John S. Dykes

Classical Music

Change Is Afoot at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra

This spring, the passing of the baton from Jaap van Zweden to Fabio Luisi will result in a couple of not-to-be-missed performances.

Have you ever experienced the righteous satisfaction of watching the world discover an under-the-radar band you’ve loved for years? That’s likely how patrons of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra felt watching 60 Minutes’ outstanding profile of Jaap van Zweden last October. Our hometown orchestra isn’t extolled on national television every day, so it was sweet to hear one of the most consequential arts administrators of our time gush to Leslie Stahl: “The progress of the Dallas Symphony from when Jaap took over is almost unthinkable it’s so great. … It was a regional orchestra, and now I’d say it’s one of the really fine American symphonies. … He did that single-handedly.”

DSO regulars could be forgiven for thinking, “Yeah, we know.”

Van Zweden’s success with the DSO is practically legend. After his first performance with the orchestra in 2006, Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News delivered a clear verdict: “Sell the farm, mortgage the children, cancel the cruise. Do what you have to do to get to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s concerts this weekend. You’ll see the same familiar faces onstage. But something miraculous has happened: The DSO is playing like one of the world’s greatest orchestras. That’s apparently the work of guest conductor Jaap van Zweden.”

The DSO named van Zweden its music director a year later. Over the course of his decade-long tenure, rave reviews piled up and his reputation grew in Dallas and beyond. Musical America named him conductor of the year in 2011. He guest conducted many of the world’s great orchestras and became music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic in 2012. His face became a de facto logo for the DSO, gracing marketing materials, program covers, and billboards.

After a particularly affecting performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, this writer overheard a man on his phone loudly imploring an out-of-towner to immediately purchase a plane ticket to Dallas to catch a repeat of the concert later that weekend.

Van Zweden lacks the celebrity of a Yo-Yo Ma or Renee Fleming, yet he drew audiences into the Meyerson Symphony Center through a reputation for momentous music-making. He had become the rarest kind of classical musician: a box office draw.

But one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and when the New York Philharmonic announced van Zweden as its next music director, New York critics and gossipy websites made little effort to conceal their disappointment. Rumors swirled that he was the Philharmonic’s second choice or worse. The New York Times published a tepid overview of his catalogue of recordings and criticized his selection as “too predictable.” Another critic characterized his musical temperament as “macho shock and awe.”

But since taking the helm of the Philharmonic last September, van Zweden has defied expectations. He opened the season with a world premiere by a young female composer, a piece in which musicians played as they wandered through the audience, immersing listeners in sound. More world premieres followed in quick succession and reviews have been mostly positive. An influential, early skeptic lauded van Zweden’s first three concerts as “a buoyant start.”

Dallasites wondering what all the fuss is about will have a chance to find out on March 14, 15 and 16, when the Dutch maestro returns to conduct Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Mahler’s First Symphony. These performances won’t feature any premieres, but they will showcase a conductor and orchestra doing what they do best. Van Zweden recorded two Mahler symphonies with the DSO and chose to open the New York Philharmonic’s 2017–2018 season with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. His strength in this repertoire is reportedly the reason for his hiring in New York.

When van Zweden and the DSO last performed Mahler’s First Symphony, D Magazine’s Catherine Womack hastened, “Here’s something to add to your beautiful-things-to-do-in-Dallas-when-they-are-available bucket list: if Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony are performing music by Mahler at the Meyerson, change your evening plans, splurge on good seats and treat yourself to an hour of orchestral bliss.” In other words, the band is getting back together to play one of their hits. Van Zweden is not scheduled to appear with the DSO next season, nor will the orchestra perform any works by Mahler. For fans of either, this is an opportunity not to be missed.

Because the DSO selected a white, male, western European fiftysomething to replace another, you could be forgiven for thinking Fabio Luisi will bring more of the same.  Limited evidence suggests you would be wrong.

Luisi has only conducted the DSO twice, in 2002 and 2018, but his appearance last spring evinced a musical temperament unlike his predecessor’s. While critics often grouse about van Zweden’s tendency to lash music ever faster and louder, Luisi’s interpretations are often noted for their restraint.

