By Truman C. Wang
Last Friday (3/31), the Philharmonic Society of Orange County brought to the Segerstrom stage the Danish National Symphony, in their first U.S. tour, led by their new Italian conductor Fabio Luisi. The combination of cool Scandinavian efficiency and warm Mediterranean sunshine proved to be a winning formula.
Outside of Denmark, Carl Nielsen is mainly known for his violin concerto and a few short orchestral works, of which the Helios Overture shows a superb example of his mastery of nature painting with subtle orchestral colors. Composed during Nielsen’s brief stay in Greece (hence the Greek name helios=sun), the overture traces the movement of the sun from sunrise to sunset, with corresponding changes in sky color. Conductor Fabio Luisi allowed the music to unfold naturally in an impressive buildup to sunrise, where the Danish horns shone brilliantly in unison. This short ten-minute piece showed two qualities of the Danish orchestra – their finesse and bite – that would become a recurring theme throughout the concert.
From the Greek sun to the dark night of “Tristan und Isolde”, Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder received a very suave and darkly sensuous reading from maestro Luisi in the six songs. The two songs with direct quotes from “Tristan” – ‘Im Treibhaus’ and ‘Träume’ – were especially memorable for their brooding qualities and subtle colors, much more so than in the piano and voice version. Soprano Deborah Voigt sang passionately and intelligently, but her lirico-spinto voice, beautiful as it might in the right music, lacked the heft or low notes to color and plumb the emotional depths of these poems. Fortunately, the Danish National Symphony strings saved the day (or night) with their beautifully nuanced playing.
What followed after the intermission was possibly the finest account of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 I have heard in recent memory. Granted, the L.A. Phil’s Mahler under Dudamel gave no complaints. The Danes, however, kicked it up another notch and seemed to be playing this music like it was just written yesterday in a shockingly fresh and daring manner. The aforementioned ‘finesse and bite’ were on full display here. The first movement’s nature painting was achieved with the lightest brushstrokes, as if the violin bows never touched the strings (check out the San Francisco Symphony’s Mahler recordings to see what I mean). Then, unexpectedly in the Ländler, the orchestra went into the attack mode and turned it into a rather sinister bipolar waltz. From then on, the furious excitement never let up until the stormy finale of stunning power. Call it Nordic storm meets Italian seduction. Maestro Luisi is the right man to lead this fine orchestra.
After the titanic Mahler symphony, amazingly still with energy to spare, the orchestra gave an encore of Tango Jalousie by Danish composer Jacob Gade. It’s a thoroughly old-fashioned piece full of Viennese charm and Italian sunshine. I saw many happy smiling faces on the exit out into the balmy night air.
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.