Here is my Tuesday, November 18, 2008 suntimes.com review of the Sunday, November 12 matinée concert at Orchestra Hall by the Dresden Staatskapelle with conductor Fabio Luisi and 'cellist Jan Vogler
The Semperoper in Dresden. Photo by Christoph Münch.
Staatskapelle in a class by itself with Strauss's 'Don Quixote'
BY ANDREW PATNER
When Wynne Delacoma retired as the Sun-Times's classical music critic, among the things that she said she would not miss was having to listen to the tone poems of German composer Richard Strauss.
Certainly these are works that can reek of pomposity and gimmickry, especially in the wrong hands. While not sharing Delacoma's sense of comprehensive dismissal, I do like to budget against too many Zarathustras, Don Juans and Heledenlebens. And I especially dread having to hear the 1897 Don Quixote too many times.
So it was an unexpected pleasure -- a revelation, really -- to hear Strauss's 40-minute retelling of the Cervantes novel, his "Fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character," in the right hands at Orchestra Hall on Sunday afternoon. In fact, I am not sure that I want to hear this piece again if it is not played by the Dresden Staatskapelle with its principal conductor, Fabio Luisi, on the podium and the gifted German cellist Jan Vogler, a former principal player with the Dresden orchestra, as Man of La Mancha soloist.
While some orchestras sound more and more like each other these days, the 460-year-old (!) Staatskapelle maintains a marvelously characteristic string sound. And its wind players and horns play in such a rich and distinctive way, individually and collectively, that you can imagine that you are hearing the very sound that convinced Strauss to premiere no fewer than nine of his operas in Dresden with the predecessors of these players.
As we heard in the concert's second half, Luisi, 49 (left, with one of his pugs, Leonie), whose brilliant Rigoletto at Lyric Opera eight years ago still sounds in my head, takes Strauss's picaresque tale-telling as seriously as a Brahms or Beethoven symphony. By understanding each composer on his own terms, by conducting a strict analysis of each score and then transforming this into a flowing line, Luisi could play just about anything.
I did hesitate a bit in the middle movements of the 1885 Brahms Fourth Symphony in E minor. Op. 98, wondering if Luisi was getting too cerebral, but when he took apart and put back together the great closing-movement passacaglia before our eyes and ears, he had won me and the audience over to his ideas.
And this is Luisi's most important gift: In addition to his technical abilities, his tremendous focus and his palpable energy (his players are on the edges of their seats much of the time), he has ideas about the music he plays -- not eccentric, but deep ones. And whether he is presenting a narrative, as with Strauss, or showing us how Brahms solved a musical problem, he conveys a wonderful mixture of thought and art.
Weber's overture to his 1826 opera Oberon was the generous and convincing encore. It made you want to go to Dresden and hear Luisi in his opera house there. In the meantime, he will play it again, along with large-scale works of Nielsen and Berlioz, at his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut concerts December 18-20. Don't miss them.