Before we get going on Thursday night’s performance by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, where the French conductor Louis Langrée led a program of Debussy, Joan Tower and Ravel, I must confront a disturbing discovery I made in the lobby: It has come to my attention that there are people who don’t like “Boléro.”
This is wild to me. In my pre-show reconnaissance around the Center — where, side note, vaccination checks are a thing of the past as of May 15 — I encountered/eavesdropped on no less than two people griping about the chore of having to sit through “Boléro” — a complaint which seems akin to the dread of having to sit through sex.
Ravel’s most famous work only feels like a waiting game in the hands of a lousy conductor. In the open hands and outstretched arms of the right one (i.e. Langrée), “Boléro” occupies a sweet spot between nostalgia and anticipation. A conductor doing it right will make you feel like a spark slowly traveling down a long wick.
Langrée, for nearly a decade the music director for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and for nearly two the music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival, lent the NSO on Thursday the ramped-up sensitivity of a hot mic.
From the waking flute that opens Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” (”Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun”), Langrée consistently enforced a treaty between the orchestra and silence, allowing them to share space onstage. He gave a watercolor softness to the edges of the Debussy, allowing bold colors and soft overlaps but maintaining intensity and tension. At times, his hands looked to be wringing the sound from a cloth.
This comfort with negative space served the concert’s centerpiece well. Joan Tower’s “A New Day” is a four-movement concerto for cello and orchestra — co-commissioned by the NSO, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Colorado Music Festival — that premiered in 2021. Tower composed it for cellist and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient Alisa Weilerstein, whose account on Thursday suggested this is a piece that’s sunk in deep.
A dedication to her partner of 48 years, Tower’s concerto suggests a domestic tableaux through the titles of its movements (” Daybreak”; “Working Out”; “Mostly Alone”; “Into the Night”), and the contours of the music itself seemed to track those of an average day.
The warm opening chords that woke in the strings suggested house music of a different variety, their colors evoking the sideways light of a sunrise. (The outburst of someone’s cellphone oddly enhanced Thursday’s simulation of morning’s arrival.) But this dalliance with aubade was short-lived, after which Tower and Weilerstein hit the ground running. “A New Day” is one of the most exciting new works I’ve heard in concert all year.
Early on, Weilerstein introduced a vocabulary of arcing glissandos and serrated harmonics that would slice through the surface of the “day” like recurring anxieties. But her playing also drew a fully formed figure, a personality, the presence of a protagonist moving through the whirl of the world painted by the orchestra.
This was especially so in the thrilling second movement, “Working Out,” which employed all of the weight, resistance, tension and repetition the title might suggest. Weilerstein’s lines were pulled taut like the cables of a bridge. Though “Working Out” could also refer to the solving of a problem — at times in this movement, it was as though Weilerstein were drafting an idea and scribbling it out. A sequence of cliffhangers finally sent us over the edge, causing an early outbreak of applause.
A short third movement (”Mostly Alone”) opened with a high-resolution solo by Weilerstein that felt like a stolen moment’s peace — a feeling confirmed by the fourth “Into the Night,” which races to such dizzying heights the air feels thinner. It’s a powerful, energizing finish — one that includes a lively conversation between Weilerstein and principal cellist David Hardy.
While most days end with sleep, Tower reimagines it as a kind of rising — a disappearance into dream — with Weilerstein’s cello vanishing like the string of a released balloon.
Langrée was wise to prime us for “Boléro” with “La Valse” — Ravel’s 1920 “poème chorégraphique pour orchestre.” A familiar palette of orchestral color is on full display; but so too is Ravel’s facility with irony, another way the composer was well ahead of his time.
An animated Langrée allowed its wild waltzes to materialize as though by whim — and he crafted an intensity that rose with the gathering inevitability of boiling water. There comes a time in “La Valse” when the dance seems like a distraction from the uneasy undercurrents of the lows, the unstable foundation of this proverbial ballroom. It feels precariously perched on the edge of a gorgeous view — the brink of something. We start to hear Ravel among the other artistic troublemakers of his time — as cubist or collagist.
“La Valse” was a helpful reminder that “Boléro” is more than a loop — and that the NSO is more than some orchestra caught in its (ideally) 17-ish-minute eddy.
As with the Debussy, Langrée brought Boléro up from near silence, percussionist Eric Shin front and center on snare, expertly handling one of the most demanding rhythmic stretches in the repertoire.
From here, a lovingly handled assembly process ensued, the melody passing from player to player, gaining allies and sympathizers, the sound broadening and heightening, more and more light landing on the subject. Langrée took visible delight in each iteration of the cycle as though welcoming a steady stream of old friends to a party.
Here and there some struggles revealed themselves — that staccato rhythmic line is a beast to maintain on any instrument — though I felt a sympathetic tension in my top lip when the tuning started to strain in the trumpets. But Langrée held the tempo at a steady, stubborn and sensuous plod — allowing everything to brighten and bask.
The orchestra took full advantage of this slow roll — Kevin Carlson’s trombone, Aaron Goldman’s flute, Sue Heineman’s bassoon and Dana Booher’s tenor saxophone each took star turns in the grand procession toward that cataclysmic plummet of a modulation toward the end. Langrée’s palms tensed into claws as Ravel’s final five bars reared up, its bombastic tutti collapsing into the arms of an audience that roared its approval.
“Boléro” doesn’t just require a conductor with the capability for nuance like Langrée; it also requires a certain kind of listener. One must be open to the pleasures (and merits!) of repetition, at ease with predictable gratification and more-is-more maximalism. After all, it takes two to tango — or boléro.
“Louis Langrée conducts Boléro” repeats Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. kennedy-center.org.