It’s literally midnight in Paris when I reach Maestro Louis Langrée, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s new music director who makes his official debut this weekend at Music Hall. During our conversation (in French), it becomes clear that the CSO’s marketing blast, “Louis + CSO + You,” sums up Langrée’s vision for the orchestra and the community: He frequently uses partager, French for “to share.”
Langrée first appeared with the CSO in 2011, but LumenoCity’s architectural mapping performance in August presented him to a larger audience, estimated at more than 35,000. Under his baton, the CSO more than matched the visually stunning mapping, infusing energy and genuine excitement into warhorses like Ravel’s “Bolero.”
“That was incredible,” he says. “It was a magnificent moment for me. It was such a great opportunity to share this great orchestra and Music Hall with the city, and I was overwhelmed by the turnout. I wasn’t expecting such crowds.”
Langrée’s inaugural concert as music director this weekend pays tribute to the orchestra’s history and heritage with an eye on the future. Langrée says that in planning the concert, he chose works that have unique ties to the orchestra.
“Lincoln Portrait” premiered in 1942 at Music Hall, and was commissioned by the CSO. The work is staged again this weekend with Dr. Maya Angelou narrating Lincoln’s words and multimedia visuals by Dr. James Westwater. Renowned ensemble eighth blackbird performs “On a Wire,” a recent co-commission by Jennifer Higdon, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for music. Beethoven’s iconic Fifth Symphony honors the CSO’s German heritage, says Langrée, adding that the work was performed at the CSO’s first concert in 1895.
“‘Lincoln Portrait’ is a work that I admire,” Langrée says, “a very American work, and it will be played by a leading American orchestra. ‘On a Wire’ was co-commissioned by the CSO and written for eighth blackbird, a group who spent many years in Cincinnati.”
“Beethoven’s Fifth is timeless,” he continues, “and we want to share the music’s joy and passion and the artistry of this orchestra. It symbolizes the human spirit, strength and bravery.”
It’s also one of the most famous symphonies and orchestras who take it on are challenged to make it fresh for their audiences.
Given Langrée’s reading of “Bolero,” the odds look good for an exciting reading of this classic score.
That performance, and all his other concerts here to date, underscored his respect for the CSO’s musicians, whom he describes as an exceptionally talented ensemble. “But more than that,” Langrée says, “they are generous with their talent, with the community, and such generosity is wonderful.”
CSO Principal Trumpet Robert Sullivan, who also served on the search committee that selected the symphony’s new music director, says that Langrée’s first appearance in 2011 put him on the candidate short list. “We immediately recognized his excellent rapport with the players of the orchestra both on and off the podium, which produced some of the finest concerts of the season,” Sullivan says.
Langrée describes his 2011 concerts with the orchestra as an intense and happy collaboration, an experience that led to his decision to become a candidate for music director.
“I was leading a charmed life, conducting all over the world,” he says. “But I wanted to forge a deeper relationship with an orchestra and I couldn’t wait to conduct the CSO again.” That he did, the following August and again when he returned twice during last year’s season as music director designate.
The charmed life he described includes a roster of the world’s leading orchestras and opera houses. He’s been leading New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival since 2002 and serves as Chief Conductor of the Camerata Salzburg. Langrée began his career coaching opera at the Opéra National de Lyon for two years and returned there in 1998 as music director. He served as an assistant conductor throughout Europe and made his American debut in 1992 in Seattle.
Although he admits to knowing little about Cincinnati prior to his candidacy, he’s delighted with the city’s cultural riches, the ambiance of different neighborhoods and especially the welcome he’s received from the community.
“One of the biggest surprises for me is the incredible architecture, especially Art Deco,” Langrée says. “And Union Terminal — what a masterpiece! I’d seen pictures of it but I didn’t realize it was in Cincinnati and now it’s just down the street.”
He doesn’t rule out the possibility of a future LumenoCity at the terminal but he says he needs to get a better sense of working with the space and its challenges.
Besides, Langrée loves Over-the-Rhine and its edgy energy. “There’s a great sense of creativity and innovation you can feel,” he says. “Washington Park is a great venue. I know that at one time it was a sketchy place but now it’s alive and thriving. To see so many thousands of people gathered to celebrate the city was marvelous.”
Cincinnati’s arts organizations have been eager to meet Langrée and he’s clearly impressed with their leadership and accomplishments. When asked about future collaborations, he responds, “Why not? I’m still exploring the possibilities and I’m amazed at the potential for future seasons.”
An exciting collaboration is already on tap for next March, when the CSO joins with MusicNOW, its Artistic Director Bryce Dessner and eighth blackbird for a weekend of world premieres by Nico Muhly and David Lang and performances by Bryce and Aaron Dessner (both of the acclaimed Rock group The National).
Langrée has a four-year contract with the CSO beginning with the 2013-14 season and, according to the press release announcing this appointment, the CSO is the only North American orchestra for whom he will serve as music director during that period.
Immediately following his debut weekend, he leads the CSO, the May Festival Chorus and soloists for a series of “One City, One Symphony” performances featuring Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and Mozart’s rarely heard “David Penitente,” choral settings of the Psalms of David, and future concerts include Ravel, Gershwin and Beethoven.
Whatever the program, for Maestro Langrée it’s a shared experience. “I want the public share the excitement, the passion and the joy this orchestra brings to each concert. It’s truly magnificent.”
The LOUIS LANGRÉE INAUGURAL WEEKEND, featuring Dr. Maya Angelou, eighth blackbird and Dr. James Westwater, runs Friday-Sunday at Music Hall. Tickets and details: 513-381-3300 or cincinnatisymphony.org.