AN INTERVIEW WITH LOUIS LANGRÉE
Doyle Armbrust (DA): When I first encountered the programming for this record, I thought, “Oh, this is intriguing,” and then the more deeply I considered it I thought, “Wow, this is actually amazing.” There’s this incredible Venn diagram of the pieces that you’ve selected that are tightly interconnected and yet, on a deeper level than, “Here’s an album of French music,” or, “Here’s an album of music from the 20th century.” It’s really quite profound, I think, the pieces that you’ve chosen.
Louis Langrée (LL): Well maybe it’s because I’m the opposite of “an American in Paris.” I’m a Parisian in America. I really think that right now there is so much fascination, misunderstanding, and tension. Definitely, this is a country which has built more bridges than walls in its history and this openness is part of the richness of the American culture.
Composer George Gershwin (left) and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra percussionist James Rosenberg holding the four taxi horns used in the orchestra’s March 1 & 2, 1929 performances of An American in Paris led by Music Director Fritz Reiner. Photo courtesy of Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts.
DA: Agreed, and one of the things that strikes me about the track list for this album is that each of these composers was really entering a new phase of life as they came to these pieces, in different ways of course. I mean, Gershwin was feeling self-conscious about whether or not his music belonged in classical music, or was well-orchestrated enough. Then, of course, Stravinsky and Varèse, in their expatriating to the United States. Perhaps an interesting leaping-off point is a memory about your first encounter with Cincinnati as a guest conductor?
LL: My first experience with Cincinnati was actually with German music. I was really very impressed by the collective culture of this orchestra. Music Hall is in the center of a district called Over-the-Rhine which is a 19th-century German area. I come from the French region of Alsace which is Over-the-Rhine—the old-world Rhine, and if there is a sacred art in Germany, it is music. In France, it’s very different. It’s more literature, painting; French composers often need a visual or narrative element as a starting point. Symphonie fantastique and La Valse draw inspiration from a vision of a poem, as An American in Paris is a tone poem. On this recording, we have an American composer coming to Paris and a French composer coming to America, and I wanted to contrast and complement these experiences. So, next to these two poems, we have a symphony by Stravinsky which is abstract music. The peculiarity of this piece is that the two first movements were composed mostly in France and the two last movements were composed in the U.S. Stravinsky said that he couldn’t have composed the two first movements in the U.S. and vice versa. I would even add that the third movement, well, it’s more complicated than a simple A-B-A scherzo, but it’s very East Coast. It was composed in Massachusetts. The last movement was composed in California. He said that some passages would have made for the perfect backing track for a neon-lit, Hollywood traffic scene. One can really feel that.
DA: It’s interesting, too, because it’s traditional and yet it’s so episodic. To me, that’s what feels fresh about it.
LL: Absolutely. He composed it right after probably the most horrible time of his life. In less than a year his mother, his wife, and his daughter died.
DA: I’m so sorry, but I’m having trouble hearing you again.
LL: I’m sorry, maybe I could use my French mobile phone. I could call you and you can tell me if it’s better?
[a brief pause for American cellular service]
LL: Can you hear me better?
DA: I can. So, we’ve established that French roaming networks are better than whatever one you use in the States.
LL: Isn’t it amazing that our conversation is now bouncing from the U.S. to France and back helping us to understand each other better?
DA: To back up for a second, I think one of the pleasures of listening to the Gershwin or the Stravinsky is the way in which the piece is influenced by where each happened to be composing. Even with the Varèse, he said at some point that his acoustic or aural impressions of New York must have, in some ways, made their way to his Amériques. I’m wondering if there’s anything in the experience of your arrival in Cincinnati that leaps out to you? It doesn’t necessarily need to be a music one. I’m just wondering about the experience of arriving in that place and maybe the sights or sounds that stick in your brain.
LL: My very first impression of the U.S. was in Charleston, South Carolina at the Spoleto Festival, almost 30 years ago. I was almost disappointed because, for me, America was what I had seen on TV, like on the show Dallas. Instead, my first impression of the U.S. was horse-drawn carriages carting tourists. Also very unexpected for me, especially in Cincinnati and the Midwest, was the heat and humidity—when the air is so thick and full of sweat. Music is sound, but music also evokes perfumes or smells.
