YOUNTVILLE - Nicola Luisotti + Joshua Bell + the Prokofiev Violin
Concerto No. 1 = a thrilling experience and more fun than may be legal.
The San Francisco Opera's music-director designate made his symphonic
debut in the area 50 miles north of the city, at Festival del Sole,
conducting the Russian National Orchestra this evening in Lincoln
Theater. The program consisted of the Prokofiev concerto, his Symphony
No. 5, Saint-Saens' Cello Concerto in A minor, with Nina Kotova, and
Marco Tutino's "Scena Terza" from the ballet (yes) "Riccardo III."
Everything receded into the background against the performance of the
Violin Concerto. To begin with, it's one of Prokofiev's greatest works,
written at age 25, almost a century ago, but still fresh and innovative,
surprising, rich, and endlessly repeatable.
Every time Bell performs, the expectation is impossibly high - and he
easily surpasses it. I heard this concerto performed by some of the
greatest Russian violinists and a few might have been more "Russian,"
but none was more effortlessly brilliant and musically involved than
But the purpose of this report is to try to convey the Luisotti
Experience, definitely one of those "you should have been there" events.
The conductor's only San Francisco exposure came in the sensational 2005
"La Forza del Destino" run; the excitement was all aural, with only
occasional, incomplete glimpses of Luisotti in the pit. Tonight, he was
up on the podium, unavoidable, mesmerizing, painting a huge smile on the
faces of many in the audience (but not, of course, in case of the
Russian musicians who, however young, still bear the Soviet-regulation
expression of professional severity, as if it hurt to perform music).
Let's be honest: most balletic conductors (and musicians in general) are
a pain in the okole. (Probably unnecessary footnote: that be the gluteus
maximus.) The few exceptions are those from whom the music pours forth,
inexorably. Leonard Bernstein is a prime example of "excusable leaping"
(not for everyone, even in his case), but eventually, late in his
career, those flamboyant movements became at times more theatrical than
musical. Bernstein could be "real" and he could also appear as a poseur.
Now we have Luisotti, with a full-body conducting technique, a man
totally alive and joyous, with a myriad expressions, most of them
varieties of laughter. A happier conductor you will never see. And, to
go back to the Bernstein reference (as far as manners, not necessarily
comparing over-all excellence), Luisotti at this point of his
skyrocketing career is completely sincere and real. Perhaps years from
now, some of what he does will become routine, but as of now, you can
neither take your eyes off him nor do you want to.
Of course, it's important what the music is and how it sounds (d'oh!),
but Luisotti is great fun conducting anything. Example: tonight's Tutino
piece, from the ballet (yes) "Richard III." (Just how did the title
character DANCE, one wonders.) The artistic director of Bologna's Teatro
Comunale, here for the concert in Napa, has written many works
(including "an operatic version of Mike Nichols' film `Wit'"), but his
name is not familiar in opera houses or concert halls. Being probably in
the minority of one in tonight's enthusiastic audience, I can see why.
"Scena Terza" is big, dramatic, and - to me - utterly ridiculous music,
a pasquinade of Respighi's most bombastic works. There is a sinister
two-note theme in the celli and double bass repeated endlessly, a
deafening drum ostinato, big, noisy, empty sounds - and totally
enjoyable when watching Luisotti put heart and soul and guts and glory
into this... thing. A great show, yes, but music below the level of
Baron (ah, those jocular Brits!) Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Note to David Gockley: please raise the conductor's platform in the pit
when Luisotti arrives in the War Memorial. We should see more of him.
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