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With Leonard Slatkin not making his eagerly awaited formal debut as music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra until December, there may be a temptation in some quarters to view the first three months of the orchestra's 2008-09 season as a mere warm-up to the main event. Don't make that mistake.
The DSO opened its season Thursday under the confident hand of principal guest conductor Peter Oundjian, and the vibrant energy that pulsated through the hall, along with the deftness of much of the playing, was proof enough that nobody onstage is marking time until Slatkin's arrival.
Thursday's bighearted reading of the Brahms Violin Concerto by the appropriately starry violin soloist Gil Shaham also provided exactly the kind of virtuoso charisma necessary to carry the burden of opening-night expectations.
Having said all that, the program, as a whole, left me dissatisfied. It was too traditional and too Germanic, lacking either a kind of boldly progressive stroke (say, new American music) or a major symphonic statement (say, Mahler) that might put an exclamation point on the new season. Instead, we heard Wagner's "Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin," Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol" and Richard Strauss' "Suite from Der Rosenkavalier" -- all celebratory in their way, but much too redolent of a mausoleum.
The Wagner prelude -- brief, loud and distinguished by the DSO horns and low brass strutting their stuff with raucous enthusiasm -- set the table for the Brahms Concerto. Shaham's playing was all about honeyed sound, lyrical melody and the Russian-romantic soul. In the expansive opening movement, he played liquid legato phrases, dappled with portamento slides that were as irresistible as they were schmaltzy. Oundjian and the DSO were full participants, matching Shaham's emoting without sacrificing proportion or elegance.
The slow movement was a sigh of beauty from Shaham and the DSO winds. In the rondo finale, Shaham romped playfully through the melodic twirls, his broad gestures projecting to the rafters. The playing found a visual manifestation in the violinist's quirky habit of nuzzling up to Oundjian's podium when his playing was meant to integrate into the ensemble and then retreating into his own space for his aural close-ups.
After intermission, Oundjian led a vivacious performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol" -- glossy, brilliantly orchestrated and frolicsome dance music but also kind of trashy, like a sexy movie that titillates without revealing much truth. The many DSO soloists leapt into the spotlight with panache.
Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," full of endearingly sweet melodies, sunny waltzes and the kind of deliriously lush textures that the composer nearly took off the market, brought the DSO's gleefully whooping horns back to the fore; the section, led by principal Karl Pituch, is playing with remarkable authority these days. Oundjian shaped a warm performance, drawing admirable depth from the strings. Still, there was a hyper quality to the many swells and subtle shifts in tempo. The music would have sung more if it had sounded more relaxed.