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Guest conductor Fabio Luisi brings soft-spoken artistry to Phila. Orchestra

At some point during an extended encounter with Philadelphia Orchestra guest conductor Fabio Luisi, you can't help comparing your socks with his - and wondering what that means.

Fabio Luisi, conductor.
Fabio Luisi, conductor.Read moreMetropolitan Opera

At some point during an extended encounter with Philadelphia Orchestra guest conductor Fabio Luisi, you can't help comparing your socks with his - and wondering what that means.

A studious, scholarly presence, the 56-year-old Luisi is probably the most soft-spoken person backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, where he is principal conductor and preparing for a revival of two of the noisier Italian operas in the repertoire, the blood-and-guts pair of I Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana. When Luisi talks about music, he comes off like an intelligent, thoughtful caretaker. His formality extends to wearing neckties to rehearsal. Then you notice his socks - with fashionably colorful horizontal stripes.

He struggles to explain this incongruity. "We have so many sides in our life," he says. "I'm not serious about everything."

My socks were plain gray wool. He judges me not: "That's warm. I understand."

The extravagance behind his button-down exterior opens the door to a conductor widely credited with maintaining the artistic backbone of the Metropolitan Opera, starting in 2011, amid James Levine's extended period of bad health. Now a welcome fixture on the U.S. landscape, Luisi is also returning to the Philadelphia Orchestra after five years to conduct Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 ("Pathetique") Thursday through Saturday at the Kimmel Center.

With socks discussed, you're less surprised that he grew up idolizing his opposites - conductors Sergiu Celibidache and Leonard Bernstein, both of whom favored ultraslow tempos that some found confounding. Luisi prefers the straighter, more moderate tempos of a classicist. Discussing the ultramystical Celibidache, whose guest stint at the Curtis Institute in 1985 was regarded with skepticism, Luisi sounds like a librarian explaining a madman.

"I couldn't do what he did," he says. "Of course, I don't have his experience, his philosophical background. When I listen to a Celibidache performance, it's extreme, but everything sounds right. I would do it differently . . . but everything they did, they did with conviction. You understand that they were behind everything they did."

Similarly, Luisi represents the polar opposite of his formative experiences. The first opera he ever witnessed (in his native Genoa) was chaotic and volatile. Some say that goes with the territory. Not him: "That is a mistake. I've learned that if you have something to say, people will listen to you. And if you don't have something to say -"

You have chatter and chaos? Luisi exerts authority while acknowledging there's often a gap between singers' knowing what they have to do and determining how to do it. "Some people just need more time," he says. During the Met's problematic Ring cycle that Luisi took over in 2010-12 from Levine - with expensive, fallible stage machinery - the backstage scuttlebutt was that the singers could hardly love Luisi enough.

New York, Philadelphia, and much of the rest of the United States weren't big parts of Luisi's life until five years ago. "You can't be everywhere," he was fond of saying - which explains some of his more anticareerist decisions. Sometimes at odds with high-concept European stage directors, he turned down the Bayreuth Festival because he didn't appreciate how producer Hans Neuenfels saw Lohengrin as a study in lab rats. So you can forget about ever seeing him conduct at the fabled theater that Wagner built. "I may be the only one who has ever turned them down," he says. Though he has long aspired to conduct a Tristan und Isolde, he has turned down invitations to conduct it - if only because he didn't feel ready.

The solid European career he did build was centered in Dresden - a period in his life he describes as beautiful - with an orchestra whose sound is among the most cultivated on the continent. Then, behind his back, conductor Christian Thielemann was hired for a high-profile New Year's Eve concert. Luisi's February 2010 resignation strangely coincided with James Levine's sudden indisposition. The Met, which had hosted Luisi for isolated guest engagements, might have waited for years for an A-list conductor to become available. Instead, later that year, Luisi was named principal guest conductor.

New York suddenly became his favorite city: "I think faster when I'm in New York. It keeps me alive and eager to do things."

Now that Levine is back - and with speculation fading that Luisi will succeed him in foreseeable future seasons - Luisi firmly states that the longtime Met music director should continue as long as possible. Besides, Luisi has his own opera house in Zurich, one of Europe's best and richest, and one that gives him control over what he fears could be the death of opera - high-concept productions that don't respect the piece and that reduce the score to mere background music. He also cultivated the opera orchestra as a part-time symphonic ensemble, known as the Philharmonia Zurich, allowing him to continue a dual existence in opera and symphony, as so many composers fall into one category or another, from nonoperatic Brahms to non-symphonic Rossini. "I need them all," he says.

The two sides promise to come together this week in Philadelphia in Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique". The third movement may well feel operatic. "Why not?" asks Luisi. "But not the last movement, which has such deep thoughts and goes beyond words. The very meaning of music is to express something that words can't express."

Zurich, the Met, and his principal conductor post with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra aren't the only factors eating into his family life. Perhaps the greatest incongruity is Luisi's perfume business. Like most hobbies, it's hard to explain, except that in contrast to the recreative task of conducting, "I try to create something that didn't exist before. Sometimes, after a performance or rehearsal, I work deep into the night to free my mind of stress."

It's a one-person business - he even walks packages to the post office himself - with a private (rather than corporate) clientele that's reasonably patient when his conducting schedule gets the best of him: "Most of them, they know that I have another profession."

Fabio Luisi and Christian Tetzlaff perform Tchaikovsky on Thursday through Saturday at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

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