Louis Langrée’s Final Season at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Celebrates Musical Diversity

The schedule is classic Langrée, honoring tradition, advocating for new voices and offering a range of artistic collaboration.

Mar 8, 2023 at 5:05 am
click to enlarge Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Music Director Louis Langrée conducts the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony in May 2022. - Photo: Mark Lyons
Photo: Mark Lyons
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Music Director Louis Langrée conducts the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony in May 2022.

This story is featured in CityBeat's March 8 print issue.

Louis Langrée’s final season as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra reflects his passion for music in all its diversity and his great delight in sharing it with audiences and musicians alike. 

The schedule is classic Langrée, honoring tradition, advocating for new voices and offering a range of artistic collaboration. He will conduct six subscription concerts that feature a new touring production of Ambroise Thomas’s opera Hamlet; Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird incorporating puppetry by the creators of “War Horse;” commissions and world premieres from Anthony Davis and Jonathan Bailey Holland; Brahms’ A German Requiem with soloists Will Liverman; and Bryce Dessner, a Cincinnati native and member of indie rock band the National.

“For me, it’s all about the joy of sharing music and how music can elevate people,” Langrée said, speaking to CityBeat from his home in Paris.

The 2023-24 season also pays tribute to his deep affection for the CSO and the city of Cincinnati. Langrée is a rarity among major symphonic conductors, demonstrating his commitment to the city by moving here with his family. (Langrée sold his East Walnut Hills home in the summer and relocated to Paris). 

“I wanted to share in the communal life of Cincinnati, to be a Cincinnatian,” he said. “The music celebrates the city’s presence and grandeur.”

The season opener in October is dedicated to 20th-Century American composers and includes Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, the same work that opened Langrée’s inaugural season in 2013. Dr. Maya Angelou, who was a part of the 2013 performance as a narrator, spoke Lincoln’s iconic words seated in a wheelchair. “It was unforgettable,” recalled Langrée. 

For the 2023 performance, the narrator is actor and activist George Takei.

“Takei is a powerful symbol: a great actor engaged in fighting against anti-Asian prejudice,” Langrée said. 

The CSO commissioned and premiered A Lincoln Portrait in 1942. Since its premiere, the piece now addresses the world, Langrée noted. “It’s a hymn to humanity and universal values.”

Langrée concludes his exploration of French opera (which included the three-year Pelléas et Mélisande project and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges) in November, leading a new touring production of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet from France’s National Theater of the Opéra Comique. In November 2021, Langrée took over as director of the Opéra Comique, and this production gives CSO audiences a unique opportunity to experience the maestro in both his current leadership roles. 

Langrée knows the production and the performers of Hamlet well, having conducted the stage premiere in 2017, which went on to receive several European awards for performances, audio and video recordings. 

“It was a tremendous success,” Langrée said. “But the touring production will be different, of course. It will be more than concert staging or semi-staging, and lighting and film are vital elements.” Baritone Stèphane Degout who sang Hamlet in the 2017 production reprises the role for the CSO performances.

Hamlet is another Cincinnati tribute because the Metropolitan Opera staged the U.S. premiere in Cincinnati while on tour in 1884, per the Metropolitan Opera Archives. 

Langrée refused to single out a favorite composer, but, based on previous program designs, it’s clear that Johannes Brahms holds a special place for Langrée. “Brahms is at the base of the city’s and the CSO’s musical genealogy, and this continues the celebration of sharing Brahms’s music.” Langrée said. 

Next February, the May Festival Chorus joins the CSO for Brahms’ A German Requiem, along with rising stars, baritone Will Liverman and soprano and CCM alum Joelle Harvey. The following April, violin phenom Augustin Hadelich returns to perform Brahms’ violin concerto. 

Maintaining the CSO’s commitment to orchestral commissions throughout his tenure, Langrée will feature new works from composers with whom he collaborated in past seasons. Langrée’s April concert includes an as-yet-unnamed piece from Jonathan Bailey Holland, former CSO composer-in-residence, whose compositions celebrated Music Hall’s 2018 re-opening. The piece is a co-commission and will premiere in Los Angeles before its CSO performances.

Dessner has been commissioned by leading orchestras and ensembles in the U.S. and Europe. In May, recent works by Dessner are featured, with pianist Alice Sara Ott performing the U.S. premiere of his piano concerto. Dessner, Ott and Langrée team up for the season’s final CSOProof event that weekend.

“What I like about Bryce is his appetite for composing without borders,” Langrée said. “He’s always searching for new ways to bring his diverse experiences into other genres, creating music that’s accessible.”

Langrée’s grand finale in May is a fitting summary of his career with the CSO: a new work from a long-neglected living composer and a classic ballet score with a different kind of movement and fantasy.

A new work by Anthony Davis will open the concert. Davis’s eerie You Have the Right to Remain Silent was a highlight of the CSO’s first digital broadcasts in 2020 and working with both the piece and its composer deeply moved Langrée. 

“I wanted to continue the journey with Anthony and asked him for a song cycle,” Langrée said. “His music has been unknown for too long, and I am so happy to have him create something new for us.”

Davis’s work is untitled, but the soloist will be acclaimed soprano Latonia Moore.

The Firebird caps Langrée’s series of Stravinsky’s complete ballet scores and this time, movement is part of the experience, incorporating the wizardry of Handspring Puppetry, the creative team for the stage epic War Horse. The setting is reimagined as a South African village and the CSO press release promises a “fiery ending,” but Langrée assured that nothing will go up in smoke.

Judging from the press photos, Firebird promises to be thrilling.

There was a rare moment of pride when Langrée assessed his final season. “I wanted to make music with my friends on stage and in the hall,” he said. “We achieved that quite remarkably, the joy of sharing music, how it can elevate people and inspire them to overcome life’s difficulties, especially during COVID.”

And according to Langrée, one thing this season is not is a farewell. 

“I don’t like big farewells, so it won’t be,” he said. “As long as I’m invited back as a guest conductor, I’ll be happy to make music here in this special place. The CSO and the CSO community will always be a part of my heart.”

For more information about Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, visit cincinnatisymphony.org.

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