Portrait of the Music Director: Emerging Artist Captures Langrée’s Spirit
by David Lyman
The invitation came out of the blue.
“It was an email,” recalls portrait painter Savannah Tate Cuff. “I think they may have found me online. Then they discovered my Cincinnati connections and…well, honestly, I’m not exactly sure how they found me.”
That was December 2021. A few phone calls and emails later, Savannah had been commissioned to create a portrait of CSO Music Director Louis Langrée. On October 11, nearly two years after that initial email, Savannah’s portrait of Langrée was unveiled in a small ceremony in Music Hall’s Wilks Studio. The following day, it was moved to the South Concourse on Music Hall’s orchestra level, a location where anyone visiting the building can view it.
Amber Ostaszewski, the CSO’s Director of Audience Engagement, had been the person charged with finding an artist to paint Louis’ portrait. It was she who sent that initial email. And, as Amber tells it, finding Savannah wasn’t as completely random as the artist had thought.
“The first thing I did was ask Louis if he had any suggestions or preferences,” says Amber, noting that finding an artist with deep Cincinnati connections was a priority. Then, Amber, who has a substantial background working in the visual arts, scoured the internet for painters who not only specialized in portraiture but also seemed comfortable working in a style that might mesh with the other portraits in the South Hall.
“We winnowed down the list to five or so artists,” says Amber. “Then we showed their work to Louis.”
Savannah’s portfolio immediately leapt out.
Not only did her portraits show exceptional technical skill, but they were also uncommonly expert in the way they revealed so much about their subjects’ personalities. It didn’t hurt that Savannah’s Cincinnati pedigree was unmatched. It turned out that she is a graduate of Walnut Hills High School (WHHS)—just like Louis’ children Antoine and Céleste.
Even more important were the stylistic qualities of Savannah’s paintings. On the one hand, they were fairly traditional presentations. There would be nothing too shocking to the visually unadventurous. But, at the same time, there was a freshness and vigor in her paintings that Louis found especially appealing.
“Louis has always been a champion of fresh, new musical artists,” says Amber. “And I think that carries over to visual artists, too.”
Unlike most of the artists whose work is displayed in Music Hall, Savannah is at the beginning of her career. “I like to think of myself as just starting out,” she says. “I’m just 30.”
But perusing her website—www.savannahtatecuff.com—offers no hints of an emerging artist. Rather, the site reveals an output of paintings and drawings more representative of someone twice her age.
Much of that stems from the nature of her training.
“I had an art history class with a teacher named Miss Wilkinson when I was in high school,” says Savannah. “I had always liked portraits. But there was something about Miss Wilkinson’s class that inspired me in a very profound way.”
Thanks to an award from the WHHS Alumni Foundation, she attended a monthlong art workshop in France.
“I was just 16 and it was my first international flight,” she says. She was nervous. But she was ready for anything. And the intensity of the experience—painting and drawing all day, every day—changed her outlook on how she wanted to pursue her art.
“I realized that I wanted an alternative to the traditional university or college art training,” she says. “I wanted something more like the 19th century French academy training. Pretty quickly, I realized that you just can’t find that at most U.S. colleges.”
And so, like so many American artists a century or more before her, she again headed to Europe. Specifically, to Florence, the home of the Renaissance. There, she found the Angel Academy of Art, a small, atelier-style institution where she spent three years earning a diploma. There were none of the non-art academic subjects she would have had to study in a traditional university setting. Instead, the curriculum was filled with individual instruction and classes in rarified subjects like Bargue drawing and cast painting. And lots and lots of work with live models.
Then it was off to seven years of training at New York’s Grand Central Atelier, where she is now a resident artist.
Painting Louis Langrée has been filled with challenges.
Foremost among them was Louis’ hectic travel schedule—he is also director of Opéra-Comique in Paris—which caused him to be unavailable for a series of sittings.
“That was okay because, actually, I prefer to see a series of photographs and work from those,” says Savannah. “Then I can pick and choose various elements from different photos—the eyes from one photo, the angle of the head from another. You can create the perfect pose. Besides, with photos you get more spontaneity. If you rely on many hours of sittings, you run the risk of your subject looking bored.”
And as we all have come to know over the past decade, Louis is never boring. Animated, enthusiastic, informed, impassioned—those are the sorts of qualities we have come to expect from him.
Aside from that photo session in Cincinnati, Savannah and Louis met just once—in New York City, during the 2022 Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center.
“That was actually the first time I met him,” says Savannah. “I asked him so many questions; what did he want his expression to be like, did he have any ideas for props, poses, clothing, any special mementoes he wanted in the painting. What was his favorite color. ‘Blue,’ he said, as he showed me his ultramarine-colored socks. He thought that would stand out against all the reds at Music Hall.”
In the end, the socks didn’t make the cut. But the background is a subdued blue, mixed with what might be patches of clouds. Or a sliver of a backdrop.
“The most important thing—besides capturing some of Louis’ spirit—was that I wanted this to look like it was painted today, in the 21st century. I didn’t want to mimic 19th-century paintings. There isn’t even a baton in the painting. Louis is a modern man. That’s what I wanted. And that was what he wanted.”
And what she has done is give us a portrait of a man who is not too formal. He is the Louis who is comfortable in his own skin. There is no tie—just an open collar. He is relaxed but intense. There is the head of slightly unkempt hair and the short beard that is just this side of scruffy. This is the Louis we all have come to know, the man we would feel comfortable sharing a brandy with.
“I really like it,” says Savannah. “I hope he does, too.”
Louis Langree’s portrait is a gift of the Striker Family in memory of Theodore W. Striker, MD.