When the Right Things Happen at the Right Time

by Edna Landau

Having lived in New York all my life, I have been a big fan of the Mostly Mozart Festival since its inception. I enjoyed many concerts under the direction of Gerard Schwarz and was surprised that when the festival announced a new music director in late 2002, Louis Langrée, it was someone totally unfamiliar to me. Ten years later, the festival thrives with consistently excellent playing by the Mostly Mozart Orchestra and visiting orchestras, as well as expanded imaginative programming. Also ten years later, Mr. Langrée has been named music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at the age of 52. As things go these days, Mr. Langrée is earning major recognition, at least in America, at a later stage of his career than many of his colleagues. I was curious to know whether he had wished at any point that his career would develop more quickly. A phone conversation with him revealed a degree of wisdom, patience and acceptance that can serve as a model for some of today’s young conductors.

Louis Langrée told me that he is actually happy that things didn’t come faster for him. His early years as a vocal coach and assistant at the Opéra National de Lyon in the mid 1980’s (of which he later became music director) and his subsequent music directorship with Glyndebourne Touring Opera over a decade later laid the foundation for his distinguished work today at the Paris Opera, the Vienna State Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera. His early symphonic experience was gained over the course of a decade as assistant conductor with l’Orchestre de Paris, music director of the Orchestre de Picardie, and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège. In speaking of those years, Mr. Langrée cited a quote from Nietzsche: “Deviens  ce que tu es” (become who you are). He knew he needed time to become who he was already and to achieve the greater depth that comes with age and experience. As offers began to multiply, he felt fortunate to have the services of an excellent agent, Charles Fabius, who knew his strengths and weaknesses and helped him to say no when he might have been tempted to say yes. He also remembered the words of his music analysis teacher who said: “Always be careful to take your time. If you neglect time, it will have its revenge.” He pointed out to me that instrumentalists, such as pianists, learn technique in a way that is similar from one artist to the next but conductors benefit from taking the time to find the language of their own body. He never took conducting lessons but gained invaluable guidance and insight from two very different conductors—John Eliot Gardiner at the Opéra de Lyon and Semyon Bychkov in Lyon and at the Opéra de Paris. The time he spent with them became especially meaningful years later when Jane Moss, vice president for programming at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, was seeking a new music director for the Mostly Mozart Festival. She was very eager to develop a classical style for the orchestra that integrated a period instrument and modern instrument approach and he had experience in both. Mr. Langrée credits his special chemistry with the musicians as the source of his success at the festival over the past ten years. Ms. Moss underscored that when she told me that “his total dedication to the music at hand has, in turn, earned him the complete dedication of every member of the orchestra.” She also mentioned his ability to communicate his love of everything he conducts, which has endeared him to festival audiences.

I asked Mr. Langrée whether conductors benefit from assistant conductorships with high level orchestras or whether they would benefit more from having their own orchestra and getting their feet wet as early as possible. He felt that both were of great importance. Ultimately, it is essential to have the experience of helping an orchestra improve its level of playing. However, it is also of paramount importance to have the sound of great orchestras in your ear, to remind you of what is possible. I also asked if his door is open to conductors seeking advice and was not surprised by his very positive answer. He closed our conversation by telling me how he went to Kurt Sanderling’s hotel when he was over 80 to ask him some questions about Brahms. They spent hours together during which Maestro Sanderling said: “When you conduct this piece someday, try this bowing.” He proceeded to put the bowings, as well as some other markings and phrasing, right in Mr. Langrée’s score. What a thrill it must be, even today, to conduct from that score and to remember that special moment.

© Edna Landau 2013

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