Louis Langrée, who this month is making his New York Philharmonic debut, already is a familiar figure at Lincoln Center. Music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival since 2003, an appointment that has been extended through 2023, the French conductor is no stranger to David Geffen Hall, which the Philharmonic shares with the popular summer festival.
Langrée was mesmerized by New York even at his first visit, in the summer of 1998. “For a young European, New York was more than a city,” he recalls. “It represented a fantasy. I found even more, a reality full of sunshine and energy, with a positive vibe I continue to feel every time I return. And in this fast-paced city, I was impressed, too, by the kindness of people. On the street, as I tried to find my way with my map, so many strangers stopped to ask, ‘May I help you?’”
When he has found himself in New York, as when he has conducted at The Metropolitan Opera, he has often crossed the plaza to hear the Philharmonic. Seated among the audience, he has observed with keen attention the musicians, the various conductors and guest artists—and discovered repertoire. There was Walton’s Violin Concerto, led by Lorin Maazel. And during Alan Gilbert’s tenure, Rouse’s Phantasmata, which proved a revelation: Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, of which Langrée is also music director, would commission the composer’s Sixth Symphony. Langrée says: “Those performances demonstrated clarity, vitality, and power, qualities I had imagined, but also a wonderful chiaroscuro, and revealed an extraordinary range of color.”
Louis Langrée’s first acquaintance with the New York Philharmonic came in his youth, through LPs he collected in France. “I had recordings of the Orchestra with Leonard Bernstein, including Rhapsody in Blue, Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service, and the complete Beethoven symphonies. Those Haydn symphonies—precise, crisp, fluent—exuded energy, dramatic contrast, and a kaleidoscope of musical color.”
Just as innate curiosity seems to define Langrée’s character, so does a collaborative approach to music, formed as part of his background. Trained as a pianist and with a love of singers’ repertoire, he entered the European opera house tradition, first as vocal coach, then at rehearsals as assistant conductor, and, eventually, conductor of performances. At the Orchestre de Paris, Langrée studied the conducting of music director Semyon Bychkov and of the likes of Carlo Maria Giulini, Zubin Mehta, Pierre Boulez, Kurt Sanderling, and Christoph von Dohnányi, each of whose work with the orchestra proved as distinct as their personalities.
For Langrée, the flow the conductor establishes in performance provides the basis of structure for the orchestra and allows freedom of expression for every player. He is keen, too, that the performance should allow audiences to immerse themselves in its totality. About the repertoire he selected for his Philharmonic debut—works by Debussy, Ravel, and Scriabin—he notes: “While the music is richly evocative, with a mystery of content, underlying it is a specificity of means that require first-class musicians, and, above all, first-class music-making.”
Langrée is eager to share this music with the Philharmonic and audiences alike. “For these works written in the last decade of the 19th century and the first of the 20th, you need a density of sound and a diverse palette of color, which at times shimmer, and assured precision.” He adds: “Ravel’s evocative songs depict foreign landscapes, suggest longing, at times ambiguous. Also, I do not think that it is an accident that the Russian composer Scriabin gave the title of his remarkable Poème de l’extase, and specified many intentions, in French—très parfumé (very perfumed), avec une ivresse toujours croissante (with a growing sense of intoxication), presque en délire (almost delirious). They contribute to a score—and music—which is illustrative, sensuous, and daring.”
Mario R. Mercado, the author of The Evolution of Mozart’s Pianistic Style, writes on music, dance, art, and architecture.