Ode to Joy: How Louis Langrée Transformed the CSO

From his first public appearance as music director at Lumenocity to his final season in Cincinnati, opening this month, Louis Langrée brought a new spark to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. And he learned to be a Cincinnatian.

Louis Langrée was introduced to the public as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in July 2013, at the original Lumenocity event. Thousands of people crowded onto the Washington Park lawn to watch elaborate projection-mapped images dance across Music Hall’s facade. Cincinnati Pops conductor John Morris Russell heralded his arrival with a jaunty run-through of the 1960s hit tune “Louie Louie.”

The immense audience cheered, and Langrée suddenly felt that he’d come home—even though he was a long way from his native Alsace region in France. After the crowd settled down, he led the full orchestra in pieces by Tchaikovsky, Copland, Beethoven, and Ravel to accompany the projections.

Today, as he begins his 11th and final season conducting the CSO, Langrée, 62, is truly a recognized public figure in Cincinnati. He’s the respected leader of the city’s largest arts organization, yes, but also someone you might have bumped into at Walnut Hills High School or a farmers’ market.

He spent his early career conducting orchestras and opera companies in Europe and the United Kingdom, and his first U.S. conducting appearance was in 1991 at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. He became music director of New York City’s Mostly Mozart Festival in 2003, which he continued to lead while living and working here. He’s given up both U.S.-based posts to return to France, where he’s been named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and an Officier des Arts et des Lettres. Langrée now will focus on one full-time job: director of the Théâtre National de l’Opéra Comique in Paris, a position he’s held since 2021.

Saying he hopes to continue performing with the CSO as a guest conductor, Langrée plans to visit Cincinnati as often as possible. He and his wife, Aimée, raised two children here, in a beautiful old house in Walnut Hills. Living in the city while leading its orchestra, he says, was the only way to be fully engaged. “We found, by pure chance, this wonderful house, which was kind of a dream for me,” he says. “How lucky I have been every day. I loved this historic house, built in 1897—two years older than the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.”

His connection with Cincinnati began on his first visit to interview for the music director position. On a taxi ride from the airport, his driver, hearing Langrée’s French accent, asked if he was coming to work for Procter & Gamble. “I said, No, I come for the symphony,” he recalls. The driver responded enthusiastically, “Oh, the symphony! It’s wonderful.” Langrée thought, “Wow! A taxi driver who is a music lover. He told me, No, it’s actually not my thing. I prefer baseball and football. But I know the orchestra is great.” That resonated with Langrée. “It’s a shared pride that the orchestra is important,” he says.

Thinking of his native France, he says, “In every city, the center of the city is either the cathedral or the city hall or the palace of justice. Here in the center of Cincinnati, it is Music Hall, the temple of music. The center is for the art.”

His first visit to Cincinnati was as a guest conductor in March 2011, when Langrée led the CSO for Brahms’s “Tragic Overture,” Schumann’s Cello Concerto with cellist Jian Wang, and Brahms’s First Symphony. That appearance played a part in the 27-month search for a successor to Music Director Paavo Järvi. In an April 2012 news release, arts patron Ann Santen, who chaired the search committee, said, “We have an outstanding orchestra with musicians who can do anything a conductor asks them. From the first rehearsal, it was clear that Louis Langrée knew how to ask it, and the players responded. In addition to being a superb musician and an elegant conductor, Louis has compelling programming ideas and a real passion for engaging the community. He is a perfect fit for Cincinnati, and as the CSO’s Music Director he will be a tremendous addition to the community.”

Langrée lived up to that prediction and exceeded the committee’s expectations. As he launches the CSO’s 2023–2024 season this month, Santen is more convinced than ever that he was the best choice. “We were looking for somebody who could establish a rapport with the orchestra, who had experience, and knew the repertoire,” she says. “I don’t think we envisioned someone who would interface with the community in the way that Louis did. For him, this was home. He bought a house right away. He loved the history of the orchestra and the city.”

Langrée, wife Aimee and children Antoine and Celeste at their Walnut Hills home. // PHOTO BY SAM GREENE

Langrée’s son and daughter attended Walnut Hills High School, where he’d occasionally appear as the guest of music teachers. His wife, Aimée, became a language teacher with Alliance Française. They shopped at Findlay Market and in nearby grocery stores. They became Cincinnatians.

Langrée’s Parisian charm, his kindness and openness, and his good-hearted nature were cited by almost everyone interviewed for this story. He simply loved getting established in the Queen City and learning the city’s history in the context of our musical traditions.

“He treats everyone within the CSO the same way, whether it’s the cleaning staff or the concertmaster,” says CSO President and CEO Jonathan Martin. “He treats people always with respect and a soft touch. That’s an attribute of his personality that makes itself known over time. His music-making is an extension of his personality.”

Violinist Tim Lees was CSO’s concertmaster when Langrée arrived and served with Santen on the search committee. He immediately admired Langrée’s honesty. “He related on the level of a human being with the musicians, not so much as a conductor who is directing us,” says Lees. “It makes you want to do things with him and for him as a musician.”

