Classical Music

Fabio Luisi Is a Breath of Fresh Air for the Dallas Symphony

Sylvia Elzafon
DSO music director Fabio Luisi
Last week, Dallas got its first real introduction to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s new music director, Fabio Luisi, and it was magical.

It’s been quite some time since our orchestra had an artistic change of this magnitude, as Jaap van Zweden held the reins for an entire decade. The DSO pulled out all the stops for the occasion, too. There were cameras onstage recording the musicians from every angle for a simulcast next door at Annette Strauss Square and a live stream to their Facebook page, plus all of the DSO’s top officials were in attendance.

Just before the show started, Board Chairman Sanjiv Yajnik remarked, “Tonight we start a new chapter of the Dallas Symphony,” as the crowd welcomed Luisi onto the stage with a preemptive standing ovation.

Make no mistake: Maestro Jaap van Zweden is a musical genius who helped the DSO earn a place in the top tier of American orchestras during his 10 years as music director. But he was also well-known for being an uncompromising taskmaster with a rather intimidating disposition. There was a certain nervous tension in the air at the concert hall when he was in town to conduct the DSO. Nevertheless, the orchestra sounded incredible when he was on the podium. He demanded the absolute best, and that’s what the musicians always gave him.

Peter Czornyj, the DSO’s vice president of artistic operations, tells the Observer that when it was time to find van Zweden’s successor, the orchestra wanted someone who would inspire them to pursue an even greater level of artistic excellence. Fabio Luisi, an acclaimed Italian conductor, became the front-runner and accepted the job in June 2018.

“Luisi has an exceptional reputation for the finest performances of the great symphonic repertoire,” says Czornyj. “He is respected and admired by orchestra musicians all over the world.”

Indeed, Luisi’s six seasons as principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera put him on the map, and he’s since taken on multiple tenured positions and made guest conductor appearances with orchestras and operas around the world. He is currently general music director of the Zurich Opera in Switzerland, chief conductor of the Danish National and music director of Maggio Musicale, a summer Italian opera festival in Florence. On top of all that, he has a “secret passion for perfumery,” and even has his own signature line called FL Parfums.

“Luisi brings a wealth of knowledge to the artistic planning process, and that is very rewarding.” — Peter Czornyj, DSO

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Czornyj seems optimistic about Luisi’s relationship with the DSO musicians as well. “In rehearsal, he is very focused on providing leadership but giving the musicians freedom for expression within the collective music-making process,” he says. “He quite naturally provides positive musical direction and clear interpretative oversight.”

This “natural positivity” was on full display last weekend as the DSO performed a wonderfully varied program with their new music director at the helm. Their performance of Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Winds, Timpani, Percussion and Strings was particularly fun to watch. Martin’s work is filled with tricky technical passages and gorgeous chromaticism, all of which were performed with finesse and ease by principal musicians from across the DSO’s wind sections. The soloists could be seen smiling contently during rests and some were almost dancing along.

Throughout the concert Luisi appeared controlled, yet was not at all rigid or forceful. He was able to communicate to the musicians with what seemed like the most minute movements of his left hand, yet he was appropriately animated during expressive climaxes as well.

Czornyj and Luisi have already been working closely to plan the DSO’s programming for the coming seasons, something that Czornyj says is a delight. “It is wonderful to collaborate with someone of Fabio Luisi’s enormous experience in the orchestral and operatic world,” he says. “He brings a wealth of knowledge to the artistic planning process, and that is very rewarding.”

If this first concert was any indication, we have much to look forward to in future programs under Luisi’s musical direction. He’s promised to conduct a full opera-in-concert each year, starting with Strauss’ Salome next season, as well as more music by American composers — a genre that has been somewhat overlooked in recent years — and female composers like composer-in-residence Julia Wolfe.

Luisi and the DSO musicians certainly dazzled us with this first show, and all signs point to more greatness in the future.