Luisi Parlays Strauss Into Dazzling Start As NHK Symphony Chief

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Newly installed Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi and the NHK Symphony Orchestra during the second of three inaugural concerts on Sept. 16. (Photos (c)NHKSO)

TOKYO — As Japan seeks to revive its tourist industry while battling Covid-19 case numbers, its best-known orchestra is looking past pandemic woes to brighter, less infectious days and a new chief conductor.

In September, the NHK Symphony Orchestra is launching a robust 2022-23 season with three inaugural concerts conducted by Fabio Luisi. The Italian maestro takes over the top position from Paavo Järvi, who holds top posts at the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, and Estonian Festival Orchestra. After seven seasons at NHKSO’s top spot, Järvi becomes Honorary Conductor.

The anticipation was palpable on Sept. 16 at NHK Hall, the stellar concert facility located in the NHK (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai) broadcast complex off Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park. With the hall about two-thirds full, it was an about face from two years ago, when the season was canceled except for special monthly concerts. The subscription series resumed last season, “delivering music to a public whose daily lives are still grossly restricted,” according to its website.

Luisi is already quite familiar to Tokyo audiences, having guest-conducted NHKSO since 2001. A past principal conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and Zürich Opera, he brings strong dramatic sensibilities to NHKSO. For the second of three inaugural concerts (the others featured Verdi, Beethoven, and Brahms), it was wise programming on several levels. Luisi has garnered a long list of accolades for his Strauss readings with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Staatskapelle Dresden, and Dallas Symphony Orchestra, of which he is music director. Järvi has recorded several Strauss symphonic poems on the RCA Red Seal label, so comparisons will no doubt be forthcoming.

Strauss’ dazzling orchestration in Don Juan, crafted by the 24-year-old in 1888, was the perfect vehicle for Luisi and NHKSO, its opening string flourishes leading to the first of numerous showcases for the orchestra’s fine brass section. Here, as in the concert’s finale, Der Rosenkavalier Suite, the brass never dominated, but rather blended and balanced, powerfully when needed, but always purposefully.

Danish oboist Eva Steinaa was soloist in Richard Strauss’ Oboe Concerto with Fabio Luisi leading the NHK Symphony Orchestra in NHK Hall, Tokyo.

Although Luisi’s career has shifted more toward symphonic repertoire recently, his operatic background was immediately apparent in this performance by his attention to textural transparency and his sensitivity to Strauss’ theatricality. Tender, at times exaggerated, love scenes were nuanced with flexible tempos and dynamic swells. Other themes and flourishes could be imagined as leitmotifs. The dramatic timing of a long silence before the final scene increased focus on the morose climax of Don Juan’s demise, influenced by Strauss’ adherence to the Nikolaus Lenau text that inspired the work and emphasizing the contrast with the fiery conclusion of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Strauss’ Oboe Concerto calls for smaller forces. Composed in 1945, 57 years after Don Juan, it is introverted, romantic, and pastoral, yet a technical challenge for the soloist. The 29-year-old Danish oboist Eva Steinaa, with whom Luisi collaborated on this work in 2019 with the Danish National Symphony, refrained from turning it into a virtuoso showpiece, instead deferring to the composer’s sweet, late-in-life nostalgia, especially in the slower lyrical melodies.

Scored in three movements without pause, the concerto progresses from fluid, fast scalar passages and chirpy melodic leaps to quiet reflection and to slightly more angular, shifting harmonies. Luisi read Steinaa’s musical mind like more conductors should: allow the soloist to shape the music and follow suit. But Luisi did more than that, taking Steinaa’s lead with slight elaboration and forming a subtle yet spontaneous partnership.

Luisi was on fire for the opening of the Rosenkavalier Suite. The orchestra’s ensemble was a bit shaky at first but was soon back on track after the first of several fine oboe and violin solos and the magical tinkling of celesta and harps in the “rose” motif. Although the Suite doesn’t follow the opera in sequence, it was easy to relate it to the scenes as they progressed. The lilting, swaying Viennese waltz at the work’s centerpiece never seemed to get old, nor did the fullness of the brass section in the edgy march and Luisi’s coaxing of the strings. Always a great concert closer, the suite prompted four curtain calls.

Fabio Luisi leading the NHK Symphony Orchestra’s in the second of three inaugural concerts on Sept. 16.

The concert was preceded by a short but delightful rendition of a cello quartet by 19th-century Belgian composer Joseph Jongen, performed by members of the orchestra’s cello section. While a solid performance, it was no acoustical match for the 3,800-seat hall.

Luisi follows an impressive array of principal conductors. Prior to Järvi, it includes Blomstedt, Wakasugi, Sawallisch, Dutoit, Ashkenazy, Previn, and Otaka. NHKSO is one of the few remaining orchestras supported by a broadcast organization. With a budget of 2.5 billion yen (around $17.5 million), it performs in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall as well as NHK Hall, tours throughout Japan, and has made nearly 40 overseas tours, including the Salzburg Festival. Judging from one of Luisi’s three inaugural concerts, his presence promises to raise the orchestra’s profile and outreach even further.

NHKSO concerts are broadcast on various NHK radio and television outlets and NHK World. The Sept. 16 concert is scheduled for broadcast on NHK-E at Oct. 9, 2022 from 9-11 p.m. Japan time.