Fabio Luisi Migrates From Opera World To Ample Orchestra Life 

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Fabio Luisi and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Yefim Bronfman in September 2020. (Photo by Sylvia Elzafon)

PROFILE – Come September 2022, Fabio Luisi will be at the helm of orchestras on three continents — the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, and Tokyo’s NHK Symphony Orchestra — cementing relationships that have been nurtured on all sides for years. His position in Tokyo is new, having just been announced in April, while his contracts in Dallas and Denmark were extended in recent months. This is a period of transition for the Italian conductor as he pivots away from opera, which has been at the core of his activities in past decades, to focus primarily on symphonic music.

Luisi assumed his role as the Dallas Symphony’s music director in the fall of 2020. Conductor and orchestra quickly developed a mutual rapport. “It was the first time that I had the feeling that I could trust an orchestra so quickly,” he said, “and apparently it was mutual.” When the conductor was asked if he was interested in extending his contract, he immediately agreed; it will now run through the 2028-29 season.

Luisi and the DSO have several goals. First, they intend to present American composers of the past and demonstrate how American music has developed from its European roots. There will also be commissions from American composers with a special focus on those from diverse cultural and musical backgrounds. To make this a reality, the DSO has launched a 10-year commissioning program to foster the creation of 20 new works, half of them by women. DSO Composer-in-Residence Angélica Negrón is returning for her second season this year.

Fabio Luisi conducting the Dallas Symphony (Photo by Sylvia Elzafon)

Luisi also plans to introduce Texas audiences to music by composers of the past who are rarely encountered in Dallas or elsewhere. These include works by Franz Schmidt, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Max Reger, and Paul Hindemith. For various reasons, their music fell out of favor, but Luisi asserts it deserves to be revisited. Hindemith, who lived in the U.S. from 1940-53 and became an American citizen, left a particularly lasting imprint on the country’s musical development, having taught many important composers while on the faculty at Yale University. The conductor also noted that “while stimulating our audience’s curiosity, we will naturally continue to offer them the familiar repertoire which they love.”

Despite some hiccups, Luisi and the DSO have continued to perform to live audiences this season, although the concerts that took place were shorter, used fewer players, and had restrictions on audience size. In another first for Luisi and the DSO, they joined forces with out-of-work members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for a week of concerts and educational activities in the Dallas area in late April and early May 2021 that featured performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. This initiative reflected Luisi’s tenure with the Met, where he became principal guest conductor in 2010 and principal guest conductor soon after. He stepped down from that position at the end of the 2016-17 season.

“During my time with the Metropolitan Opera, I became close to many of the members of the orchestra,” said Luisi. “It is devastating that these incredible musicians have not had an opportunity to perform together in over a year. Sadly, this is the case for many musicians around the country, and many have been affected so greatly by this reduction of income. I urged the DSO to find a way to gather musicians together to make music in a way we have not heard in more than a year as a symbol of solidarity.”

The concert will be available for streaming, although details have yet to be announced. Proceeds will go to the MET Orchestra Musicians Fund, Inc. and DFW Musicians Covid Relief Fund to benefit musicians experiencing financial hardship.

Fabio Luisi

Luisi’s nine years heading the Zurich Opera are also coming to a close, although the pandemic scuttled plans for his final season. A new production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra directed by Zurich Opera general director Andreas Homoki with baritone Christian Gerhaher in the title role ran for one performance last December. Due to COVID restrictions, it was performed before an audience of 50, as well as 20 members of the press. Homoki and Gerhaher also were featured in the Zurich Opera production of Berg’s Wozzeck in 2015, one of the triumphs of Luisi’s tenure with the company.

John Rhodes, who covers Zurich for Seen and Heard International, recalls that Luisi was “peerless in Verdi and extremely good in all other Italian operas,” adding that his forays into operetta also proved to be highly rewarding. Rhodes further notes that Bruckner is a composer Luisi clearly reveres, recalling top-notch performances of his Fourth and Eighth Symphonies with Philharmonia Zurich. Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was Luisi’s calling card for his first appearance with the NHK in 2001.

Of his time in Zurich, Luisi points with pride to burnishing the reputation of the company’s orchestra in the city and internationally through concerts and recordings. Changing the name of the orchestra to Philharmonia Zurich was essential to that effort and gave the ensemble its own identity and personality. Luisi’s legacy in the pit is preserved on the DVDs of many of the productions he led.

There will be less opera in Luisi’s future, however. As with the expanded realm of orchestras he leads, his reduced operatic endeavors will focus on special projects and favorite collaborators.