The Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s new season includes many changes amid the pandemic, not the least of which is new artistic director Fabio Luisi. The Italian-born conductor’s debut has been highly-anticipated following former music director Jaap Van Sweden’s decade-long tenure with the DSO.
Luisi opened the season with an all-Beethoven concert series in early September. In his upcoming return to the Meyerson Symphony Hall in October, he’ll conduct a chamber rendition of Mahler’s Song of the Earth.
He formerly served as the principal conductor for the New York Metropolitan Opera, which recently announced that it won’t reopen for another year. In addition to his position at the DSO, he holds positions as the general music director at the Zurich Opera and principal conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.
KERA’s Elizabeth Myong spoke with Luisi to talk about many things, from what it’s like working with the DSO again — now during a pandemic, to the role of classical music in speaking to current events like the summer protests against police brutality.
Responses have been edited for clarity.
- He previously guest conducted for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Now, he’s looking forward to getting to know the orchestra better.
Elizabeth Myong: I thought it was great that you already had this rapport and camaraderie with them (the orchestra). So how has that kind of dialogue been as you go into a longer-term relationship, more intimately with the orchestra?
Fabio Luisi: I think this is not a big issue because what we do is work together. We have a goal week-by-week with some day rehearsals. It’s going to continue in this way. The only thing we will change is the fact that we are going to know each other better, more and more from time to time, from project to project. This will facilitate everything, will make everything more easy.
They will soon know what I am expecting from them, what my priorities are in terms of musical interpretation to what we are doing. And on the other side, I will learn what I can expect from them and what are the tasks I have to work more on. And also psychologically, how I have to approach them in order to get the best from every one of my musicians.
2. He wants to bring the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to international audiences.
EM: Looking ahead in the next couple of seasons, how would you describe your vision for the orchestra and what you’d like to see come out of this?
FL: It’s a bit too much, speaking of vision. Let’s say the goal is more than the vision. The goals are to make this orchestra more known internationally than it is right now. In the last few years, there have not been so many international projects for this orchestra. I find this is fundamental. This is very, very important. So we are planning this ahead. Of course, this pandemic situation has made things more difficult than they already were before but we are working on it.
You know, everybody thinks it’s not necessary anymore. We have the internet and we can make streamings and we can make you available. This is not the same thing. People want to have you personally there. They need human contact. They want to see a real orchestra on stage and this is what we are aiming to do.
3. He’s bringing his love of the opera to Dallas.
EM: I know that opera-in-concert will be a little bit of a different experience for audiences, at least Dallas audiences. So what do you hope they’ll take away from those experiences?
FL: I think the reason we are doing opera-in-concert is to focus on the music without stage distractions. I think some directors use music as a soundtrack to their visual ideas and this is very, very wrong.
I think opera-in-concert is a way to focus only on the music and what we did with Salome last season was to offer a little bit of a visual experience together with the music, which is okay. This is adequate because it explains a little bit better what is happening and it’s easier to follow. Nevertheless, the main accent should be on the music alone.
4. He believes classical music has a role in speaking to contemporary issues like the pandemic and the protests against police brutality.
EM: I feel like art and music are just so influenced by your environment, what’s happening around you. We have the pandemic. We also have had quite a summer with protests against police brutality and calls for racial justice. I’m wondering what you think the role of classical music is in speaking to these issues or even reflecting on them?
FL: I think both of them. We can speak in how we put our programs together, how we do our programs and how we promote our programs, how we explain why we have chosen this piece and not that piece. If we are going to make just an example, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, it’s not just because Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is a great symphony, but in the context of our daily life: What does this symphony bring to us?
We have to explain this to our audience and to our community, which is not only suggesting something like a museum because it’s an old symphony, it’s an important composer and so on. But what is the meaning of the symphony, what Beethoven thought writing this symphony? Is this still good for our days or does it belong to a past time?
Secondly, I think that yes, this is also reflecting because art and therefore music, which is part of all artistic expression, is like saying look at this mirror, it’s you. What we are playing tonight, it’s you. It’s the feelings of humanity, which have always been the same since 2,000 years. So look at you, if you listen to this music, if you read this book, if you go to the museum and look at those paintings, it’s still you. What do you see in these expressions of art? It’s actually you and now.
5. When selecting music, he considers pieces that have been forgotten or overlooked.
EM: When we’re talking about the meaning of the music, what was your thought process in building this body of work that you were going to be conducting? I know that there may be some other collaborators, but from your perspective?
FL: Of course, it’s always teamwork. I am not doing it alone. I have great coworkers here at the DSO and also how we put our programs together has to consider many factors: What did we play in the last years? What can we repeat more often and why? It must have a reason. Also what is appropriate for the orchestra and especially for me, it’s important to find out deficits. So what the orchestra has not played in the last 10-15 years, this is important.
My focus, which I started last year already, is American music. But not only the big canon of American music, but also what brought us to that kind of big canon. Also, the composers who are a little bit forgotten. And first of all, we ask ourselves, why are they forgotten? Is this right, that they are forgotten or not? Should we revive them? Do they say something to us now? Are they important for the canon of American music? And are they important for today’s musical life?
6. A collaborative atmosphere is important to him.
EM: You’ve said before that you admire Wolfgang Sawallisch (German conductor). What is it about his conducting that you appreciate or that you’ve learned from?
FL: The personality of a conductor. What it means to be a music director, what it means to be a conductor. So this interaction of roles, which is very important. Then the very interesting thing to me is not only just coming to the rehearsal and waving your arms and conducting the orchestra, but the work which is behind and beside this is very important. And also the psychological skills, which make you understandable to the orchestra. I think this is extremely important to reflect on as a conductor.
The time where the conductor was a dictator is over fortunately and you have musicians in front of you when you conduct an orchestra — they have a huge experience. Most of them have more experience than yourself. So you can also learn from them, not only give direction or orders. Then this social aspect belongs to this profession. This is important to me. This is why Wolfgang Sawallisch was one of my role models because he was not only a great conductor but also a great music director, a great general manager of his company. So I could learn from him a big deal.
7. He wants to allow classical music to speak to its own value.
EM: When we look at classical music now, it seems like there’s this constant pressure to connect it with popular culture. How do you view that seeming divide and the future of classical orchestral music?
FL: I am not a big fan of crossover projects because I think this is the wrong way. I think classical music is here to elevate and to suggest, and that these are the two most important things to consider when we try to bring classical music to people ﹘ not making it easier or more popular, but trying to make people understand why it is important to like it and to be involved in classical music.
So, because it’s a reflection about ourselves it’s something we have to also put in the right context. It’s a historical context, and this helps us to learn history. Nobody is learning history nowadays. And the mistakes we are doing internationally, politically and environmentally, come because we are not learning history and classical music and arts. Generally, if we go there in the right way, it could help us to understand our world better.