Cleveland Orchestra with Fabio Luisi and Jonathan Biss (Nov. 25)

Jonathan Biss

By Daniel Hathaway

Though Fabio Luisi's elevation to the principal conductorship at the Metropolitan Opera last September — following James Levine's most recent health crisis — set off a domino effect in the classical music world as Luisi cancelled engagements in Vienna, Rome, Genoa and San Francisco, one date stayed put on his calendar. Cleveland audiences got a post-Thanksgiving treat as Luisi led the first of three concerts with The Cleveland Orchestra on Friday evening. It was one of the most impressive appearances by a guest conductor at Severance Hall in recent memory.


Quantum leaps in careers often happen when a young conductor fills in on short notice for an ailing maestro (think Bernstein in for Bruno Walter or Michael Tilson Thomas for William Steinberg). In Fabio Luisi's case, the Met promotion was recognition for formidable skills forged during a long career in the underground caverns of opera houses. He is a consummate professional with a clear and expressive musical agenda and the tools to convey that vision to fellow professionals on the stage and in the pit. On Friday evening, a winning combination of lucidity and passion elevated works by Strauss and Mozart to a whole new energy level.


Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks was a completely spellbinding curtain-raiser. Luisi and the orchestra made the sometimes ambiguous narrative of Till's mischief-making compelling in its drama and precise in its execution, somehow managing to suggest reckless abandon while keeping every musical detail and transition under tight control. Luisi was both economical and extravagant with his gestures as the music demanded, and every movement made sense. Richard King and Hans Clebsch handled the iconic horn solos masterfully and Daniel McKelway was both impish and completely in charge of the E-flat clarinet part.


Following an orchestral blowout like Till, a Mozart piano concerto might seem lightweight, but Luisi lopped off only a few stands of string players and teamed with Jonathan Biss in a richly symphonic version of the concerto in G, K. 453. After an elegant orchestral introduction, Biss created long, arching lines, comely phrases with finely-tapered ends and elegantly voiced runs. Soloist and orchestra made important moments out of key changes in the slow movement and set up a gentle and congenial tempo for the rondo — the perfect foil for the rambunctiousness to come. Biss was totally involved in the music even when the piano was silent. When he put fingers to keys, his touch was nuanced and magical.


Fabio Luisi returned to music by Richard Strauss after intermission: the youthful tone poem, Aus Italien. Obviously the 21-year-old composer still had his training wheels on (fleeting moments reminiscent of other composers dart in and out), but this 45-minute travelog is already full of Straussian exuberance and color. Solemn chorale-like music represented a country scene; sweeping and energetic themes suggested Roman ruins; striking textures — miasmas of trills and tremolos — painted a scene on the shores of Sorrento; and clever quotations of the faux-folk song, Faniculì, Faniculà lightened the mood of the finale, which conjured up the spirit of Naples. George Szell thought highly enough of Aus Italien to program the piece in 1950, and Fabio Luisi made a strong case for it on Friday evening. It made for an eminently enjoyable second half of a Thanksgiving weekend concert.


Once again, Luisi was thoroughly in charge, but left enough room for his orchestral colleagues to have fun with their material. The mixture of control, passion and collegiality is what makes Luisi so impressive on the podium. We hope he'll leave room in his schedule for Cleveland in the future.