Any committed concert-goer knows that being a regular at one’s local theatre generates a curious phenomenon: despite never having met the musicians who habitually crowd the orchestra pit and the stage, one develops towards them a sense of growing familiarity that feels almost like knowing them personally. Their music speaks to us, even though their voice never has. Interviewing Italian conductor Fabio Luisi, in occasion of his appointment as Chief Conductor of the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, one of the oldest orchestras in Japan, I finally had the chance to bridge the gap and talk to an artist whose concerts make up a good portion of my live music experience.

Fabio Luisi

Luisi’s decade-long career barely needs an introduction. Before arriving at the NHK Symphony, he collaborated regularly with numerous other prominent symphonic institutions, not least the Wiener Symphoniker. At the present time, he is also the chief conductor of both the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which means that once his engagement in Japan becomes effective, he will be leading three major ensembles in three different continents. Having maintained a watertight fame throughout the years, the Genoese conductor's star doesn’t seem to show signs of waning, so it is no wonder that an orchestra as renowned as the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo, has decided, at the end of Paavo Järvi’s engagement with the institution, to appoint him as its Chief Conductor.

The NHK Symphony’s history is marked by a succession of illustrious permanent and honorary conductors who have contributed to building its worldwide fame, including its first conductor Hidemaro Konoye, Lovro von Matačić, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Tadaaki Otaka and André Previn. Because of its vibrant and international atmosphere, for almost a century now the NHKSO has been an essential focal point in Japan’s music scene and abroad, upholding high standards of performance. The orchestra’s scope covers a wide range of activities which only begin with live concerts and include a strong presence on both radio and television. Effective with the 2022/23 season, Luisi’s contract with the NHKSO will have an initial duration of three years – long enough to further strengthen a bond that began more than twenty years ago.

“I first stepped onto the podium of the NHK Symphony Orchestra in 2001, to conduct Bruckner’s Seventh,” he tells me. “Those first concerts paved the way for a mutual friendship which we have nurtured throughout all these years,” he smiles. “And our working relationship during these two decades has evolved alongside my own experience as a symphonic conductor.”

In fact, Luisi supposes that it’s this experience that motivated his appointment. “My repertoire centres on a tradition of Romantic and late Romantic German and Austrian composers that the NHK Symphony has seemed to favour from their very beginnings. In a not-too-distant past,” he continues, “leading the NHKSO were conductors of the likes of Wolfgang Sawallisch and Otmar Suitner, true experts of 19th-century Middle-European music. Of course, the orchestra has never limited the width of their programmes’ range, but one may argue those are their roots and their most celebrated area of expertise. Now that I am to become a stable presence at the NHK Symphony, I will do my best to honour that tradition.”

Much anticipation is brewing for the NHK Symphony and Luisi’s new stable collaboration, announced in April 2021. What are we then to expect from the upcoming 2022/23 season? Admittedly, Luisi is already thinking long-term.

“As Chief Conductor, I have the responsibility and honour of planning ahead for these next three years. I will definitely ensure our programmes to be diverse, but I will also value a coherent approach, through which we will elaborate some recurring themes through the seasons,” he observes. “I intend to do so by bringing to the public what one might call my specialities: there will surely be some Bruckner every season, as well as Brahms and Richard Strauss – a homage to the lucky conjunction of the NHK Symphony’s historical repertoire and mine.” 

Fabio Luisi conducting the NHK Symphony Orchestra

Just by flicking through the upcoming season, one is fast to notice Luisi has already been keeping his promise. “September will be dedicated to the inauguration concerts: we will open with Verdi’s Requiem, then proceed with an all-Strauss concert and finally close with some Beethoven and Brahms. But that’s just the beginning,” he teases. “Later on, I will begin my Bruckner cycle with his Second Symphony and in May I will conduct Franck’s Symphony in D minor. We will also have several concerts with notable guests: our Honorary Conductor Herbert Blomstedt, Leonard Slatkin, Jakub Hrůša, my predecessor Paavo Järvi, Gianandrea Noseda. It will be a thrilling season with a focus on 19th- and early 20th-century music, and our audience won’t want to miss it. I trust that this first year will already give the audience a clear idea of where we are headed.” 

Luisi's future plans with the NHK Symphony seem to promise plenty to look forward to, however, by his own admission, such a committed love for conducting wasn’t exactly an early calling, only coming about later in his life.

“Truth be told, my interest in conducting took some time to mature,” he tells me. “I actually began my music studies as a pianist and continued to train as one after my diploma. But eventually, through the piano I grew fascinated with the idea of conducting. 

“I was in my 20s,” he recalls, “and I would accompany singers during rehearsals – a very stimulating environment, and my introduction to opera as a genre. The turning point came when I started working as an accompanist at the summer opera festival in Martina Franca, at the suggestion of its then director. That’s when I realised that conducting was a fascinating, viable option.”

Exposed to the whirling world of opera festivals, Luisi experienced what could maybe be defined as imprinting. In light of this new-found vocation, the conductor-to-be resolved to move to Austria, where he began and completed his studies – and his efforts were well rewarded. Soon enough, Luisi started working in theatres as well as gaining his first experiences as a symphonic conductor. “Our programmes mostly included the Middle-European greats – Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, Brahms, Dvořák. Those years made up the core of my symphonic repertoire, which I still come back to and treasure nowadays.”

While his music achievements prove an unflagging commitment to the authors favoured at the beginning of his career, Luisi has since then grown a reputation for having a trademark flair, at once composed and personal, which he brings to his vast repertoire. In both opera and symphonic performances, his sensitivity for melodic phrases, which he grasps and allows to unfold most smoothly, clearly stems from a well-versed confidence with certain Italian opera. Yet Luisi’s peculiar approach does not solely reside in his gift for melody. His precision and determination to maintain a good balance both between and within the sections of the orchestra give his interpretations a transparent quality which has earned him many an enthusiastic review, particularly for his renditions of Bruckner.

As is clear from his commitment to the new engagement, Luisi remarks that his near future will mostly be dedicated to the symphonic repertoire, and without giving too much away he hints at a few more upcoming plans. With Luisi’s hardly sparse schedule, one can only wonder what these will involve. One thing, however, is for sure: whether in Tokyo, Dallas or Copenhagen, he will keep making music with the same dedication and enjoyment that have been driving him since day one.

Click here to see all upcoming concerts of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo.

This article was sponsored by the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo.