DALLAS, TX – Jaap van Zweden is gone and Fabio Luisi doesn’t take over until the 2020-2021 season, but the new man is stopping by often enough as music director designate to begin to give Dallas audiences a taste of what is to come. This past week he offered three works by American composers and a major chestnut in the form of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. All in all it was carefully-considered programming and the performances were very good.
At the age of 60, Italian-born Fabio Luisi has an enormous repertoire and vast experience. But most of it is with European organizations. He is currently the general music director of the Zurich Opera and principal conductor of the Danish National Orchestra. But he has conducted relatively little in North America apart from a stint as principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera (2011-2017). Presumably, he has little American music in his repertoire but it is encouraging that he is going out of his way to rectify that shortcoming so early in his relationship with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
This week’s concert opening with Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, continued with a new work by Julia Wolfe and then moved on to the rarely-heard concert aria Andromache’s Farewell by Samuel Barber.
Quiet City dates from 1940 and conjures up images of the lonely hours after midnight in New York City. The instrumentation is almost unique: a solo trumpet, solo English horn and strings. The trumpet suggests a jazz club after hours – Copland writes “nervous, mysterious” in the trumpet part at one point – and the English horn acts as a mournful echo. It is a short piece, lasting only 10 minutes, but it is one of the composer’s most beautiful works. This performance was nearly ideal. Trumpeter Russell Campbell played with a lovely sweet tone and with just a touch of vibrato to bring out the jazz flavor of the piece. David Matthews played his English horn solos with great sensitivity.
American composer Julia Wolfe is professor of music at New York University and currently composer-in-residence with the DSO. The orchestra will showcase several of her works this season including tonight’s offering, a new work called Fountain of Youth. As the age of 61,Ms. Wolfe has emerged as one of America’s most distinguished composers. She has won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize. Just last year she had a major triumph with her oratorio Fire in my Mouth, premiered by Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic. Fountain of Youth is a much less ambitious work but it is tremendously effective. Its repetitive and chugging elements owe something to minimalism but the brilliance and energy of the piece is very much her own voice. I was especially struck by the effective use of slow, downward glissandi in the trombones. Mention should also be made of the inclusion of four large galvanized metal washboards in the percussion section.
The last piece before intermission was the Barber. Unfortunately, after the excoriating power of Fountain of Youth, Barber’s concert aria seemed a little tame. In my opinion, it should have been played before the Wolfe. In any event, this is music of heartbreaking intensity. The text is an excerpt from Euripides tragedy The Trojan Women. Troy has just been captured by the Greeks and most of the Trojan men including Hector, Prince of Troy, have been killed. Hector’s wife Andromache has been given as a slave-wife to the son of Achilles, and her little son is ordered to be killed. The aria is Andromache’s farewell to her son. Soprano Lise Lindstrom had more than enough sheer vocal power for the piece but didn’t bring much emotion to the role of the distraught mother.
After intermission came Rimsky-Korsakov’s perennial favourite Scheherazade. The work was composed in 1888 and remains the composer’s best-known piece. Rimsky-Korsakov was a master orchestrator – he even wrote a book on the subject – and this piece abounds in unusual effects. Curiously, Richard Strauss wrote his tone poem Don Juan in 1888. Another piece that is a veritable master class in orchestration. Fabio Luisi obviously knows this work inside and out – he rarely looked at the score – and demonstrated great mastery in conducting it. However, it must be said that he was mostly content to let the music speak for itself. Some other conductors – listen to what Stokowski did with the closing pages – have brought more personality to the piece but Luisi still generated lots of excitement. The DSO is filled with virtuosi and many of them got to strut their stuff in Scheherazade. Most importantly, concertmaster Alexander Kerr played the numerous solos with remarkable accuracy and purity of tone.
This was my first exposure to Fabio Luisi on the podium with the Dallas Symphony and on the whole I was impressed with his careful preparation and efficiency. But it is going to take awhile to forget the hair-trigger intensity and the vast range of string colours that Jaap van Zweden brought to the orchestra. But only time will tell whether Fabio Luisi can establish his own musical imprint in Dallas.
Still to come this season in Dallas is a concert performance of Salome (Jan 31-Feb 2), and Franz Schmidt’s The Book with Seven Seals (April 3-5), both conducted by Fabio Luisi. Luisi and the DSO are also planning to record all the Brahms symphonies for release on their own label.
Before the start of this week’s concert principal cellist Christopher Adkins paid a heartfelt tribute to Emanuel “Manny” Borok, the longtime concertmaster of the DSO who passed away January 4, 2020. Manny was a beloved figure in Dallas and before that in Boston where he was associate concertmaster of the Boston Symphony and concertmaster of the Boston Pops Orchestra.