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Episode Transcript

Kristy Geslain: Since 2002, fans of the Mostly Mozart Festival have been delighted by the charismatic leadership of Renée and Robert Belfer Music Director Louis Langrée. After 16 years, how does he keep his relationship with the audience—and the musicians of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra—exciting and new? On the eve of the 2018 Mostly Mozart Festival, I spoke with Mr. Langrée about the joys of returning to Lincoln Center each summer, the difference between being a guest conductor and a music director, and, of course, the genius of Mozart.

This is Lincoln Center with Louis Langrée.

Louis Langrée, welcome to This is Lincoln Center.

LL: Thank you. Thank you so much. I'm so excited.

KG: It's so nice to have you here. You are a long-time fixture here at Lincoln Center primarily through your work as the music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival, though a lot of other things too that we'll get to eventually. But for those listeners who don't know about the festival, let's start there. Tell us a little bit about the Mostly Mozart Festival.

LL: We have our orchestra, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. We play one month of concerts with music composed, of course, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

But also any piece which could have a relation with Mozart's style or message, language, syntax. You know, with Mozart, he's this composer, this genius who was a master in every genre: sacred music, theatrical music, instrumental music.

This year we'll also present a theatrical piece, world premieres, ballet, so every genre will be explored. And I think what makes the success of this festival is that you have this wonderful diversity and also very unique and identifiable style.

KG: And how would you sum up that style?

LL: What makes Mozart's music so unique relates also of the time when Mozart was living, a time of Classical era. On the one side, the Age of Enlightenment and on the other side, one can feel that the world is going to change politically and also artistically.

Mozart's music has this incredible balance between sensitivity and sensibility, between the emotional side, but also speaking to us as mensch. So, Mozart's music, it's not only music for itself. He uses music to bring a higher message.

The message of Mozart is timeless. Mozart was an amazing architect, so the structure is a masterpiece, but the structure itself is not enough to make a great piece of art. The structure is here to support the musical message of Mozart, and this balance is absolutely, yeah, unique.

KG: As music director, what's your job? What does the music director of the festival do?

LL: The music director is here to build identity, a collective style, a collective sound. A guest conductor will play with that. He will definitely influence the way he wants a piece to sound. Some conductors could ask or could go to the same direction as my direction, but with different words, with different approach, and that's great.

Some other conductor will ask exactly the opposite and that's great, too, because the music of Mozart is vast enough to welcome many readings. But it's not that the orchestra would sound one day like that and completely different the next week. It's knowing how we conceive and perform this music together. Therefore, the choice of vibrato, the articulation, the phrasing, the palette of colors.

Every possibility is legitimate. We have to make a choice.

The reason, I think, Jane Moss asked me to be the music director 16 years ago, was because there were four characteristics that I cherish. In every piece of Mozart, there is this mixing of sacred music, theatrical music, instrumental music.

When you conduct Don Giovanni, an opera, if you take the last fugue, the end of the opera, you have this almost sacred vision of the piece. When you perform Requiem, there is, even if it's church music, liturgic music, there is a theatrical dimension to it all the time.

In Mozart's time, you didn't have a symphony orchestra to play concerts and opera orchestras. You just had orchestras. And still, today, when you go in Vienna, the Vienna Philharmonic is actually the orchestra who plays in the pit at the state opera and they give concerts.

Same in Leipzig, Gewandhaus; or in Dresden, these great orchestras have always these two dimensions, playing theater, playing also concerts. And in the case of Gewandhaus Leipzig, playing in the church, playing the Bach Cantatas and Passions. So that was, I think, a very important element.

The other element, which is not in this country part of the general musical tradition, which is having an experience with period orchestras, a musician playing instruments of Mozart's time. In Europe, it's completely part of the scope. I have the feeling that in this country it's still something, not that people don't like it, but something apart, something different.

So, this is very important for Mozart because we have to let ourselves be inspired by, for instance, natural horns when they play without valves, which means that when Mozart writes an F-sharp or an E-flat, which are notes that a normal, natural horn cannot produce, it gives this distorted sound that Mozart always uses on climax of tension or of screams, you know, how to depict a scream.

Now, with natural instruments, we have a bit forgotten that. Also playing on gut strings; flutes in wood, not in metal. So we don't have to copy the sound of these instruments. When I'm conducting Mozart's piece with a period orchestra, I don't ask the musicians to sound like Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. It would be ridiculous.

