Is it a form of profiling if only Italian guest conductors of the San Francisco Symphony are getting asked to conduct Richard Strauss’ early work “Aus Italien”?
The first time the piece was ever performed at the SFS was in 2001 and the conductor was Roberto Abbado, nephew of the late and great Claudio. And that has been it until last week when another Italian guest conductor, Fabio Luisi, was asked to conduct the 45-minute work of the 22-year old Strauss.
Ironic that with expectations low and a disconcerting number of empty seats, Mr. Luisi and the San Francisco musicians delivered one of the most satisfying performances of the entire symphony season. You just never know when you are going to strike gold in the concert hall.
Not only was the public in attendance lucky enough to be privy to a terrific performance, but the San Francisco musicians demonstrated a clear enthusiasm and appreciation of Maestro Luisi who made his SFS debut in 2008.
Applause from orchestra members exploded during the customary bows at the end of the evening’s entertainment, and backstage I was accosted by several musicians who were openly and unashamedly declaring their admiration for Mr. Luisi’s work. “We love him, we love him” one of the musicians gushed to me.
I certainly understand their enthusiasm. Rather than shortchange Strauss’ picture postcard from Italy, Mr. Luisi gave the early work an impassioned committed reading, evoking the majesty and mystery of a land that so obviously seduced and intoxicated the precocious 22-year old that it inspired him to write this ‘postcard’ in his own then evolving musical language.
Later on, a more artistically mature Strauss would send us yet another picture postcard, this one from the Alps, the celebrated “Alpine Symphony”. At the very beginning of “Aus Italien”, you can hear intimations of the “Alpine Symphony” that was to follow.
In life, one man’s misfortune often is another’s good fortune; the misfortune of the Metropolitan Opera, who hesitated to hire Luisi as a successor to James Levine and then lost out on his services, certainly has been good fortune for San Francisco and other symphony orchestras and opera houses, since the Met’s blunder opened Luisi’s appointment book for places like San Francisco. Thank you so much, Peter Gelb!!
Mr. Luisi is now the General Music Director of the Zurich Opera and Music Director of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra that visited San Francisco earlier in the month and delivered two outstanding concerts.
In a telephone conversation I asked Maestro Luisi of the special qualities he brings to the concert hall from the opera house.
Luisi knows singing and said he tries to get the orchestra musicians to play like a good singer sings, paying particularly close attention to phrasing and legato. When we talked about his favorite Italian tenors from the past, he mentioned Carlo Bergonzi, known for his exceptionally phrasing and legato, as his favorite; an orchestra that mimics Bergonzi’s phrasing and legato, he said, is going to be a successful orchestra.
At several points during the Strauss performance I noticed the orchestra ‘singing’ and thought, “Ah, there’s the Luisi touch”.
Mr. Luisi is only the latest in a series of outstanding guest conductors who have enriched San Francisco symphony life this season. I am thinking of Herbert Blomstedt, Marek Janowki, Charles Dutoit and many others. The Italian maestro told me he would love to be invited back. Unlike several of the guests, Maestro Luisi is middle aged and at the top of his powers. One thing is certain—if the orchestra musicians have any say in it, Mr. Luisi will become a fixture in San Francisco for years to come.