Conductor Fabio Luisi strikes up tantalizing relationship with Cleveland Orchestra

Jonathan Biss
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis

Why certain conductors rise to the top and others don’t isn’t always clear. In the case of Fabio Luisi, however, the hype appears to be justified.

Within a few minutes of his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra Friday night at Severance Hall, the rationale behind Luisi’s recent promotion to principal conductor of New York’s Metropolitan Opera was plain for all to hear: here was an artist of true distinction, an interpreter in possession of a bold, unique and clearly discernible voice.

The impression endured, too, emerging intact from an uneven, lackluster program. Everything Luisi touched, it seemed, turned to musical gold, rendered brilliant by the conductor’s studious avoidance of the thick, heavy and static.

Strauss was the focus of Luisi’s program. Specifically, two of the tone poems, many of which he’s recorded with Staatskapelle Dresden. Luisi also serves as principal conductor of Austria’s Vienna Symphony and will soon become general music director of Switzerland’s Zurich Opera, a post formerly held by Cleveland’s own Franz Welser-Most.

Of the two Strauss scores, the superior by a vast margin was “Till Eulenspiegel.” Perhaps never has music’s legendary prankster been rendered so vividly or with such abundant affection.

Not one bar did Luisi permit to lay fallow. Spirited scenes followed immediately on each other’s heels as the orchestra stayed in constant motion. Yet there was no sense of hurry. Rather, Luisi simply kept the ensemble on its toes, reserving luxurious treatment for lyrical passages.

Those players representing Till himself were also in rare form, together portraying a character as life-like and likable as is possible through music. Till’s demise in Strauss’s conception is never quite a tragedy. Nonetheless, one was sad to hear this version of him come to an end.

Jonathan Biss, last here in 2009, may have been the perfect choice to collaborate with Luisi in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17. Like the conductor, the pianist’s hallmarks were clarity and elasticity, combined with unflagging panache.

But Mozart in his 17th concerto demands seriousness as well as playfulness, and Biss evinced the latter in spades, too. His performance of the Andante bore all the profound, mysterious beauty of a sphinx.

In contrast to his talent, Luisi’s choice of Strauss’s “From Italy” for the second half was puzzling. An early work that only hints at genius, the score boasts little of the unity or memorability that distinguish the composer’s later efforts. There’s a reason Cleveland hadn’t touched the score since 1989.

Still, it’s a tribute to Luisi that he managed to warm up this post-Thanksgiving musical turkey. Wielding the same dynamic tools he used in “Eulenspiegel,” he evoked a string of pastoral and dramatic episodes, giving the work the facade, if not the essence, of a masterpiece.

How Luisi and the Cleveland Orchestra would sound in other areas of the repertoire is tantalizing to imagine. No doubt about it: Luisi must return, but with different music.