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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Concert Review: The Substitute of Choice

Fabio Luisi conducts the Munich Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Stepping in: Fabio Luisi was a late replacement at Saturday's Carnegie Hall concert.
Photo by Koich Miura © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
On Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra played the second of two concert programs featuring the music of its hometown hero Richard Strauss. Strauss hits the milestone 150th birthday this year, motivating touring orchestras to program his orchestral extravaganzas.  With the current Munich chief conductor Lorin Maazel sidelined due to illness, Fabio Luisi was called in as a replacement.

In recent years, Mr. Luisi has gained a place  New York's most famous "substitute" conductor. At the Metropolitan Opera (where he holds the post of Principal Conductor) he kept a hand on the reins as that house's Music Director James Levine recovered from a debilitating injury. However, Mr. Levine's return to active duty, combined with Mr. Luisi's commitments at the Zurich Opera have made for fewer New York appearances this season. (He is currently rehearsing the season-ending revival of La Cenerentola at the Met.)

Opening with the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Mr. Luisi wasted no time in reminding New Yorkers of his excellence as an opera conductor. He pulled rich, blooming tone from the orchestra, diving headlong into the Act I prologue with its heavy-handed, humorous portrait of a night of carnality between two of the principal characters. From there, the Suite veered into the Presentation of the Rose from Act II, with delicate playing from the double reeds and percussion.

The orchestra played the "Mit mir" waltz tune with joy and great warmth of sound, which expanded further in their account of the big final trio that concludes the opera. With cello, oboe and flute taking the place of the three singers, Mr. Luisi conjured the dream-like magic of a final scene that brings listeners back to this opera again and again. The Suite ended on a huge, crashing reprise of the main waltz, replete with quotes, in-jokes and musical references, thumping to a grand conclusion.

Following her performance as Emilia Marty in the Met's last revival of The Makropoulos Case, soprano Karita Mattila has been largely absent from New York. However, the Finnish diva made a grand return last night, singing the Four Last Songs with warmth and compassion. Her tone has darkened in recent years, but that's no bad thing for the pensive words of Frühling ("Spring")  and September. Each received sensitive support from the Munich players, with Mr. Luisi expertly augmenting the vocal line. Ms. Mattila used the supple lower register of her instrument for the first two songs.

About halfway through Beim Schavengehem ("Going to Sleep")  the light dawned and she opened up her formidable upper register. This was the voice remembered, a clear, silvery tone that enchants and seduces the ear but supported throughout by the newly expanded lower range In this song's final passages, she matched the solo violin in its depiction of the spell of night. The final Im Abendrot ("In Evening") had the most glorious singing of all, against a burnished orchestra carefully led by Mr. Luisi, If thi is the beginner of this artist's next phase, it was a strong one indeed.

Although it is among Strauss' more popular orchestral showpieces, the autobiographical Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life") always smacks of hubris. Here was the composer taking stock at 34 of his state in the world, using the woodwind section to take a few shots at "the Hero's Enemies" (music critics!) and drawing a candid portrait of his wife Pauline through a lengthy set of cadenzas for the solo violin. The big bustling cello theme that opens thrills the audience, and the work calls for a gigantic orchestra capable of flexibility, power and yes, subtlety too.

Under Mr. Luisi, the Munich players met all of those challenges, delivering the six continuous movements of this work as a pell-mell ride through Strauss' own subconscious. The string players seemed to take particular delight in the lush passages of "The Hero's Companion," with concertmaster Sreten Krstič making the most of his solo spotlight. Even in the brassy clash and percussive clatter of "The Hero at War", Mr. Luisi maintained a sense of order, keeping the textures transparent and letting the audience hear the detail jam-packed into this complicated score.

Strauss is a great one for self-reference, and he outdoes himself in "The Hero's Works of Peace," a veritable catalogue of his early musical achievements (including an unapologetic look at the two failed early operas Guntram and Feuersnot.) Like students gleaning the essentials from a text, the Munich players dutifully underlined each of the 30 (!) musical quotes from early Strauss, seeming to take particular relish in playing the big horn themes from Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel. The finale, "The Hero at Rest" reduces the scope back to the Hero and his wife with a subtle duet for violin and horn. Strauss included one last quote in its coda, the rising fifths of Also Sprach Zarathustra. With this final affirmation, the work looked boldly toward the future and the operatic conquests that would follow.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.