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Music review: Dresden Staatskapelle with Daniel Harding returns to Orange County

October 28, 2010 |  2:00 pm

On Jan. 18, 2001, Giuseppe Sinopoli conducted the Dresden Staatskapelle at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Four months and two days later, the fascinating Italian conductor/composer collapsed from a heart attack and died while conducting in Berlin. Left without a music director, Dresden’s venerable orchestra began what may have been its stormiest decade in a long history.

That, by the way, is a very long history. The Staatskapelle -- which returned to OCPAC Wednesday night, this time to the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall to open the Philharmonic Society’s new season -- had a big celebration two years ago. It turned 460.

No doubt, this orchestra has seen it all. In the 17th century, the great German Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz headed the Staatskapelle for 57 years. Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner were among his 19th century successors. Richard Strauss entrusted the premieres of eight of his operas to Dresden (this is also a celebrated pit band). But after Sinopoli’s sudden death, the ship needed some righting.

Bernard Haitink took over in 2002 but resigned two years later in arguments with the management over his successor, Fabio Luisi. Luisi then walked out on his contract this year in arguments with the management over broadcast rights by his successor, Christian Thielemann, who begins in 2012.

So the current tour has been turned over to the lively British conductor Daniel Harding, a regular guest conductor in Dresden. The Dresdeners also have a British composer-in-residence, Rebecca Saunders. But this was no tour for modern music.

The program –- Schumann’s “Manfred” Overture, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Brahms’ Second Symphony -- was all dense German bread and butter that also happens to be a component of our local diet. Still, the Dresden sound is distinct. Anything that has been around 462 years has got to have a good foundation, and the glory of this orchestra is its grounding in brawny lower strings, burnished horns, baleful woodwinds and timpani loud enough to qualify for a construction-site permit.

For the first half of the program, Harding had his hands full. “Manfred” was capriciously loud and stormy. Beethoven's concerto featured Rudolf Buchbinder as an Olympian pianist in his own world of small detail and crystalline sound. Harding and the orchestra made a lot of monumental noise. Buchbinder polished Beethoven as if the composer were old Dresden china.

Brahms Second Symphony was, though, opulent and enthusiastic, thanks to Harding's compelling sweep and electricity. There was also a clear pecking order. When the first horn played, he considered himself the evening’s soloist, which might have been obnoxious if he hadn’t played so engrossingly. The principal bassoon acted as No. 2.

The violins were exquisite. I would have liked more detail to come through from the middle-range instruments, but these players seemed to understand their job as booster to their betters. They served to apply a sticky sonic gel that helped bond the upper and lower registers. Even so, such was the irresistibly prideful propulsion of the Finale that the Dresdeners convincingly demonstrated that for them Brahms still lives.

A new recording of Thielemann conducting a rapturous live performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony indicates that Dresden could be in for yet another golden age of German Romanticism, if he doesn’t now get into an administrative tussle (as he did when he quit a Munich music directorship recently).

But what about the Dresden of today, the city that has developed a boisterous art scene and built exciting new buildings since German reunification?  The orchestra, which has hosted such important cutting edge composers as the Austrian bad boy Bernhard Lang, is, on its all-19th century U.S. tour, selling its porcelains, not its present.

-- Mark Swed    

Photo: Daniel Harding conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall Wednesday. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.