A few minutes spent in conversation with Louis Langrée, Mostly Mozart's new music director, is enough to convince one of his deep affinity for the Festival's signature composer. Equally unmistakable is Langrée's continental charm, the surface manifestation of which is a manner of speech that's without artifice but inflected with the music of his native French tongue, and spiced with real French words. Mozart, he says, "must be always the center point, our référence." But Langrée also wants the Festival to show "what Mozart learned from the Italian masters, the French masters, the German masters‹the élégance of the phrases." And as he dreams of future seasons, he talks of pairing a Mozart work with something like the "Classical" Symphony of Prokofiev, that composer's "direct hommage to the Enlightenment."
Langrée studied piano and flute as a boy in Strasbourg, in the French province historically known as Alsace. ("It's next to the Rhine River," he notes, "where the German-French border kept changing. My grandmother changed passports four times without moving.") In typical European fashion, he first learned the conductor's craft in the opera house, serving as répétiteur‹accompanist and vocal coach‹under John Eliot Gardiner at the Opéra National de Lyon. He would later return to that organization for a two-year stint as music director following five years (1993-98) as music director of the Orchestre de Picardie. Now 42, Langrée has been music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège since 2001, and recently concluded his tenure at the helm of the Glyndebourne Touring Opera.c
Lincoln Center had never before attempted to recruit a music director for the Mostly Mozart Festival, which was led with distinction for 18 years by Gerard Schwarz, a onetime New York Philharmonic trumpeter with major conducting credentials on both coasts. Schwarz's decision to step down as music director following Mostly Mozart's 2001 season provided "the perfect opportunity to take a look at the Festival, where it had been, and where it was going," says Jane S. Moss, Lincoln Center's vice president of programming. Goals included not only maintaining the excellence of the Festival's own orchestra and its refined approach to the 18th-century Classical style, but also "bringing in period-instrument ensembles and other chamber orchestras. We were also eager to expand into theatrical presentations, including opera. As we started looking at how the Festival had evolved from being exclusively dedicated to Mozart to including the Baroque and, in some cases, repertoire from subsequent centuries, it became clear to us that Louis Langrée was the conductor we wanted."
Management and musicians, of course, do not always see eye to eye when it comes to choosing a conductor. "It's a kind of alchemy when it all works," says Moss, "and in this instance it was wonderful to have such a unified opinion." Langrée had guest conducted the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra on three occasions, beginning in 1998. "When he showed up two summers ago," says principal oboist Randall Ellis, "we all knew we were seeing potential candidates for the job." As for whether Langrée fit the bill, "there was no doubt in my mind, and during his time here I've never heard so many positive responses from so many different people in the orchestra."
Langrée's program that summer, Ellis remembers, was "really varied: a Mozart piano concerto with Vladimir Feltsman, a Prokofiev violin concerto with Vadim Repin, a Haydn symphony, and Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. "It was the most brilliant Ravel I think I've ever played, and I've played that piece quite often. So you think, 'Okay, he's a Frenchman, of course he'll do that well. What can he do with everything else?'" For one thing, Ellis learned how adept Langrée was in conducting the two concertos, neither of them French and one of them from well outside the Classical period. "There are conductors who can do a great Mozart symphony but really don't work well and interact well with a piano soloist or a violin soloist, where you need to, in a sense, 'play the orchestra' and be an accompanist. He did that brilliantly."
Like most orchestral players, Ellis admires a conductor who can invoke the inner spirit of a piece while giving the musicians some individual freedom in realizing it. He remembers another occasion on which he worked with Langrée: "I'm thinking about a place in Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, where he said, 'You know this is a very happy symphony‹Beethoven keeps saying "I'm happy, I'm happy, it's F major"‹but don't you think that perhaps he's protesting too much, that he's too happy, that there's something underneath that's not happy at all?' And of course, that late in Beethoven's life there was anything but happiness. I think it takes a real artist to say to the musicians, 'You're playing it great, but it's just the wrong sound, it's not conveying what I feel this composer is trying to say.' I appreciate that. I can tell myself, 'Okay, I'll just play it with more anger,' or disillusionment, or whatever. That's the type of thing I find incredibly refreshing, and I really like the thought of sitting down and playing music with him."
Langrée now makes his home in Paris, but from the moment he arrives to open his first season until he brings the Festival to a close with Haydn's Creation on August 22 and 23, he'll be a musical New Yorker. In residence with him will be his two children, ages one and three, and his wife Aimée Olmsted Clark (who brings her own New York connection, being a descendant of Frederick Law Olmsted, the most famous landscape architect in U.S. history and a principal designer of Central Park). Moss says that Langrée is "very interested in bonding with the Mostly Mozart audience." He leads five of the Festival Orchestra's own programs this summer, and his off-podium élégance will be on display at a pre-concert discussion with Matthew Gurewitsch on August 15. The new music director will be watching over every aspect of the city's longest-running summer festival, "coming to all the concerts and most of the rehearsals, looking at what works and what doesn't work. Little by little," he says, "I'll let things evolve."
Chester Lane is senior editor of SYMPHONY, the bimonthly magazine of the American Symphony Orchestra League.