Beethoven @ 250: Orchestra of St. Luke's and La Chapelle de Québec at Carnegie Hall
The Music Stops

Louis Langrée Conducts the New York Philharmonic in Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin

DSC06209This has been a sad, sobering day in the cultural life of New York City. As of today (3/12), all major NYC arts organizations - Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Met Museum, Broadway - will shut their doors until at least the end of the month. This is to comply with Governor Cuomo's statewide order banning all gatherings of more than 500 people, in order to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 virus. That includes the New York Philharmonic, who were supposed to begin a three night run of concerts tonight with Valery Gergiev

Little did I realize this would be the new normal when I arrived at David Geffen Hall on Tuesday night for a program of (mostly) French Romantic works, led by Louis Langrée in his NY Phil debut. Langrée, of course, is familiar to New York audiences as the Music Director of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, which he's led in Geffen Hall every summer since 2003. Since 2013, he's also been the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, so he has a sure hand in music for larger forces.

Claude Debussy's Prelude to the Aftenoon of a Faun (1894) is a quiet masterpiece for flute and orchestra, hallucinogenic in its hazy effects. Principal flute Robert Langevin played it beautifully, careful to never overwhelm the swirling orchestra underneath.  Nocturnes (1899) is in three sections, each a gem of aural painting. Nuages (Clouds) portrays slow moving clouds that speed up with the arrival of a thunderstorm; Fêtes (Festivals) is a festive jaunt; and Sirènes (Sirens) features an octet of sopranos (here the Juilliard Women's Chorus) singing an intoxicating vocalise.

New York Philharmonic with Isabel Leonard and Louis Langrée
New York Philharmonic with Isabel Leonard and Louis Langrée

I'll admit it, my main reason for wanting to go to this concert was to hear (and see) the striking, elegant mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard sing Ravel's Shéhérazade (1903). Leonard can usually be seen across the plaza at the Met Opera, often in French-speaking roles such as Blanche from Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites.This stage experience lent her performance here a dramatic, trenchant quality. Gorgeous in a flowing red gown and beaming smile, she seemed overwhelmed with gratitude by the audience’s raucous ovation. Suffice to say: the world is a better place with Isabel Leonard in it. 

The concert ended with Scriabin's explosive Le Poème de l'exstase (The Poem of Ecstasy, 1908): a single movement tone poem for a massive orchestra of 150, requiring the Phil to build out the stage several rows into the audience. Described by Henry Miller as "a bath of ice, cocaine, and rainbows," it's basically a 20 minute sexcapade, slowly building from soft murkiness to a deafening crescendo, much like Ravel's Bolero. With the raucous ovation that followed, I imagine it won't be long before Langrée gets invited back to the Geffen Hall podium. Outside of summer, of course.

More pics here. And, don't forget to wash your hands.