Sunday, March 22, 2009

The New Flamboyance

Nicola Luisotti composed an interesting program for his conducting debut with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall this week, shortly before becoming Music Director of the San Francisco Opera. The first half was all from the twentieth century: Zoltán Kodály's 1933 suite of dances based on material he had collected in the Hungarian town of Galánta and Ernest Bloch's "Schelomo" with Michael Grebanier as cello soloist. The second half represented the nineteenth century with Johannes Brahms fourth symphony in E minor (Opus 98).

As an opera conductor, Luisotti has a clear sense of music as drama; and, as I have written elsewhere, this was particularly evident in the perceptive interpretation of "Schelomo" that he developed with Grebanier. However, he also cuts a very flamboyant figure, never afraid of highly communicative facial expressions and the broadest of gestures. His style thus contrasts radically with, for example, the "Russian subtleties" of conductors like Valery Gergiev and Yuri Temirkanov. Both of these Russians understand the power of body language. Indeed, neither of them uses a baton, as opposed to that rather long stick that Luisotti wielded; but I am not sure that I would call either Gergiev or Temirkanov "flamboyant," while in Luisotti's case the "show" seems to be coming as much from the podium as from the ensemble of the players themselves.

It may be that my impression of Luisotti on Saturday night was influenced by my having spent the afternoon watching Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker in a concert at the beginning of this month now in the archives of the orchestra's new Digital Concert Hall. Dudamel's debut with the San Francisco Symphony about a year ago was also a closely-watched occasion; and Dudamel brought more than the usual share of flamboyance to that occasion. His Berlin program consisted of Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Isle of the Dead," Igor Stravinsky's violin concerto (with soloist Viktoria Mullova), and Sergei Prokofiev's fifth symphony. This kind of "experience base" made it difficult for me to approach Luisotti's performance without drawing parallels.

On the positive side both conductors worked well with their respective soloists (as Dudamel had done in San Francisco), resulting in a performance of perceptive understanding (regardless of the radical differences between Bloch and Stravinsky). At the same time both brought considerable exhibitionism to the symphony performances. This worked well enough for Dudamel, since Prokofiev's symphony is already a pretty exhibitionistic piece of work. Brahms is another matter. He is certainly capable of summoning intense emotion, but he usually restrains himself from excesses. To be fair to Luisotti, the sound of his Brahms was quite effective; but the performance left me wondering just what role his body language had played in achieving that result. Of course the other parallel involving these two conductors is that they are both young and are both probably still finding their respective voices for the many different regions of the repertoire they must command. Both quests will take some time, and it should be interesting to follow them.

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