Dallas — The conductor parade continues at the helm of the Dallas Symphony. This weekend the Italian conductor Fabio Luisi was up to bat and he hit the ball hard and fast. The program was huge, and so was the orchestra for Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, and pared down considerably for the program opener, Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 with pianist Lise de la Salle.
It was a little odd to jump right into the Beethoven concerto without some kind of program opener. But the excessive length of the Strauss left little time for anything else.
The concerto starts softly, with only the piano. The orchestra exposition takes over and it is quite a while before the piano reenters. Luisi whipped up a lot of excitement and blasted the concert off to a rip-roaring start.
Lise de la Salle matched Luisi in intensity when the piano came back in, and the concerto moved right along after that. She played one of Beethoven’s cadenzi for the first movement, the hardest one, and did a fine job with it. The slow movement was certainly slow. In fact, near the end it was if it might not make it across the finish line. When she arrived at the last movement, she set a reasonable pace to begin with but picked up speed as she went along. Overall, this was a fine performance of the concerto and de la Salle and Luisi were perfectly together throughout.
Ein Heldenleben is a troublesome piece in that it is self-aggrandizing to the max. The Hero (Held) of the title is none other than Strauss himself. Luisi delivered a terrific performance of the piece, although it hit top volume so many times that the very end was a little disappointing. The orchestra had no more to give. But the orchestra played magnificently throughout.
The hardest assignment in this overblown monument to ego goes to the concertmaster, Alexander Kerr, who portrays Strauss’ wife; sometimes nagging, cajoling, even raising her voice (Kerr never screeched) while other times encouraging and even cooing. All of the solo players also have challenging passages and they acquitted themselves with honor, especially when portraying a group of nitpicking critics with a moaning tuba. (Strauss hated the critics and took this opportunity to give them the finger.)
Luisi is an exciting conductor to watch; active but not excessive, expressive without much showmanship. The music is the show with him. Obviously, both pieces are in his DNA because he only rarely looked at the score. He has a distinguished résumé and was even considered to be the next music director of the Metropolitan Opera at one time. He is certainly the big name that donors lust after.
When I saw Luisi conduct Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at the Met, back when he was under consideration there, I was not impressed. (My review is here.) He was much more impressive in this concert.
With this DSO performance, he’s one of the frontrunners to replace the outgoing Jaap van Zweden. Of course, there’s more to consider. How much attention would be able to give the management of the musical life of the orchestra? He already holds a number of other prestigious musical posts, so he has experience there. He would be a fine choice.