His successor as concertmaster, Stefani Matsuo, points out another quality. “What you see from the audience when Louis is onstage is this joy and this happiness to be creating music,” she says, “That’s not a show or a put-on for an audience. That’s him.”

Langrée infused the orchestra’s musicians with his excitement and desire to experiment with new music. “His curiosity in the arts and in Cincinnati as a community is part of what makes him so likable,” says Matsuo, the CSO’s first female concertmaster. “Once he finishes a rehearsal, he continues to want to immerse himself in the community, in the orchestra family, in Cincinnati in general. That genuine quality has really been appreciated.”

Principal Oboist Dwight Parry, a longtime CSO musician, says Langrée came across right away as being down to earth. “He didn’t seem like the world-traveling, high-profile musician that he is,” he says. “Instead he appeared as a neighbor in need of a cup of sugar. He treats us like home. He’s a musical leader, but he’s more like a collaborative friend.”

Langrée cherishes working with knowledgeable musicians, saying it isn’t the conductor’s job to impose his will—rather, musicians should be empowered to play as they speak and respond to each other. He cites advice he received from legendary French conductor Georges Prêtre more than 50 years ago: “The conductor must impose his interpretation and let the musicians play. That sounded like good advice. You need to have the clarity to transmit to the musicians with words or with no words.”

Martin says Langrée’s music-making is an extension of his personality. “It’s intelligent, it’s thoughtful, it’s nuanced, it’s emotionally valid. He never showboats. He’s the kind of director who lets the beauty of music come from the musicians and to the audience. He gets out of the way. He serves the music rather than the music serving him.”

Langrée’s approach to programming has blended classics from the standard repertoire with more recent works, including many pieces commissioned by the CSO. His first concert as music director in November 2013 featured the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s “On a Wire,” featuring progressive chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird. Also on the program, narrated by poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, was Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, debuted by the CSO in 1942. The concert concluded with Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony.

Commissioning and promoting new works has been a longstanding practice for the CSO, one that Langrée eagerly built on. During his tenure, he will have commissioned 65 new works and 27 world premieres. “I like to continue this history,” he says. “The orchestra is not a museum where you cultivate Beethoven symphonies. Beethoven also wrote contemporary music. When you read critiques of some of his symphonies, they said, This is not music. This is noise, screams and ugly sounds. Now everything feels like riding a Lexus. Looking back into history makes it more modern, makes it more actual. You don’t think, Oh, once upon a time. It’s today Beethoven wrote that. Mixing contemporary music with Beethoven invites you to listen to contemporary music with more height, flavor, and density.”

Langrée developed a strong personal connection with guitarist Bryce Dessner, the Cincinnati native who cofounded the renowned rock band The National and is also a composer. “There are people you feel connections with,” says Langrée. “Bryce is eager to discover, to exchange, to tell you also what you might like. We don’t see each other a lot, but I consider him a friend. I like the fact that he’s so open. With him there’s no separation between classical music and rock music, whether he writes pop songs or for a symphony orchestra. He’s the same person, just with many skills—like a chef using a lot of different spices. I like him and his music.”

In May 2024, Langrée will conduct a concert that offers a piano concerto by Dessner along with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. (Read an interview with Dessner about The National’s Homecoming concerts this month.)

By the time Langrée finishes this final season, says Martin, he will have hired between a third and a half of the orchestra’s musicians. He’s reshaped the orchestra’s sound—both what the musicians are playing and who’s playing it, as well as where they’re playing it. Langrée was heavily involved in overhauling Music Hall’s acoustics in 2016 and 2017, when Springer Auditorium was completely rebuilt.

Oboist Parry performed as guest principal oboe in the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra under Langrée’s baton, and that New York experience opened his eyes to what Langrée sought in Cincinnati. “Louis has been working to turn the CSO into a chamber orchestra,” he says. “That’s a revolutionary idea. For years he’s been talking to us about making space and getting out of the way on long notes, lightening the textures, releasing the energy, not pushing too much. A symphony orchestra is like a cruise ship: There are a lot of amenities and it’s really awesome, but it doesn’t exactly turn quickly. Chamber music is nimble, like a little speedboat. You can absolutely turn and go around the islands and see everything in your view.”

Langrée will be remembered as much for his engagement in the community as for his musical leadership. Martin, who was president and CEO of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra before coming to Cincinnati, says, “He dove into the city, and that’s pretty rare. I’ve worked with a lot of music directors who didn’t do that. Raising two kids in the city, you learn a lot about a place.”

Early in their time in Cincinnati, Langrée and Aimée visited Walnut Hills High School and heard a student orchestra play a movement from a Mozart symphony. Music teachers John Caliguri and Chris Gibson say the couple loved that the college prep school made music part of each school day and that students could experience music at different levels.

Their daughter, a violinist, joined the school orchestra. When Louis and Aimée learned some kids didn’t have instruments, they donated money to buy more violins. “We didn’t even ask,” says Gibson. “We just mentioned we were waiting to get more violins. They jumped in and helped right away.”

