Dallas — There was a crackle of anticipation in the audience on Thursday night when Fabio Luisi, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director Designate, took the stage. If the program of this concert was any indication, we can expect to hear new music, some of it even by American composers, mixed with the big romantic works that audiences love to hear. But the festivities suddenly took a solemn turn when it was announced that the performance would be dedicated to the memory of Emanuel Borok, the recently retired concertmaster of the orchestra. He died on Jan. 4 and it came as a surprise because only family and a few close associates knew that he was in poor health. “Manny” was a world-class musician, superb violinist, beloved teacher, devoted friend, and raconteur extraordinaire. He will be sorely missed.
After this announcement was made, the concert opened with a highly appropriate piece even though it wasn’t planned: Aaron Copland’s Quiet City. This is a short, meditative work for trumpet, English horn and strings drawn from the incidental music he wrote for the play by the same name by Irwin Shaw. In the play, his brother’s trumpet playing reawakens the tattered conscience of the troubled protagonist. L. Russell Campbell played the nervous trumpet fanfares with a sense of melancholy, without a hint of the celebrations that such figures are typically used to convey. David Matthews’ plaintive English horn solos added to the overall mood of hopelessness without dipping into self-pity.
Another infrequently heard work by an American composer was a setting by Samuel Barber’s Andromache’s Farewell. This is a setting of a text, in an uncredited English translation, from Euripides' play The Trojan Women. The farewell is delivered by Andromache, Hector’s wife, to her son Astynax, who is about to be killed by the conquering Greeks. This is not Barber at his most lyrical, which the text would appear to require, and soprano Lise Lindstrom’s shrill delivery didn’t help matters. On top of that, her poor English diction made the text unintelligible. It was in the program in small type, but it was too dark in the hall to read it. Perhaps projected supertitles would have enhanced the performance.
Julia Wolfe’s Fountain of Youth followed. She is the DSO’s composer-in-residence and this work was a co-commission by the DSO, Carnegie Hall, and several other orchestras. The title really didn’t have much to do with the music in any apparent manner unless that legendary fountain turns out to be a violent apparition (which it very well could be, I suppose). This is a chaotic and noisy piece that crashes tsunami=sized waves of sound over the audience. A gaggle of old-fashioned washboards, much beloved in bluegrass music, adds a grating rasp to the white noise that Wolfe so effectively creates by her busy, turbulent, and molto fortissimo writing. The trombones constantly wail in distress. Near the end, we get some Caribbean rhythms somewhere in the soup, which might be a hat tip to Florida, where the fountain is rumored to be. This kind of “wall of sound” music dates from the 20th century’s experimentation era, but Wolfe has updated it by adding minimalist elements. All this aside, Luisi’s fireball energy created an in-your-face performance fueled by an adrenaline rush like an out-of-control roller coaster ride and that made a world of difference. It was much better than expected after watching conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’ pedantic and matter-of-fact reading on YouTube.
The program ended with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a kaleidoscope of orchestral color. Here, the tsunami waves continued to crash, but they were waves of stunningly beautiful music. Luisi conjured them up like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia.
Maybe it was the muggy and unseasonably warm weather on Thursday evening, but overall this was a sluggish performance. Despite Luisi’s sometimes frantic efforts to keep the tempi moving, the performance frequently bogged down as some sections of the orchestra were visibly behind his ever more encouraging beat. On top of that, intonation was way off, something that rarely happens with the DSO. If you could ignore those two things, which admittedly can happen even with the best orchestras, it was an exciting performance filled with outstanding performances by individual musicians. Concertmaster Alex Kerr was magnificent in all the solo violin passages than are scattered throughout the piece. He took a contemplative approach, rather than the usual flashy virtuosic displays we usually get, and it was just terrific.
Luisi will only conduct a few performances in 2019-2020, his pre-season, but he is already an audience favorite. So, perhaps this is a good opportunity to offer some overall ruminations about his style. Bottom line: He is an energetic presence on the podium with carefully considered concepts and how they fit into the overall architecture. Every detail is observed.
Physically, Luisi is in constant motion. He plants his feet apart, which gives him a wide foundation to support his movements as he transverses the podium like a dance floor. Luisi eschews the benefit of a baton, but his technique is clear, expressive, and almost always precise. With darting, laser-focused eyes, he is in constant contact with the orchestra on a granular level, communicating his concept without micro-managing. However, there are times when his gestures get busy and thus confusing, especially when things are not going exactly as planned, when simplifying might be more effective. From his years in opera, he brings an instinctive feeling for the big sweep and can build to a big moment without overshooting the mark. Dynamics are planned just as carefully and effectively employed to create the composer’s intentions. Best yet, while he reaches big moments all along the way, he saves his ammo for that one, very biggest moment. It’s truly thrilling.