Luisi possesses a mild manner that belies contained intensity both on and off the podium. His conducting is determined but not aggressive, expressive but never flamboyant. In interviews, he is soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, but answers questions frankly, unafraid of offering criticism.

A child of a working-class household (his father was a train conductor), Luisi’s parents struggled to pay for piano lessons.  He dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, but his passion for opera drew him to conducting. His career as a conductor of both opera and symphony orchestras slowly grew over the last three decades, mostly in Europe. Notoriety in the United States came when the Metropolitan Opera named him principal guest conductor, and, later, principal conductor. In his spare time, he is a parfumier, hand crafting unisex fragrances you can own for $95 per bottle.

The DSO’s June announcement of Luisi as their next music director came only three months after his appearance with the orchestra.  He is also currently the music director of both the Zurich Opera and the Danish National Symphony but will reduce his commitments with those institutions as he assumes his post in Dallas.

Dallasites will get a whiff of Luisi’s artistry on April 18 and 19, when he conducts a program of Beethoven and two unexpected selections: William Grant Still’s Poem for Orchestra, which the DSO has never performed, and Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Winds, Timpani, Percussion, and String Orchestra. The choice of this offbeat repertoire suggests Luisi possesses an adventurous spirit and curious mind.

The concert begins with Still’s Poem for Orchestra. An oboist, conductor, and prolific composer, Still was the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra or compose music performed by major orchestras and opera houses. His opera Troubled Island, with a libretto by Langston Hughes, was the first world premiere staged by the New York City Opera, in 1949. Orchestras in the United States are slowly rediscovering the work of this nearly forgotten composer. Even so, one wonders how Luisi came to this rarity.

The DSO last performed Martin’s Concerto in 1987. Concerti typically appear on programs as vehicles for big-name soloists whose appearances are meant to give ticket sales a bump. By selecting Martin’s Concerto, which will feature no fewer than seven members of the DSO as soloists, Luisi is making a big-hearted gesture. On a program ostensibly designed to introduce him to Dallas audiences, Luisi is welcoming his new colleagues to share the spotlight.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 concludes the evening. Listeners interested in comparing Luisi with his predecessor can do so, as van Zweden recorded Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with the DSO in 2007 and with the New York Philharmonic in 2017.

The DSO’s 2019–2020 season, announced on February 8, shows that Luisi’s eclectic April concert program is not a one-time indulgence.  Rather, it’s a harbinger of the orchestra’s new commitment to a more diverse repertoire. Next season will showcase more music by American and, in particular, living composers. Nine of the season’s 22 classical subscription programs will feature living composers. Audiences often shy away from contemporary classical music, but orchestra leadership should ignore dissent. The current classical subscription season, 19 concert programs in all, features just one living composer, no female composers, and only a handful of works written after 1947. Change is past due.

Luisi’s arrival coincides with other changes and initiatives at the DSO, many of which are focused on the advancement of women in the world of classical music. Over the next 10 years, the orchestra will commission 20 new works, at least half of those by female composers. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe will be composer-in-residence for two years, beginning next season. Gemma New, an up-and-coming New Zealander, was recently appointed principal guest conductor for the next two seasons, and the DSO and the Dallas Opera will also collaborate on a “Women in Classical Music” symposium this spring. The orchestra has also announced long-term initiatives to engage communities in South Dallas. Kim Noltemy, who was appointed President and CEO of the DSO in November 2017, deserves credit for these strides toward inclusion and diversity.

These transitions at the DSO are but a wave in the changing tides around the Arts District. Luisi will take the mantle of the DSO in a downtown unrecognizable from the one van Zweden greeted in 2007. Klyde Warren Park and Museum Tower hadn’t yet broken ground, and One Arts Plaza was still under construction. The renaissance of Main Street, a few blocks away, was still a pipe dream. Now, the Arts District has the draft of a new master plan and the city has adopted a new Cultural Plan and Policy. Dallas is finally getting the downtown it has always wanted, filled with pedestrians and residents. As the neighborhood grows up around the Meyerson Symphony Center, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is undeniably looking to the future.

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