Three of the four pieces that Louis Langrée conducted in his New York Philharmonic debut concerts were similarly atmospheric and impressionistic, making little impact as they stole each other’s thunder. As lovely as they are, one has to question the wisdom of programming Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Nocturnes back-to-back, much less following them with Ravel’s song cycle Shéhérazade. Happily, the concert closed with Scriabin’s Le Poème de l’extase, a more substantial piece.

Louis Langrée
© A. J. Waltz

That said, the performances were delicate and nuanced. The iconic flute solo that opens Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was ravishingly detailed in Robert Langevin’s hands. The rhythmic life of the piece was emphasized enough that it felt more like sculpture than the impressionist paintings Debussy’s music is so often compared to. However, Langrée kept the piece extremely subdued dynamically, scaling the entire orchestra’s sound to the flutes and harps and never climbing past a seeming mezzo-forte. This was a distant memory of a faun’s afternoon.

Langrée continued seemingly testing how softly the Philharmonic could play during much of Nocturnes, with the entire soundscape sometimes verging on the inaudible. Nuages, the first of the three movements, draws from the same well as Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, with Ryan Roberts’ excellently pungent English Horn taking over the soloist’s role from the flute. The first opportunity for contrast came with the second movement, Fêtes, with its dance-like rhythms and louder passages for brass. Even these were performed gently, though, and the climaxes seemed restrained. Sirènes, the third movement, calls for a wordless women’s chorus (the Women’s Chorus from the Juilliard School, directed by Pierre Vallet), which Langrée positioned across the stage between the strings and the woodwinds, making them another section of the orchestra rather than a separate force. I am not sure how well this worked; Langrée opted for motion over mystery here, taking a brisk tempo, and the continuously returning melodic figures in the choral parts became monotonous in a way I suspect they might not have if the chorus had been more visible.

Ravel’s lesser-known song cycle Shéhérazade, on three poems by Tristan Klingsor, is very much of a piece with the Debussy works that preceded it and was upstaged by them. One of the songs even begins with a prominent, sinuous flute solo. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was the soloist. She has a voice like premium dark chocolate in a velvet box and I would willingly listen to her sing “Frere Jacques” for hours on end. Langrée mined Ravel’s orchestration for emotional nuances, supporting Leonard effectively. The performance was sabotaged for me, though, by the unexamined Orientalist exoticism of the piece. Surely in 2020 the New York Philharmonic could at least acknowledge the issues surrounding a piece like this, as some opera companies are doing with works like Madama Butterfly

Langrée finally let the orchestra off its leash in Scriabin’s Le poème de l’extase, the evening’s capstone. The piece ascends from climax to ecstatic climax, with giant brass chords and soaring trumpet lines unzipping the sky. Here, Langrée made sure the strings and woodwinds were audible underneath, which added texture and depth, at some slight cost to the impact of the trumpets especially. The lulls between climaxes sagged a bit, rather than gathering more tension on the way to the next high point, but the final arrival at that culminating C major chord was still as cathartic as one could wish.