Saint-Saëns And Ravel With True French Flair As Langrée Storms LA

The Disney Hall pipe organ was one of the stars in a Los Angeles Philharmonic performance of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony led by Louis Langrée.

LOS ANGELES – Louis Langrée, now in his final season as the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony, seems to have found a potent connection with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He got a lot of impressive playing on short rehearsal time out of the orchestra as a last-minute replacement for Jonathon Heyward at Hollywood Bowl in the summer of 2023. And he achieved more impressive results April 14 as a full-fledged guest within the acoustically friendly walls of Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Jonathan Bailey Holland

As at the Bowl, the program was right in Langrée’s French wheelhouse — with one exception, a world premiere piece, Assemble, by his former composer-in-residence in Cincinnati, Jonathan Bailey Holland. This was the third time in the last two years in which a Holland work has been performed by the Phil, an indication that he is benefiting from the classical world’s increasing attention to Black composers.

Assemble strikes me as sort of a “Young Peoples’ Guide to Composition” in which rhythm, harmony, and melody are presented separately in the hope of eventually presenting a unified piece. The “rhythm” part was obvious, a staccato dialogue between a bass drum and a tom-tom setting off the piece, soon to be joined by brass instruments pulsating in a Steve Reich-like groove.

The “harmony” section sounded naturally more sustained, with each section of the orchestra playing separately a good deal of the time. “Melody” was more difficult to discern, and the sequence began to lose my attention until cymbal rushes ushered in some calm as the piece ended. This metamorphosis took place in about 13 1/2 minutes — and while I’m not sure that the result (at least on a first hearing) came together as a truly unified structure, the rhythm part was the most arresting portion, and the ending seemed conclusive enough.

LA Phil concertmaster Martin Chalifour

Ravel’s Tzigane served both as an introduction to the French portion and as an interlude to the entire program. At a mere ten minutes, it is a strange little concerto in which the violinist — in this case, the veteran LA Phil concertmaster Martin Chalifour — gets his solo cadenza at the very beginning, taking up almost half of the piece. It is also a tricky one rhythmically, and that element seemed awkwardly handled here by the orchestra, though Chalifour played well in a straightforward manner.

It was in Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye suite that Langrée really showed what he could do with this group — striking up comfortable tempos for each section, beautifully shaping the winds in “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty,” lingering over the string sheen at the close of “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast” ever so gradually and spellbindingly, timing the great spangled climax at the end of “The Enchanted Garden” with a perfectly placed rallentando. Afterwards, though he didn’t use a score, Langrée grabbed one from a cello stand and waved it proudly. And well he should; it is a magical piece of music, especially when done this well.

The Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 in C minor (Organ) can be an awe-inspiring showpiece whether the concert hall has a pipe organ or has to import an electric model. It can also be maddeningly routine if taken for granted or played too often. In this performance, it was every bit of awe-inspiring.

Louis Langrée received an enormous ovation. (Photo by Chris Lee)

Everywhere, Langrée imparted all kinds of expressive nuances, perfectly gauged tempos, an opening that emerged like a dream, and ultimately great unfeigned passion and momentum. The Disney Hall pipe organ, with LA Phil keyboardist Joanne Pearce Martin at the console and pedals, emitted just the kind of floor-vibrating bass you would want in the soulful Poco Adagio of the first movement and those thundering, room-shaking C-major chords in the finale. Going into the big finish, Langrée had plenty of gas in the tank to burn, cranking the excitement up to the boiling point, pulling the Philharmonic right along with him.

Afterwards came one of the longest curtain-call ovations I’ve heard for a conductor here; even Gustavo Dudamel doesn’t get that kind of sendoff automatically anymore. Yes, yes, I know: Audiences like loud and fast, but this level of approval was above and beyond the usual. One wonders: Is the LA Phil front office adding a name in the search for Dudamel’s successor?