DA: I’m curious, what is the purpose of an album when music is experienced in a much different way these days by the public? With the Gershwin, of course, you have a new edition with some fairly significant elements absent from other recordings, and I can see that as being as a leaping-off point. But what was your process for landing on these pieces that you’ve chosen?
LL: Wow, that’s a big question. Because you’re right, the way people listen to music now or listen to an album—most of the time they don’t listen to the whole thing—they choose individual pieces. I would say it’s like a concert program. I always like to have an arc in any program. It shouldn’t be cerebral or conceptual. For the people who like this arc, it’s great because they will find plenty of satisfaction. And for the people who don’t care at all about that, they should be able to simply listen for pleasure.
DA: To have a purely sonic experience.
LL: Exactly. But why these three major composers of the 20th century? And why do it in Cincinnati? Well, first of all, because each is a part of this orchestra’s history; they came here and played with or conducted the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Stravinsky came here three times to conduct his three big masterpieces: Firebird, Petrushka, and Rite of Spring. In 1940, he also conducted the Symphony in C. He came straight from the world premiere with the Chicago Symphony! Stravinsky praised the discipline of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the players’ interest in his music. They seemed to understand his music and took it very seriously.
He also praised the clarity of the Orchestra. He came first in 1925, when he was still considered in some circles as a hooligan of music. Also, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was one of the first orchestras to invite Edgard Varèse. He came in 1918. Quite often in the musical world, there are opposite approaches. Either you are a traditionalist who embraces masterpieces from the canon, or you go in the opposite direction and embrace contemporary music. With the Cincinnati Symphony, the tradition is to promote contemporary music. Since the beginning of my tenure, we have commissioned 28 new pieces, in addition to numerous Cincinnati premieres! When you read the list of composers who have come to Cincinnati and performed their pieces…you have Saint-Saëns and Scriabin, Elgar and Richard Strauss, Bartók and Rachmaninoff, Copland, Respighi, Poulenc and Penderecki and the list grows longer every season! I want people to know this about the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. I am honored to be music director of an orchestra that has such tradition where contemporary music is in the core of its culture.
DA: It seems that this album is really a celebration of civic pride, extolling what makes the Symphony and its city unique.
LL: Definitely. And here we present the Varèse, with 146 musicians, in its original version which so far has only one studio recording. It’s not only that it has many more musicians than the traditional version, which has already many musicians, but here we have an offstage orchestra. We have 21 percussion players. It’s not just bigger—it evokes another world: wild, raw, overwhelming and provocative. There’s that famous phrase, “There is never a second chance for a first impression.” The first impression—the first edition of this piece—which is for sure highly impractical, is a utopia. This is a visionary piece, inspiring the whole future of music. I love this quote from Varèse. When people said, “Creators are always ahead of their time,” he said, “No, creators are not ahead of their time…most people are behind their own time and that’s why they don’t hear it.” I love this perspective.
DA: It’s very well said. Maestro, I have to go turn on Into the Spider-Verse for my son, and I will be right back with you. I’m sorry to ask you to wait.
LL: No worries, I have two children. I know exactly what you mean.
[a brief pause for Spider-Man]
DA: That’s so well said. For somebody like me that plays a lot of contemporary music, Stravinsky, Varèse and Gershwin are in fact “traditional.” And yet, at the time that they were writing, they were the rabble-rousers. They were the people that were causing all kinds of trouble in the concert halls.
DA: It seems to me just in looking at your programming and career, that this is something that is important to you. It strikes me that with the orchestras I interact with in my writing, it is often these mid-size cities in the country that are actually the most progressive. Gershwin is now accepted widely in the concert hall, and Stravinsky, whose music was originally seen as intensely provocative, is more or less expected in the program book. With Varèse though, there is a little bit of boundary-pushing here. Maybe that’s not the case in Cincinnati, but I appreciate the fact that you’ve given such a strong reason for that piece to exist on this record. There’s an absolute purpose for it being there.
