SF Symphony guest conductor Fabio Luisi did his best last week to steal the thunder of violin megastar Joshua Bell. He opened the program with a tone poem by Richard Strauss, Don Juan. Tone poem means a symphonic little piece which tells a story, and, more often than not, said story is rather hard to follow: the instrumental language of an orchestra, as powerful and evocative as it is, is still open to multiple conflicting interpretations. To each their own daydream. Not with Luisi's Don Juan: after a crisp, brilliant opening that said, here comes Don Juan, he does not fuss around, Luisi and the SFSO delivered a sexy, lush rendition of the piece. It was a propulsive, erect, fanfare-ish opening. The strings (and Barantschik in particular) were seductive, the brass blended with the orchestra. A oboe playfully riffed on a snake charmer melodic line.
We did smile, though, when a dialogue erupted between a flute and cello (quite explicitly a female voice and Don Juan), climaxing with panting sighs from the flute. (Is there such thing as PG-17 classical music?) Luisi himself stood slightly hunched forward, as if to step his body slightly ahead of the beat, to push the piece forward. The piece interrupts itself with a silent pause before the final coda, and the program notes mention the death of Don Juan. But with such a sexy rendition, we're sure it was only a petite mort.