But to be influenced and inspired is absolutely crucial in this music. Because Mozart was writing for the instruments he knew, but in the same time his vision was opening the doors to the future of music. Seeing the history of music from what came before and what would arrive after put Mozart in the center is not only interesting, but part of, I would say, the Mozart culture. Like Mozart was studying Bach, but in his Symphony No. 40, G Minor, romanticism is approaching, ready to explode.

KG: For someone who's so steeped in the European orchestral tradition, you're now the most associated with two American orchestras. What was that transition like? What do you think led you from the European tradition to such an American career, I guess, in a way, with these two well-known American orchestras?

LL: I think one of the reasons of the success between the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra and me, of our match, our chemistry, is because we are different, which means that I bring something that they're maybe not used to. Well, after 16 years, they are used to it, they are used to it now, which was not part of their vision of music.

They bring also to me this American way, which on many aspects is quite Mozartian. You know, this very clear attack, very crystal clear articulation. This is very Mozart. Also this efficiency, playing this energy, this immediacy is something that I love and I think that I made this orchestra playing better and these musicians made me a better conductor. I don't say that a musician is playing better because he plays with me. It's not that. But collectively, as a group, I think we have developed wonderfully well. And when I say we, I include myself, because these musicians, yeah, definitely made me a better conductor with them.

KG: And what about specific pieces? What are your thoughts on how these works have evolved over the years? Because certainly there's been repetition. I'm sure you've done several pieces several times throughout your two decades now. What has that been like, revisiting these works over time with the same orchestra?

LL: When we revisit a piece, let's say Jupiter Symphony for instance, that we have played quite a lot—you know, we play for five weeks together and then each musician goes to his or her orchestra or activity. It can be symphony orchestra. It can be opera orchestras, which are completely different styles, but when we come back we are just developing our . . . together. And year after year we find each other much more quickly. So even if after having performed a symphony one time we feel, "Yeah, that was the best. We have given our very, very best." Well, two, three years after, we start first rehearsal from so much higher than two years ago and then we reach even higher ideals because we know each other and because this piece has grown into us, so we have a freedom of letting each other be inspired by all the other musicians.

Isn't it amazing every time you revisit a piece, you study it again, you find new things that you hadn't seen before? Then you feel, "How is it possible that I didn't see that? It's so obvious." Well, it's obvious now. And that's the magic, the mystery of any art piece. When you read for the tenth time a book, you find things that you hadn't noticed before. You watch a movie or you look to a painting. We can spend hours going back to some museum because we deeply love a painting and every time it's even more beautiful.

And that's why coming and discovering new piece or rediscovering a piece that we have the feeling to know—I mean, so many people could sing the whole Mozart Requiem, so why come in and listen to it again? Well, because we will definitely find new resonance together. So, it's rediscovering a piece, but it's also using this piece to go deeper in our own sensibility, sensitivity, and enjoying our secret garden blossoming through these pieces.

KG: It has to do, too, with our own place in the world in a specific time. You know, not only that our view of a piece evolves, but where we are in either our lives, on a small level, or as a culture, or you know, politically, socially, all of these things also impact the way a piece resonates.

LL: Absolutely. The world is very different today than it was three years ago. Even less. We all listen and feel and experience pieces through the prism of who we are, but also the prism of the world. Do you hear syncopation or really violent "Dies irae, Dies irae"? How does this music of destruction, ashes relate to us? Very differently than how we could collectively feel in, I don't know, in the '90s? In the '80s?

And I would say that's why it's also important not only to listen to music through media, or YouTube, etc., or Spotify, but come in a concert and let's experience it together. The miracle of music—music is not about notes. It's the vibration which exists when people—people who play, who sing, who conduct, who listen—we are united in this energy, feeling, breathing, higher collective understanding.

KG: Something that strikes me about this festival, in particular, is how familial it is. Musicians in the orchestra that have been here for years and years, some who had babies during the festival who are kids now. And the patrons that come back again and again, the donors that support year after year. Can you talk a little bit about that? About how tight knit—is that right? Am I interpreting it the way that it—does it feel that way?

LL: Absolutely. And this relates—as a European where the arts are funded by Ministry of Culture, institutions, we don't depend on people. It's just, we have subsidies from the government. Here in this country, I must say, I'm amazed by it. I love it. It's that so many people care for their institutions. I'm not only the music director of Mostly Mozart, I'm the Renée and Robert Belfer Music Director.

KG: Right. The Belfers are long-time supporters of Lincoln Center.

