The Danish National Symphony Orchestra rolled into Costa Mesa on Friday night as part of a quick, five-city tour of California. On the podium was the ensemble's newly appointed Italian principal conductor, the widely traveled Fabio Luisi, perhaps best known as the soon-to-be-departing principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Not often seen on these shores, the Copenhagen-based orchestra was making its first appearance at Segerstrom Concert Hall as well as its first appearance for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, started in 1954.
The program offered a taste of Danish music in the form of Carl Nielsen's "Helios Overture" (from 1903), but nothing contemporary from the homeland. Orange County's own Deborah Voigt appeared at concerto time as the soloist in Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder." As it unfolded, the concert took a little time to get going, but Mahler's Symphony No. 1 brought up the rear and that, as usual, did it.
Luisi has a firm, incisive and vigorous conducting style, well suited, it turned out, for the busy expressive traffic of the Mahler. From the very start of the work, as the sounds of spring began to awaken, Luisi sought and found a variety of accentuation, articulation and color. At the same time, the rhythm remained well motivated (his command of the myriad tempo changes was impressive) and the pacing aimed carefully at thrillingly dispatched climaxes.
The orchestra, which describes itself as having a "straightforward personality," gave Luisi what he asked for; the rustic-sounding woodwinds were especially satisfying. The strings supplied a lovely sheen and ready nimbleness but lacked somewhat in power, at least for Mahler, the fortes more brilliant than intimidating. The brass, too, though solid, wanted muscle here and there, and the horns were apt to minor bobbles all evening. These things matter on tour.
For a conductor so attentive to detail, Luisi ignored at least two in Mahler's score. He had the entire bass section play the solo at the beginning of the third movement, ruining Mahler's intended effect. And in the closing pages of the finale, the horn section stayed seated, despite the composer's instructions to "get up." Still, these amounted to quibbles in a reading that seemed more succinctly characterized by the vehemence with which Luisi unintentionally shattered his baton in an emphatic moment in the finale. (It went flying into the orchestra.)
Voigt's website indicates that her performance schedule is on the light side these days. In the "Wesendonck" songs, at any rate, she didn't sound entirely at ease. Her diction was excellent, though, and she crested imposingly with the orchestra. She brought particular urgency to the second number, "Stehe still!." These songs, written at the same time as "Tristan und Isolde," aren't often encountered in concert, and after hearing them here, this listener thinks he knows why: The orchestrations, by Felix Mottl not Wagner, are pedestrian.
Advertised as the "world's foremost" Nielsen orchestra, the group opened with the composer's early "Helios Overture," a work that traces the sun's progress throughout a day in Greece. It sparkles in a different way than, say, Ravel's sun, with a mellow warmth rather than dazzle. The cool, liquid tone in the strings and oboes somehow added a Nordic touch of color, and Luisi shaped the piece in a satisfying arc.
The encore was Danish composer Jacob Gade's famous "Tango Jalousie," which conductor and orchestra had a swooning good time with.
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