There are many celebrated composers and conductors with whom the Dresden Staatskapelle has been associated throughout its storied history, and the luminaries on the list include Heinrich Sch‹tz, Carl Maria von Weber, and Richard Wagner among the former, and Karl B‹hm, Sir Colin Davis, and Bernard Haitink among the latter.
Still, one name stands out on both lists: Richard Strauss, who not only led the orchestra many times but premiered nine of his operas in Dresden, from his early masterpieces Salome, Elektra, and Der Rosenkavalier to Daphne in 1938. The composer also dedicated his Eine Alpensinfonie ("An Alpine Symphony") to the members of the Staatskapelle, which gave its premiere in 1915.
Indeed, so close were the ties between Strauss and the aptly nicknamed "Strauss Orchestra" that, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the Staatskapelle's founding in 1548, the 84-year-old Strauss was moved to say, "From the wealth of glorious memories accumulated over my artistic career, the sound of this peerless orchestra always stirs anew feelings of tender gratitude and admiration."
So it's not surprising that, for the second of its Great Performers concerts at Avery Fisher Hall on November 21 and 23, the Dresden Staatskapelle and its current music director, the Italian conductor Fabio Luisi: who was appointed to the post at the beginning of last season: will play an all _Strauss program consisting of two of his most richly inventive and brilliantly orchestrated scores, Ein Heldenleben and Don Quixote.
It is also probably no coincidence that Maestro Luisi made his conducting debut with the Staatskapelle at the Salzburg Festival in 2002 with a Strauss operatic rarity, Die Liebe der Danae, following that the next summer with another infrequently-performed Strauss opera, Die ‹gyptische Helena (which Luisi also conducted at the Metropolitan Opera in May 2007, the company's first performances of the work since the 1928-29 season).
"This orchestra is so very experienced playing Strauss: both his operas and his orchestral music," Luisi explains. "So for me to present myself to them for the first time by performing Strauss was brave, since it allowed them to keep an eye on me, so to speak."
That these musicians are instinctively drawn to Strauss' warmly melodic music originates from the time 13 of the orchestra's wind players premiered the 17-year-old composer's Serenade for Winds in 1882. Luisi himself: despite having often led them in this music: remains in awe of their ability. "They actually do have the style and sound of Strauss in their very blood," he says. "It doesn't matter how any conductor wants to interpret this music, because they always know how exactly it must sound: something which I have always found important. And helpful, too, of course."
Luisi elaborates on the tangible connection between composer and orchestra: "This is simply the very best orchestra for playing in Strauss' actual style. I always feel that we should play Strauss as he intended his own music to sound, and not in certain wrong traditions of other German orchestras, such as playing with a too-heavy sound or a very slow tempo. Strauss always had theater in his mind when he composed _he always liked to tell stories through his music, and I feel that I can convey those stories best with this orchestra."
Two of his very best "stories" are on the November 23 program: the exquisite tone poems Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life"): which Luisi labels "a composer's autobiography as told in music": and Don Quixote (subtitled Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character), in which the solo cellist assumes the role of Cervantes' fabled "knight errant."
For this performance, cellist Jan Vogler takes the Quixote part. Until he began his solo career, Vogler was the Staatskapelle's principal cellist, so: you knew it was coming: he has Strauss' music is in his very blood also. As Luisi says, "He's not only a very good cellist but he also knows the traditions and styles of this orchestra and of Strauss." The maestro speaks from experience: he and the orchestra collaborated with Vogler on a recording of Don Quixote, the first in a CD survey of all of Strauss' orchestral works on Sony/BMG. (The most recent release was of Ein Heldenleben and Metamorphosen.)
The Orchestra's November 21 program pairs two other composers whose music is quite familiar to the Staatskapelle's players: Brahms and Beethoven, the latter of which famously wrote in one of his notebooks in 1823 that "one hears from all sides that the (Staatskapelle) in Dresden is the best in Europe."
Following a performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4, pianist Rudolf Buchbinder makes his first appearance with the Staatskapelle, playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. Luisi: who has often worked with the Austrian-born pianist and counts him among his closest friends in Vienna, where they both currently reside: looks forward to a dramatic first encounter between his musicians and the soloist: "Rudolf is simply one of the very best pianists around today, with a really dynamic way of playing that brings together the venerable German-Austrian tradition with a modern style."
Even before he took over the Staatskapelle last fall, Maestro Luisi had been aware of the 460-year-old orchestra's musical legacy _after all, there are nearly five centuries of performing with some of the greatest conductors and composers under its collective belt _but he says that, while he is on the podium in front of these very same musicians, the focus is always on making music at that moment.
"Of course I know about their great legacy, but it doesn't define my own way of making music with them," he declares. "I do know what they have to offer to me is something that's unique and special, so it has become much easier for us to work together to play the music exactly the way we want it to sound."
And that special sound will be on display at Avery Fisher Hall in November.
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Kevin Filipski is a frequent contributor to Playbill.