this orchestra,” he said. “It’s been my home away from home, but it wasn’t ‘away.’ I made it home.”

He related the story he’s told before about the importance of culture in the city. In many European cities, he said, the most impressive buildings are often dedicated to power – a city hall, a palace of justice or an historic aristocratic seat. In Cincinnati, by contrast, the “palace” is Music Hall, dedicated to culture.

“It’s the most important building here, the most visible in this historic district,” he said. “It’s where people meet and share under the auspices of music. That says something already. It’s not saying everybody is playing an instrument, but that art is the cement of the city.”

Langrée has now hired more than a quarter of the CSO’s members. What he hopes to leave behind is the artistic flexibility he’s tried to create. “My pride is when I hear ‘my’ musicians. When they play the same piece a totally different way. This flexibility is very cherishable.”

Music Hall’s renovation has helped, too. “Now musicians can project, and they can whisper and make details that would have been lost. We are closer to the audience, and the audience is closer to the stage. We [the orchestra and audience] are closer to the music.”

The orchestra in return has given him a great deal, he said. “As a conductor, musician, leader, they have made me a better conductor and a better person.”

The Cincinnati chapter isn’t the only one ending in Langrée’s story. Last summer marked his last with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. He can’t be entirely blamed for that: The festival’s home, Lincoln Center, dropped the festival and reinvented it with a different name (one without “Mozart”) – and a different music director. (Langrée’s influence in the orchestra lives on, though. He hired most of the members.)

The end of two of the biggest chapters of his musical life doesn’t mean there’s any downtime ahead for Langrée. In October 2021, he was appointed director – as in full director, not just music director – of the Théâtre National de l’Opéra-Comique in Paris. Which is to say, he shows no signs of easing his pace.

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