Dallas — Nearly everything about Fabio Luisi’s debut as Music Director Designate of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra was bold. Thursday night’s concert featured bold programming, bold approaches, and bold uses of technology, as well as a variety of metaphorical and symbolic hints of what the future might hold for the orchestra under Luisi’s leadership.
Most of it worked, and some of it worked brilliantly.
The technology included live streaming to Annette Strauss Pavilion and on Facebook. Apparently, there were some technical glitches with the Facebook streaming, and some viewers lost access to the feed partway through; nevertheless, making select concerts more accessible is a genius way to promote the orchestra.
But that, of course, is not what most audience members cared about Thursday. They wanted to know how their orchestra would fare under the baton of a new music director. They got their answer both with the concert’s programming, a combination of two seldom-heard pieces on the first half and the iconic Symphony No. 7 of Beethoven on the second, and with the performances themselves, which were lovingly crafted if sometimes iconoclastic.
For the first notes he conducted Thursday, Luisi chose William Grant Still’s Poem for Orchestra, which the DSO had never performed before. Still was an African-American composer in the first half of the 20th century who became the first black person to conduct a major orchestra in the South when he conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic in 1955.
Poem is an oddball, even risky choice for Luisi—wouldn’t many conductors in his position have chosen the safe and familiar?—but it paid off. By choosing a piece unknown to almost all audience members, he chose to defy comparison. There was no “Jaap did it this way” or “Litton did it that way” to be had. Also, the piece itself felt like a fresh discovery (or mostly fresh—the DSO musician who observed that one of Poem’s themes sounds a lot like “Over the Rainbow” was not wrong). The 1944 piece is indeed reminiscent of Hollywood scores from the same era, tonal and tuneful and lush. Luisi directed it lovingly, with no notion of its being a B side afterthought, and the orchestra responded in kind, with consistently excellent playing.
The other offering on the first half was almost equally unfamiliar: Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Winds, Timpani, Percussion, and Strings. This was an opportunity for Luisi to collaborate with not just one, but 11 solo voices. All the winds were principal players except for Associate Principal Trumpet Russell Campbell, who performed brilliantly as a last-minute replacement for Principal Ryan Anthony. They were arrayed at the front of the stage, and these were, as they say, good optics for Luisi. By literally surrounding himself with these key players, he visually demonstrated his respect for his new orchestra and its musicians, and they responded in kind, with fine playing.
While Swiss Calvinist composer Martin is not widely known in the U.S., his music is evidently performed more frequently on the European Continent. So, this seems like a message from Luisi. With William Grant Still, Luisi is familiarizing us with our own native music. With Frank Martin, he’s familiarizing us with (kind of) his. One wonders whether that’s going to be a theme of Luisi’s tenure with the orchestra, and so far it seems as if it might be.
His concerts next season are similarly a mix of the familiar and the unexpected—Beethoven, Brahms, Copland, Strauss, and Rimsky-Korsakov, yes, but also Augusta Read Thomas, Julia Wolfe, a lesser-known piece by Samuel Barber, and Franz Schmidt’s The Book with Seven Seals.
But after the first half of the program, which was all about destabilizing newness, Luisi allowed us the solace of the known. Sort of. Because this Beethoven 7 was all about surprises. Many of these surprises were good ones—the extreme pianissimos of the sublime second movement forced listeners to lean in and pay attention, and always gave the orchestra somewhere to go in its crescendos. Dynamics elsewhere were equally thoughtful. But the second movement, marked Allegretto, was a bit too slow, losing some of its propulsion, and the finale, which is marked Allegro con brio, felt rushed, nearly frantic. Still, Luisi extracted exceptional playing from the orchestra. He has an elegant, tidy podium presence, with equally trim but precise gestures, including that greatest of conductorly blessings, a clear downbeat.
Next season, Fabio Luisi’s second as Music Director Designate, will feature Luisi conducting five programs. Then, after that, as Music Director, he will have increasing influence over the fate of the Dallas Symphony. If the audience’s thrilled reaction to Thursday’s concert is any guide, that fate will be a sunny one indeed.