LL: Yes, and it’s three totally different languages and syntaxes. But there are links also. Like the taxi horns—
DA: The sirens are a kind of theme—
LL: —of Gershwin respond to the sirens and the steamboat whistle in the Varèse. The modernity of this piece which was written almost 100 years ago is amazing. It’s still wild, bold, raw, primal, brutal and also very sensuous. And yes, now Gershwin is one of the American heroes of the 20th century. But I’ve read some nasty comments from the time when his piece was composed. It mixes blues, big band and symphonic music. It was not as well accepted as it is now. We are performing the original version of An American in Paris, with the 104 bars which were eventually cut in the last part of the piece. I had no idea of how much was different and how much this piece was reconfigured, trading a more Hollywood-ish for a New York style. The first recording I had, like many people, was Leonard Bernstein’s. There is so much swing. Then you listen to Gershwin’s recording, with him playing the piano reduction—or in the first orchestral recording where he played the celeste in 1929, and you come to discover that swing arrives in the 40s, not in the 20s when ragtime is the predominant style. Even though we are using this original score, we don’t have to copy exactly what Gershwin was doing, but it’s such an amazing source of inspiration to listen to this recording and to listen to him playing his own version on the piano. This is such an important element of what America brought to Europe, because at that time, we were listening to music mostly in concert halls. Suddenly, with jazz, we were listening to music in cabaret. We were dancing to music. [Maurice] Ravel was spending every evening in New York listening to jazz, and he was fascinated with how Gershwin could have played all these impossible rhythms and patterns with such a steady left hand while being so free with his right. This is also something I wanted to capture: to be rigorous and flexible at the same time.
DA: For sure, but let’s not downplay the importance of Europe. There’s a lot of music that originated in America but only became popular once it went to Europe. I think of free jazz or house music in Chicago. All of this music needed to abscond to Europe for Americans to finally say, “Oh, this is actually really good.” Then suddenly, everyone finally gets on board with it.
LL: All of that is part of the richness of this album. I’ve asked my grandmother, who was a young woman during World War I, about the big band music that arrived with the U.S. military. I mean, she lived in a little village in Alsace. And her sister, my great aunt, fell deeply in love with a beautiful American soldier who was playing this new music and said he would eventually come and take her to the U.S. when the war was over. She never heard from him. So, all her life, until the 1970s, when I knew her, she was waiting because he had promised. She was kind of a Madame Butterfly. No one knew if he was killed or if he just went back home. But she was faithful to him for all her life.
DA: Oh my word.
LL: And this old woman kept speaking about the wonderful American. So maybe the affinity and the desire to know more comes from these very simple family stories. All of this fascination and inspiration on both sides. It’s very French, too. If you look at the history of French opera, who are the people who made French opera even more French? It’s Lully who is Italian. Then it’s Gluck who was German. Then who invented the French Grand Opera and French Operetta? It’s Meyerbeer and Offenbach who were German. So, it’s not that an influence made you copy something.
Sometimes it even helps you to discover your own language. It’s a form of richness and inspiration which gives you an even stronger identity.
DA: I love that. It gets back to what you mentioned earlier about “building bridges.” I don’t know about you but this phrase that, “Music is a universal language” is something that’s always struck me as odd. I don’t think it’s universal. I think it’s an expression of culture, it’s an expression of a time and a place. Yet, it is also a way that we communicate. It’s amazing these connections that you’re drawing on are so powerful. It is a way that we do come together even if it is not, on face value, a universal thing.
LL: You’ve said it perfectly.
DA: Back to this recording, I’m wondering if there’s anything that’s noticeably different in the studio that’s substantially different from when you’re up on stage in front of an audience?
LL: It’s different because you can stop and do it again. You also have a much more analytical ear because you’re focusing on maybe 50 measures at a time. With microphones, it’s a little bit isolated. But on a recording you have maybe a bigger feeling of the richness of all the elements and then how they interact together—how they are juxtaposed or how they are opposed to each other. And if we speak about an orchestra, I mean, of course, it’s the color which is so important. It is very important in Varèse. All these clashing or merging styles and colors; it needs to be elegant.
DA: It’s about subtlety.
