As Music Director Designate, Luisi Has Mixed Debut

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Fabio Luisi, who takes charge of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra with the 2020-21 season,  conducted works by Still, Beethoven, and Martin in his first concert there as the orchestra’s music director designate. (Photo by Sylvia Elzafon)
By Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

DALLAS – There was a crackle of anticipation surrounding the debut of Fabio Luisi on April 18 as music director designate of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Thus, it was something of a surprise to experience a scantly filled Meyerson Symphony Center.

Luisi also conducts in Zurich, Copenhagen, Florence. (Barbara Luisi)

Luisi’s program for this introductory concert paired the relatively unfamiliar with the well known and involved some risk on both fronts. He opened with Poem for Orchestra by the African-American composer William Grant Still and followed with the Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion, and String Orchestra by the Swiss composer Frank Martin. For the second half, Luisi took a chance by programing Beethoven’s much-analyzed – maybe even over-analyzed – Symphony No. 7.

Still was a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance and racked up many firsts for African-American musicians. He was the first to conduct a major orchestra (Los Angeles Philharmonic) and the first to have an opera performed by a major company (New York City Opera).

His experience composing and arranging for the cinema, as well as jazz bands, is what stands out when hearing his Poem. Luisi did a fine job of reconciling Still’s style: his neo-classical leanings combined with his neo-romanticism, sauced with a reduction of spirituals and Hollywood’s Technicolor sweep with a spicy squeeze of jazz.

Luisi opened with a work by William Grant Still. (Carl Van Vechten)

Then, toss in his studies with both the conservative George Whitefield Chadwick and the avant-garde and electronic music pioneer Edgard Varèse. What you have is a synthesizing stew of musical ingredients, requiring the expert ministrations of a conductor as fine as Luisi so that none of the ingredients defines the whole.

Rather than dilute the occasion of Luisi’s debut with a big name soloist playing a splashy concerto, the program featured a concerto that used the orchestra’s own principal wind players as the soloists in the Martin piece.

Luisi brought this complex modernist work to life with outstanding clarity, restrained energy, and symphonic expansiveness. For the huge timpani cadenza, he relaxed his usual control and allowed the percussion battery its own moment in the sun.

This brings us to the quandary of reviewing the Beethoven symphony. The Seventh is all about rhythm, and its nickname as the dance symphony is well deserved. Almost everything that hampered the flow of this performance had to be laid at the feet of Luisi’s bizarrely conceived tempi and occasionally vague baton movements. The conductor also tended to overplay some of the dynamic levels throughout. Perhaps he was unaware of the lively acoustics in the hall. Using the full-sized modern orchestra in a piece that is more frequently played with a slightly reduced instrumentation didn’t help.

The second movement is probably the most controversial as far as tempo goes. Perhaps it is because of its position in the usual “slow movement” slot that Beethoven’s tempo marking of Allegretto is so frequently ignored, as it was on this occasion. Whatever the cause, Luisi’s drastic tempo reduction and overwrought use of rubato gave it the guise of a funeral march or mournful dirge instead of the basis for a set of thoughtful variations.

The combination of a full-sized modern orchestra and lively acoustics hampered Luisi’s Beethoven. (Sylvia Elzafon)

The last two movements were played in such an excessively quick manner that they crossed the imaginary border between fast and rushed. These tempi accelerations didn’t allow Luisi to bring much that was new to all of the reiterated phrases. As a result, the two movements sounded repetitive and felt long, as opposed to what should be a well-paced buildup of joyful celebration.

All this aside, the DSO rose to the occasion and delivered a fine performance that, once again, proved that they are one of the best orchestras in the country.

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs is a writer and music critic living in Dallas. He primarily writes for www.theaterjones.com, an online magazine about the performing arts. He is also a composer and conductor. 

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