Wesley Horner: Thank you for taking the time between conducting rehearsals to talk with us about Mozart and his music.
Louis Langrée: Sure. It’s one thing to speak with your arms, when you’re in the middle of rehearsals, when all the language goes through the body. To find the right words to speak about it, it’s very different.
Wesley Horner: Do you talk during rehearsal?
Louis Langrée: Yes. Especially with the Jupiter Symphony, because it’s not only about playing the notes, but what do I play?
If you ask only technically how to play it, it’s good, but it’s just the beginning. The main thing is why, what do I express, what do I say? The Jupiter Symphony is full of jubilation. And of course, for Mozart, perfection was four like the cross, and three like the Masonic triangle. If you don’t know it, you can’t play it with that feeling. It’s hard to say what to do, then, with it. But as you know, that is so important in the structure. By itself, you play it differently.
Wesley Horner: May I ask you about the Salzburg symphony, the KV 338? Here we are in Salzburg. Tell us about Mozart’s circumstances when he wrote this symphony, having been kicked out of his job. His “auf wiedersehen” to Salzburg.
Louis Langrée: It’s a very dear old friend of me, this symphony. It’s the first symphony of Mozart I conducted in an open concert performance. I did the g minor Symphony before, but it was in a prison, so with a very limited number of listeners.
Wesley Horner: Tell us about that first time conducting the Salzburg symphony. What was that circumstance? Why is it dear to you?
Louis Langrée: When you start out as a conductor, the difficult thing is, who will trust you and give you a chance? It’s very, very hard, because generally, we all say to young conductors, ‘Give me some dates and I will try to come and listen to you,’ and if you like them then you hire him or her for a concert. But the first one is so difficult, especially for somebody like me, who never studied conducting.
I worked at the Lyon opera house for many years. John Eliot Gardiner was at that time music director. And he saw me watching as many rehearsals as I could. Then he needed an assistant for a special piece, and little by little things started like that. But how to get the first concert?
I was so lucky to meet Jean‑Claude Malgoire, a French conductor. And he told me, ‘I know you want to conduct. I have to conduct two concerts, two programs, but I can’t. So I have to find a conductor. Would you like to do it?’ I said, ‘Oh my God, thank you. What should I conduct?’ He told me, ‘Conduct what you want. Just what you want. Choose the piece.’ It had to be Mozart. So I chose this piece. It’s not the most famous symphony. Very demanding for the musicians and the conductor also. But really, it’s like X-rays of an orchestra, so much clarity, so much intonation, so much, also, individual expression. It’s like chamber music, extended chamber music. The joy of the symphony, the pride, and the natural flow is something fantastic.
Wesley Horner: You conduct a lot of very large operas, pieces with huge orchestras, rich romantic music, and contemporary music. Is it more difficult or frightening to conduct Mozart, because the music is so exposed?
Louis Langrée: Mozart is, I think, really, the test of any musician. If you push too much the expression versus the structure, then you kill the piece. If you just analyze it and make everything sound clear, it can be sort of academic. But what is a Mozart conductor? I have no idea. Of course, you have to be a musician, but does it mean that you don’t have to be a musician when you conduct Puccini or Stravinsky? I don’t think so.
For singers, it’s different, because your voice and your taste must be suited together. For a conductor, I think it’s so important always to keep a strong connection the moment of the history of music.
Of course, this golden holy trinity of the Viennese masters – Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven – is the foundation, I think, for a conductor, for the development of your identity, your sound, your style, especially as music director.
And classic style is the most difficult. You can spend much more time working on a minuet of Mozart than the third movement of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6.
Wesley Horner: How do you change your work from conducting in say, the Metropolitan Opera, or the Wiener Staatsoper, and conducting the Camerata in this small space, the Mozarteaum’s Großer Saal? How is it different for you?
Louis Langrée: Well, what is different is, I think, is the origin of Camerata. In a way what is so hard with Mozart is that there is always this way in between chamber music and symphonic repertoire.
Mozart has both, quite often in the symphony, so you must have a sort of agility and never forget this sort of individual inspiration, courage as well. And at that time, except for the opera, conductors didn’t exist.
With Camerata, you have people who were, still many today are, old pupils of Sandor Vegh, and most of them studied in the Mozarteum. They make music together. It’s a different energy. And then, of course, you need to give them a way to speak with one voice.
When you conduct a big orchestra they have this sort of ensemble, intonation, homogeneity of sound, everything that would make an orchestra recognizable in its own identity. You have to do the reverse to arrive at the end on the same point.
Really conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in Mozart’s symphonies or Haydn’s symphonies, they have so much of this identity. They know this repertoire. Then you just have to enjoy making music together.
What was amazing was how open they were, the Vienna Philharmonic. Some people told me, ‘Well, you shouldn’t disturb them. You have to be very humble because they have their own way to play Mozart.’ It’s completely wrong. Of course they have their sound. But from this basis, they are just open to anything, and it was such a joy.
With Camerata, it’s not always the same players. Of course, the core is the same, and when you are a member of Camerata, you must play a certain amount of concerts in the year, in order to deserve the title of member of the Camerata.
But it can vary, from concert to concert. So always you have to unify it. You don’t have this sound, which comes by itself. Not at all. It’s a great joy. It’s just a different starting point.
Wesley Horner: When you know you’re going to conduct a piece such as the Jupiter, it’s a very familiar piece. People know the music. How do you make it your own? How do you make it fresh? How do you make it Jupiter by Louis Langrée?