Photograph by Claudia Hershner

Langrée visited the school regularly and helped with rehearsals. “He had a kindness, a warmth, passionate,” Gibson says. “He didn’t attack them with his knowledge. The more he came and the kids realized how nice he was, the more comfortable they were asking questions.”

The first time Langrée visited, he wore thick corduroy, mustard-yellow pants. “The kids commented about how cool the pants were,” Gibson recalls. The Langrées opened their home for fund-raising events for the school, sometimes catered by another well-known Frenchman and Langrée’s friend, the late chef Jean-Robert de Cavel.

On their arrival, the Langrées were embraced by Alliance Française de Cincinnati, an organization for people who love the French language and Francophone culture. Louis hosted post-concert conversations, and Aimée became a teacher.

Suzy DeYoung, whose family operated La Petite Pierre restaurant in Madeira for many years, formed a special relationship with Langrée. Their families both hailed from the Alsace region; his mother and DeYoung’s cousin live in the same tiny town. When DeYoung and Langrée finally met, they discovered that her cousin is married to his mother’s cousin. “So he calls me his cousin,” she says, chuckling.

“He and Jean-Robert brought France to Cincinnati,” says DeYoung, who now runs the La Soupe food rescue organization. “For two people to come here and settle here, they ingrained themselves into the fabric of the city. They elevated art in this city.”

Langrée also stepped up when the city needed distractions during the early COVID pandemic and lockdown, which posed a serious threat for orchestras and live arts organizations everywhere. He debuted with the New York Philharmonic just before the lockdown. Back in Cincinnati for an orchestra rehearsal at Music Hall, he was interrupted by an announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, the rehearsal is over. We have to close the building. Please take all your belongings.” Langrée spent the entire confinement period in Cincinnati, missing conducting opportunities with major symphonies in Chicago and San Francisco.

For two years, his utmost concern was for the CSO’s musicians. “They needed to play together but couldn’t,” says Langrée. “In challenging times, more than ever, we need art. With this pandemic, we felt suddenly the need to reconnect with ourselves. That is why art exists.”

Langrée championed offering online streaming events and made sure those concerts were the best they could be. “Louis and I quickly agreed at the beginning of the pandemic that we needed stay in touch with our subscribers and our city,” says Martin. “It was also an opportunity to expand our reach. A lot of people came into our circle through those streaming concerts. They’d never heard us before or had never been in Music Hall.”

Today the CSO has a new focus on digital content, a change Langrée deserves credit for pushing. “We were all feeling at a loss, to put it mildly,” says musician Parry. “On an artistic level, Louis rallied the troops. He got us out of our homes and helped us feel safe while creating this artistic product, making music together and sharing it for free. That was a big deal.”

When everything stopped, Langrée had an inkling that he wouldn’t ask for a renewal of his CSO contract. “Not that I’m unhappy,” he says. “I’m deeply happy. But I was probably being taken for granted. When I rehearse the orchestra now and I stop, they know what I’m going to say. When I raise my baton, I know how it’s going to sound. That means that I should leave at the top of our relationship, not when things become difficult and sour. Nothing was wrong. But as a friend said, It’s better to leave three years too early than five minutes too late.”

Ten years is a good tenure for a major symphony conductor, says Parry. “Louis will be missed. He’s contributed something indelible to the DNA of the Cincinnati Symphony. It’s a nimble quality, being more like a chamber orchestra in the way that we listen and balance and make room for each other. That’s going to stay with us, even though he’s moving on. He will be back occasionally, of course, and welcomed with open arms.”

A search for Langrée’s replacement has been underway for two years, and an appointment is expected soon.

Martin says that one of Langrée’s best attributes here has been his understanding of American culture. “He sees the schisms in our society, and he’s always been focused on how you use music to overcome them by creating a more diverse audience and a more diverse orchestra,” says Martin. “Louis has brought this orchestra closer to the people of Cincinnati because he understands the city. He made it his business to understand the culture of the city. He understands the power of music to unify. Music has the power to bridge divides, more than any other art form, because it creates a common language.”

He always felt like he belonged in Cincinnati, Langrée admits. “When you’re not in your usual environment, you need to feel connected,” he says. “And I’ve had my family, the orchestra, the community, a familiar environment with Over-the-Rhine—just that neighborhood’s name feels like home for me because the Rhine River runs through the Alsace. Here it’s not about the prestige. It’s the community’s orchestra.”

He recalls his Lumenocity experience in Washington Park fondly. “They didn’t come to listen to classical music, they came because there was an event organized by their orchestra,” says Langrée. “I like to say that there is never a second chance for a first impression. This first impression was about embracing. If there is one image of Cincinnati that I will keep, it will be that. It was not listening to music—it was sharing the joy of being together through music.”

Remembering the light projections that brought Music Hall to life, he says he felt that he, the orchestra, and the entire city were on the brink of something new and wonderful. “People didn’t know what to expect,” he says, smiling.

Louis Langrée didn’t know what to expect moving his family to Cincinnati in 2013, but he spent every day here sharing his joy of bringing people together through music. He’d love for that joy to outlast his decade-plus at the orchestra.

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