LL: And the opening of An American in Paris is French with an American accent. Gershwin is not writing French music. He’s writing how an American composer would experience France. Of course, the most famous and obvious difference in this original version is the pitch of the taxi horns. We know that mostly, of course, because of the recording and the pictures that were taken in Cincinnati with Gershwin, the orchestra’s principal percussionist James Rosenberg holding the taxi horns labeled “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” which are not actually the notes, but simply #1, #2, #3, #4. I love being a part of this wonderful experience and experiment, going back to the source of Gershwin’s composition.
DA: One of the things that I love about the way you’re talking about this is that it’s perhaps getting us a little bit closer to what Gershwin actually had to say without the filter of expectations, or of history.
LL: I agree. The difference in orchestration and articulation in an attempt to make it more “normal” makes you lose the authentic voice of Gershwin, which is so unique in the history of music. He was inventing something.
DA: As all the composers on your program were in different ways. This has been such a wonderful conversation. It’s been a total pleasure.
LL: Thank you…but we really haven’t talked about Stravinsky yet.
DA: I guess we have skipped over Stravinsky, and this was such a pivotal moment in his life.
LL: It is an important piece because Amériques was so influenced by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, from the very first alto flute solo. It must have been inspired by the beginning of Rite, but in the Varèse the flute sounds much more like a mysterious snake charmer. The link between the Rite of Spring and Amériques is very obvious. There is also a narrative in An American in Paris and there is a vision. There’s no narration in the Varèse, but there’s certainly vision. And as I said, this music even smells of industry and urban life. For Stravinsky, finding a new way for modernity involved going back to this balance of perfect form and of abstraction—not using narrative as a support but just pure music. But in creating something that’s new, it’s a piece of transformation with old material—like the second movement where you have all these old-style dances that create something totally new while honoring tradition. Then there’s the third movement, which leaps over the Atlantic Ocean in a second and remains one of the trickiest pieces I have ever conducted. He said himself that the meter and tempo changes in the third movement are the most extreme in his catalogue of works. It’s full of traps and full of scary moments that require cold blood—
DA: Ice in your veins—
LL: —and extreme tension and concentration which generates a very specific attack, you know, when it’s mixed with fear and concentration. How can I describe that? He said that he would never have imagined composing such a piece in Europe because it’s a different language. But the arc of the piece is made with the same material, which comes back at the end. So, there is diversity and unity at the same time, which makes the perfect piece for this album. A symphony with European culture and American inspiration combining in one piece. Isn’t it fascinating to hear Stravinsky’s conversations; starting a phrase in French, then continuing in German, finishing in English—with some words of Russian in the middle? I think it’s the perfect unifier.
LL: These three works represent three different understandings of modernity. Amériques is modern because Varèse is turning his back on the history of music. He doesn’t want tonality anymore, or even atonality, or any reference to previous styles. By contrast, Stravinsky is using ancient forms to explore new musical styles, and in Gershwin’s music, jazz and symphonic music dialogue with one another.
DA: As we wrap up, I want to make space for anything else you’d like to say.
LL: I think that the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has made me a better conductor. I’m grateful for this American musical culture. And perhaps, I don’t know, it’s not for me to say, but together we have discovered some flexibility in phrasing. It’s a wonderful and fruitful collaboration. It’s a wonderful chapter in my life as a musician but as a person, also. This experience is making me grow.
DA: To blossom.
LL: Yes. What does it mean to be a music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra? It’s not that you conduct more programs than another conductor. You have to understand the great aspects of the city and you have to understand the problems of the city and then you have to make the orchestra part of the solutions to these problems. It’s not only about making music. I’m really happy that together we have to find an answer to the problems and also to enjoy together the grandeur of the United States. It’s something wonderful.
DA: You’re hitting on the most salient point of the question, “Why does classical music need to exist today?” If it’s not speaking directly to the community in 2019, then what is its purpose?
DA: It needs to say something now, not simply just exist in the museums.
LL: Yes. Otherwise orchestras are just expensive.
DA: Yes, it’s a very expensive hobby.
LL: It’s more than just music. You use music to say something bigger than music. But when you use the musical language, then it’s priceless. It still has a cost, but the message and the effect is priceless.
DA: Don’t say anything more. That’s a perfect outro.
LL: Okay, wonderful to speak with you.
DA: Good night now.