Those who were fortunate enough to be at Santa Barbara’s Granada Theatre Tuesday evening experienced a memorable musical event. The Danish National Symphony Orchestra under its newly appointed Chief Conductor Fabio Luisi offered a program of Nielsen’s Helios Overture, Op. 17, Mahler’s first symphony and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with soprano Deborah Voigt.
For nearly 100 years, culturally in tune CAMA (Community Arts Music Association of Santa Barbara) has presented top-quality soloists, orchestras and ensembles to audiences who reside in the idyllic area. This concert featured the best of Old and New World traditions and provided an opportunity for Americans to hear the Danish Symphony’s lean, clean, technically commanding playing led by Luisi, one of the finest conductors of operatic and orchestral repertoire of our time.
His guest appearances at The Met in such productions as Wagner’s The Ring and Madama Butterfly were nothing less than inspirational, because he is more than a baton beater; his interpretations have a depth of musicianship that brings out the inner core of emotion and structural detail.
The Helios Overture opened with Luisi’s hand gestures gentle caressing the air to initiate the nuanced palette of sounds that followed from winds and brass. The work has a refreshing openness to it that is associated with this revered Danish composer’s symphonies and other substantive works. The New World was represented in American soprano Deborah Voigt’s account of Wesendonck Lieder, a set of five songs inspired by Wagner’s patron (and perhaps ‘more’) Mathilde Wesendonck, who also wrote the text.
Voigt has given a variety of spellbinding performances in such operas as The Pirates of Penzance, Tosca, Les Troyens and particularly German repertoire that include the roles of Isolde, Elisabeth and Brunnhilde in The Met’s virtually unrivaled production of The Ring. Her book, “Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva" (HarperCollins, 2015) delivers tell-all insight about her life and struggles as one of America’s greatest divas.
While some critics insist that her vocal timbre and ability to hit the high C’s is now on the down swing, there was no evidence of this in her portrayal of Wagner’s dark and melancholic song cycle. The work seemed a good fit for her range and expressive characteristics, and she seemed so comfortable, so in sync with projecting the mysteries inherent in this intensely profound music.
Her on stage presence is overwhelmingly dramatic and welcoming; her blond hair, glossed eye shadow and shining navy-toned flowing dress added to the atmosphere. She sustained a rich, supple sonority throughout, using tempos that were on the brisker side for Schmerzen and Traume, with Luisi drawing out layers of luscious tonality from the orchestra. Traume has received many readings, including some of the legendary Lotte Lehmann, but Voigt personalized the song by bringing out its ethereal qualities with subtle shadings, piquant diction and a kind of hushed abandon that floated above the line of undulating melodies contained in the harp-like opening and closing accompaniments.
Bravo Debbie, yet the audience seemed to unleash their wholehearted musical approval (or wait for a different composer to do so) after intermission in Mahler’s so-called “Titan” symphony.
Luisi and group didn’t hold back in their extravagant account of this wildly exhilarating and eclectic work, in which themes from the opening of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Frere Jacques nursery rhyme and Mahler’s own Songs of a Wayfarer can be heard. Whether it’s a mish-mash of folk dance and ethnic tunes weaved together with brilliantly crafted full-throttle orchestration and tender lyricism – Luisi embraced this work with superhuman intensity, pulling out a spectrum of rhythmic, acoustic and harmonic effects from the orchestra, at times a bit too forced, not only with absolute intensity but a sense of stylistic purity heard in notable Mahler interpretations of the past.
Listening to the Danish Symphony under Luisi’s new leadership reminds me of Simon Rattle’s relationship with the Birmingham Symphony and the opportunity for continued artistic development and excellence that it holds. After several cheering curtain calls, the orchestra played Jalousie ‘Tango Tzigane’ (Jealousy Gypsy Tango) by Danish composer Jacob Gade, which began with a racy solo interlude from a member of the first violin section. The Danish National Symphony Orchestra with Luisi and Voigt will perform the same program on March 31 at Orange County’s Segerstrom Hall.