LL: These people, yes, support, love music, love the festival, and support it. Even somebody who is going to purchase a pair of tickets, by coming, buying tickets, they support the festival, they support Lincoln Center. They support an institution they care of. This doesn't exist in Europe.

In Europe you can love a piece, or an artist, or an orchestra, or a concert hall, everything—the program—but you never have the feeling to be responsible of this institution because the institution has money anyway from your taxes. Well, here, people pay taxes also, but they have this feeling that they support the art or the institution or a person. This is something completely unique because everybody's active.

It's like in a concert experience. In a concert experience, you need musicians who will play. You need audience who will participate by listening, listening actively. It's the same in your attitude, as a person, in a country or in a city or in a community, you know, supporting hospitals, schools, museums, orchestras, chamber music societies, theater—because we need the arts.

Having wonderfully generous people, some generous with their money, generous with their time—being part of this community is something that I think Europeans, we should learn from you about that.

KG: Talk about your fellow musicians and the bond that you've developed with them over the years.

LL: Why is an orchestra so fascinating, including for me? I mean, it's part of an ideal society. If everybody is playing the best way they can, it's not going to be a great orchestra. It's by listening to the other, by responding to the other, or provoking.

The relationship between a music director and musician is something, still for me, quite mysterious. Because it's so intimate what you deliver with the music. Of course, if it's art, it is so personal. But it doesn't mean that we go on holidays together.

The proximity, the intimacy is primarily through the art. It's a very specific personal relationship. Because the conductor can ask normal things that you ask during rehearsals: "Sharper. Lower. More attack, less... smoother. More edgy."

Within this clear conception of the piece, you have to let space for the musician to be allowed—to allow themselves to express what they have to offer. It doesn't mean that everybody plays the way he or she wants. It is that in this direction everybody can bring what he or she is. In German, they have this wonderful expression, which is, it's a verb, zusammenmusikzieren, which is "making music together." And this is one word. The quality of sound, the quality of shape, the care, this is a gift that musicians offer to you and to the audience.

KG: So in addition to being here for the past two decades and building this orchestra and your own career, you've also had your family with you for a lot of these summers over time. Tell me how that's been. Does it have this feeling of summer camp for the Langrées coming to New York every summer?

LL: Definitely. When you're a music director of an institution, you're a member of this artistic family. But I have my own personal family as well. I was named music director when my son Antoine was born. So, with his sister Celeste, who was 3 years old, and my wife Aimée, we spent every summer together.

You know, a life of a conductor—we used to live in Paris, so most of the time I was traveling. But during the summer, which was also holidays for my children, spending every day together was something just wonderful.

Having both sides, with my artistic family and my personal family, year after year, seeing your children growing, and this festival also growing, is just a source of pure joy.

I think that's why probably our daughter, Celeste, now is a student at Fordham University right across Lincoln Center. Because Lincoln Center is home for her. Because it is a symbol of happiness together, real family, a wonderful time.

KG: Yeah, it's your home away from home.

LL: Yes, exactly. "Home away from home." Wonderful. I love this expression. I just feel blessed. I mean, for me, too. I mean, Lincoln Center is this ideal hive where you have all kinds of performing arts. You have a school, and everybody meets together and you learn and you teach and you listen and you address, and that makes just the most amazing place in the world.

I know many people say that, but I still feel it so I feel the necessity to say it.

KG: I feel it, too. I think it's nice to repeat it. Okay, Louis, one final plug for the festival. Why should our listeners buy a ticket? Why should they come out to the Mostly Mozart Festival this summer?

LL: So many people could feel, "Oh, a classical concert." There is something intimidating or something formal. No, just come and open your soul.

We experience music every day. For instance, we have sad news. We breathe in, I don't know, in the minor key, in C minor. Or suddenly, [gasp] wonderful news. It's C major. Sunny. Or seventh diminished.

Why do people relate to music, even having not studied music? Because as soon as there is an emotion, a deep emotion, there is music, naturally.

I mean, on a wedding or funeral, people sing without feeling, "Oh, am I musician? Am I making music?" No, when there is this intensity and quality of emotion, music is just here to deliver.

Going to a concert is this very mysterious moment where we will forget completely about our daily life. I mean, being in a hurry, having all this stress, then you sit and you can forget all these events which are part of your life. And in the same time, it will help you to connect totally with who you are. You can, through the music, express all the richness, the depth, the diversity of feelings.

KG: Thank you, Louis, thank you for talking to us today.

This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell, Eileen Willis, Hannah Lyons, and Ian Goldstein.

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