Louis Langrée: I would say, the same as any piece, including a contemporary piece, a piece you conduct for the first time and which was commissioned by you. Of course, we have a lot of references. I remember great concerts or interpretations. But when you study it, when you conduct it, when you rehearse it, you’re just in front of the score, of the piece itself.
Not with Bruno Walter’s version or Karajan’s version, or Harnoncourt’s version, or whoever. The most important thing is, what does this piece tell, what does it mean? Especially with Jupiter, because it’s sort of like a rhetorical speech, like at the end of a brilliant university expose. It’s so rigorous. It’s a completely different kind, but wonderful kind, of jubilation. It’s not a sentimental piece at all.
It’s really a sort of academic speech. And then, when you arrive at the end, you just want to stand up, for the beauty of this piece. I don’t think this piece requires interpretation, in a sort of romantic way.
Probably a lot us, including me, have lost this very severe hatred of thinking, and of eloquence. So, using Mozart to go back to that is quite healthy.
Wesley Horner: You’re conducting all over the world. What do you do to take care of yourself? How do you physically prepare for the job of standing up for two hours?
Louis Langrée: I don’t know. That’s our life. You live in hotel rooms. Your jet lag is permanent. You don’t know where is really the real 12 o’clock. I think it’s really just the love of the pieces, and of sharing them with the musicians. Sometimes you arrive completely exhausted. You arrive in rehearsal and music is there, anywhere. Then it gives you so much energy.
It gives you so much deep joy that you don’t feel the hours in lounges, waiting for your plane. Because the plane was delayed, so you miss your connections. That doesn’t exist anymore. You’re in the middle of art, of the essence of life. What better way to take care of one’s self?
Wesley Horner: You are a native of France. Mozart went to France to try and build a career. But it didn’t work out.
Louis Langrée: Second trip didn’t work, no.
Wesley Horner: Can you explain what happened? What do you think happened for Mozart in Paris?
Louis Langrée: Well, I think his second trip was not prepared the same way. Plus, his mother died. He felt so lonely. Apparently, he spent evenings trying to find his Viennese friends. He hated French people, or Parisian people. I spent all my youth in Alsace, which is a very particular part of France. Because it was part of Germany, of France, et cetera.
We share the same feeling about Parisians. What he wrote, I thought, was so marvelous. He said that the French think that they are better than anyone in the world. That they know better. But, whatever they cannot do themselves, they ask the other, and then blame the other of not doing right. It’s a very bad translation, but I think it’s still a bit right. No? Isn’t it?
Wesley Horner: If he had been welcomed in Paris, maybe he would not have gone to Vienna, and, who knows.
Louis Langrée: Maybe. But what is important is still – I mean, Idomeneo, probably without the trip to Paris, wouldn’t have been the same. I mean this sort of tragic grandeur in the chorus and all of that. And maybe, in the quartet, the experience of loss, and also, sort of, exile, loss of his mother.
It’s always very hard to connect the music and life itself, especially, going back to Jupiter, when you imagine he was composing the g minor symphony and the Jupiter at the same time. They are completely different worlds. So, the creative process is something so mysterious.
But, definitely, there were some influences and some masterpieces. The Paris symphony is unbelievable.
Wesley Horner: The Köchel 338 is missing a movement. It’s unusual. It seems he forgot to write –
Louis Langrée: Yes. The minuet.
Wesley Horner: Does this seem odd to you?
Louis Langrée: No. I’m not sure we’re missing something. There are many symphonies that only have three movements. It’s a moment where the symphonic form was not yet completely achieved. It’s always in evolution or, sometimes completely revolution, like the Pathetique Symphony, for instance, or like, the Liszt sonata, if we go into another repertoire.
I don’t know. I don’t miss it. I think it’s a perfect piece like it is.
Wesley Horner: You have two different jobs in this concert with violinist Carolin Widmann. How does your job change when you are the accompanist? All of the sudden, you have to lead the orchestra and you have to pay attention to this other performer. How does that change your work?
Louis Langrée: That’s the beauty of collaboration. We are going to rehearse first without her. Then, you meet her, first without the orchestra, and she inspires you completely. And you can maybe inspire her. And then you work together and the beauty is that some things will come which I can’t be prepared for. It will be a wonderful surprise.
We’ve never worked together before, but she’s an amazing violin player. Great musical family, of course, and we’ll see. I’m so excited. I very rarely have a bad relationship with soloists. Quite often, it’s like a conductor and a stage director in the opera. There must be fight and somebody has to finally accept a kind of interpretation.
This is not that. It’s about dialog. It’s not only dialog between the conductor and the soloist. On the contrary, the role of the conductor is to lead the dialog between the musicians of the orchestra and the soloist and to make something work out of that.
Wesley Horner: Is performing Mozart in Mozart’s birthplace feel different than performing Mozart in New York? New Yorkers are a different kind of people than Salzburgers.
Louis Langrée: I don’t think so. What is the Salzburg audience? You have, of course, the people who live here. You have people who come all over the world for the Mozart festival. What are different are the musicians, the halls, and the collective culture.
Of course, the Mozarteum concert hall is for a chamber orchestra, a wonderful hall, because it’s quite small. But it’s also quite resonant. Everybody can hear each other very well. I think it’s just a wonderful place to be, but not because Mozart was born here. Actually, he was quite unhappy here. I hope many people will be as happy as we are to perform this program.