COLUMN: We can expect more from our artistic leaders—and ourselves


©WCPO/Scripps • November 7, 2013

CINCINNATI—I’m new to Cincinnati, so take this with a grain of cinnamon. When it comes to arts and culture, Cincinnati seems to possess the self-image of a teen with acne. We want to believe we’re attractive, that people like us and want to be with us, that we can look in a mirror without flinching.

But we crave affirmation. We need people telling us we look great in these clothes. We need assurance we aren’t going to the prom alone.

It’s a requisite that every visiting artist appearing as a guest or new member of a local arts organization—when prodded, and often when not—gushes about Cincinnati. I mean, like a geyser. The fawning would be embarrassing if it didn’t succeed, every time, in reminding us that even though our neighbors might not think so, someone important, someone not from here, thinks we’re special.

This weekend, Louis Langrée makes his formal debut as Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. It’s been a long time coming—the symphony performed two seasons without a steady presence at the helm—and Langrée continues the orchestra’s trend, dating to the late 1970s, of looking overseas for its artistic leader.

This week, Langrée met with local media and said all the things people here want and expect him to say—that this orchestra is special, that “making music with these musicians is a totally different experience” than anything he’s experienced on the podium and that this community’s support and enthusiasm for the orchestra is “rare and unique.”

And, of course, we learned he’s moving from Paris to Walnut Hills and that he tried his first three-way chili.

You wouldn’t hear anything like this from Langrée, and the press wouldn’t want it from him, if he were working in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or San Francisco. It’s about time Cincinnati began talking the talk and walking the walk of a cultural metropolis.

In my conversation Tuesday with Langrée, he repeated some of the superlatives he’d told to others. Really, I couldn’t blame him—after all, what else was he going to say, that he’s riding in to rescue this orchestra from the symphonic wastelands?

Let’s be clear:

The skill of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is comparable to that of any top-tier American orchestra. The orchestra toured Europe in 2008 and Japan in 2009 and performed in Carnegie Hall in 2010. At home, the orchestra has seen enviable support. Average attendance has soared over the past five seasons: 1,572 during the 2009-10 season, 1,752 during 2010-11, 1,891 per concert throughout 2011-12 and 1,909 last season. There isn’t an orchestra in this country that wouldn’t be impressed with that growth.

The orchestra rightfully pins the climb on its intriguing mix of in-demand guest artists, unconventional programming and community outreach, which has included, among other events, this summer’s LumenoCity concerts in Washington Park and live simulcasts on the massive LED screen over Fountain Square.

But like the city itself—and, yes, this is true of many Midwestern cities—the orchestra has an image problem.

People with sophisticated ears—I’m not among them—say they can listen blindly to the Chicago Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland, San Francisco or Philadelphia symphonies and hear phrasings and dynamic shifts that are the signatures of each orchestra. Undoubtedly, Cincinnati’s musicians possess the chops and agility to play anything well, but there isn’t a signature to this orchestra—of sound, of repertoire or of presentation.

Langrée is in a position, through the run of his contract, to change that.

By all accounts, Langrée’s predecessor, the Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi, is a surgeon of a musician, and he spent a decade in Cincinnati deconstructing and sculpting the orchestra to refine and sharpen its precision and sound. At first glance, Langrée appears more of a stylist than a specialist, conscious that serving as the orchestra’s enthusiastic ambassador—which also means helping to recruit corporate and private donors—is part of his job description here.

On Wednesday, he spoke of being somewhat intimidated by the long string of talent that preceded him on the CSO podium. Humility certainly plays well. But asked where he wants to bring the orchestra, from the Point A of now to the Point B of 2018—the final year of his first contract here—he couldn’t name a specific or even speak in broader terms of growing the orchestra’s sound or the programming he wants to emphasize. It might have been presumptuous for him to say otherwise, but he seemed to have no greater ambition in Cincinnati than to stay the course.

A music director has the power to shape nearly every move of an orchestra, so this is a pivotal moment for Cincinnati’s highest-profile fine arts institution. But it’s also one for Cincinnati. I’ve seen music directors on cruise control, and the results aren’t pretty. Great orchestras can soften, perform without conviction and seem lost in the morass of muddled programming.

Over the next four years, I want Langrée to take daring leaps in programming, particularly with new and experimental music. While France and elsewhere in Europe are natural destinations, I want Langrée to push for the orchestra to tour new ground—perhaps partnering with Cincinnati-area cultural groups to tour parts of the Middle East.

Through it all, I want him to lift the orchestra to new heights.

But the questions come back to those of us who soak it all up: Is this city ready to expect greatness of its premiere artists? Are we ready to take the city’s talent as a given, or do we still need people from the outside coming in to shower us with kindness?

The next time someone makes a condescending compliment about the greatness of the ballet or symphony or opera, be ready to say in response, “I know.”

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