RECAPITULATION: Top 10 List - Best of 2018
DECEMBER 28, 2018
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
2018 was a big year for classical music in New York. A veritable who’s who of the world’s top performers graced our stages. Repertoire spanning the centuries was buttressed by a healthy supply of fresh, new work. And, of course, both the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera commenced new eras under the musical leadership of Jaap van Zweden and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, respectively.
Here is my contribution to the year’s end cornucopia of “Ten Best” lists, my ten favorite classical music moments in a year full of exciting concert-going (in no particular order):
Anna Caterina Antonacci
Anna Caterina' Antonacci’s rare Carnegie Hall appearance in February (presented by New York City Opera) was a high point in the year’s vocal offerings. Anna Netrebko’s sensational recent recital may go down in history books for her celebrity status, but Antonacci’s high-minded, captivating program was the winner for artistic achievement.
At the piano, the sophisticated Donald Sulzen supported Antonacci’s scintillating interpretations with subtlety, evenness, and generosity. This sizzling soprano stands out among today’s singers because she is rhythmic, keeping the musical momentum moving forward, never wallowing in the sound of her own voice. The rapt audience cherished every note.
A Star is Born — Jennifer Rowley at the Met
Singing the role of Tosca, in the Metropolitan Opera's sumptuous new production shrewdly directed by Sir David McVicar (alternating with no less than Anna Netrebko), Jennifer Rowley has arrived as an up-and-coming diva to keep an eye on. McVicar and the people at the Met seem to agree, as she was quickly assigned the role of Leonora in Il Trovatore. Her instrument is vibrant, and she invests herself in the character and the text with emotional commitment. Her upcoming Met performances as Adriana Lecouvreur are not to be missed.
European Orchestras at Carnegie Hall
Carnegie Hall is a spectacular showcase for New York to sample the world’s finest orchestras. The great Vienna Philharmonic appeared under the baton of guest conductor Gustavo Dudamel, but I was more impressed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Under the baton of chief conductor Daniele Gatti, they more than lived up to their reputation as one of the world’s finest symphonies in two substantial programs in January. Treating the hall's acoustics as an extension of their instruments, their disciplined and sophisticated approach to intonation created a resonant sound exploited to the maximum in some weighty repertoire. In Wagner's dark Prelude to Act 3 of Parsifal, paired with that opera's glorious Good Friday Spell, Gatti shaped the grand structure of the intricate, long-lined music with the sure eye of a master sculptor. The possibilities of time and space were on full display in the Royal Concertgebouw’s account of Anton Brucker's Ninth Symphony, as epic as Game of Thrones, and encompassing as much of the human experience.
And in May, The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra reinforced their stature as one of the finest ensembles in the world in a riveting performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 7. Under the revered baton of Mariss Jansons, this superb orchestra had the audience on the edge of their seats. Jansons is a master at shaping Mahler's complex, multi-layered orchestration, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra's musicians listen and engage with each other palpably, which pays off in the character and personality of their section playing.
It has long been a dream of mine to see classical music freed from its stodgy concert hall trappings. A game changer in this arena is Tertulia, an inspired chamber music series under the leadership of co-artistic directors Julia Villagra and James Austin Smith. The concept is simple: a first-rate chamber music concert in a dinner party setting. The performance roster and venue varies. The evening unfolds perfectly: the wine starts flowing as the audience arrives, chatting and greeting each other as they find their way to communal tables (the “Bach” table, the “Beethoven” table, etc.), and the musical program is broken into sets, between courses of family-style fare. In late April, I attended a delightful evening at the restaurant Little Park featuring the Aizuri String Quartet.
This terrific quartet plays with impressive technique, interpretive imagination, and palpable communicativeness. Beethoven's fiery Quartet No. 10 in E-flat, Op. 74, interspersed with Gabriella Smith’s 2015 Carrot Revolution and Lift, composed in 2016 by Paul Wiancko made for an energetic, stimulating program. The great thing about alternating courses of the meal with musical sets is that new personal connections are made as the music inspires fresh ideas and conversations.
Daniil Trifonov’s Decades
Daniil Trifonov's monumental Perspectives recital at Zankel Hall in May was the stuff legends are made of. Calling the recital "Decades," the 27 year old Russian virtuoso, plotted a survey of pieces from each decade of the twentieth century. The scope of the program was formidable; to describe it as ambitious would be an understatement. A musically rapturous occasion, it was a privilege to witness artistry of such transcendence.
Barcelona-based La Fura dels Baus's and conductor Laurence Equilbey's version of Haydn‘s The Creation was an inspired multi-layered visual spectacle that brought to life this oratorio, a take on the creation story in the Age of Enlightenment. Combining the Bible with modern science, the thematic thread of DNA highlighted, this enchanting production keenly employed a wide range of simple tools, from balloons to iPads, to illustrate and enhance this timeless combination of music and text.
No mere gimmick, this was all about the music. Leading her period instrument Insula Orchestra and the chamber chorus accentus, Equilbey is an intellectually powerful conductor, probes into the psychological nature, the spirit, of music. She clearly knows how to mold a performance. When the tenor sings that soon-to-arrive Light will disperse the spirits of Hell, the chromatic gestures in the strings are not mere musical scales, but ghosts from the abyss. This is what historically informed performance practice is really about: learning where the expression, and contrast, lives in the music.
Bernstein Centennial at Tanglewood
Thousands of people gathered on the grounds of Tanglewood to celebrate Leonard Bernstein's hundredth birthday, in the culmination of the past year's world-wide celebration of his life and music. A star-studded gala presented by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and friends, this was an ambitious program that balanced Bernstein's own compositions with music of others reflecting something about him. BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons kicked the party off with an effervescent Overture to "Candide," as natural an opener as Bernstein ever penned. But, rather than progress through a roster of "greatest hits," the program shifts gears, and takes a look at the depth of Bernstein's artistry. Highlights included John Williams conducting his own new concert work, "Highwood's Ghost," An Encounter for Harp, Cello, and Orchestra, written for the Bernstein centennial, filled with striking, adrenaline-filled orchestral effects, and mystery-filled lyricism. Yo-Yo Ma and BSO principal harpist Jessica Zhou bring probing virtuosity to their rangy, intricate solo parts. Audra McDonald, emcee for the proceedings, led a tutti “Somewhere,” as an encore. The gala was just broadcast on PBS, and is still being talked about, an event to remember.
Autumn’s Rites of Spring
This fall we were treated to two quite different renditions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and both were terrific. First, Jaap van Zweden, in his inaugural concert entitled “New York, Meet Jaap,” led an electric account, along with a stunning and fascinating world premiere of Filament by Ashley Fure. And shortly thereafter, Michael Tilson Thomas brought the San Francisco Symphony to Carnegie Hall for a couple of thrilling performances, including an evening of all Stravinsky. His Rite was a specular showpiece for the SFS, surely one of the country’s best orchestras under his leadership.
Shostakovich and Britten at New York Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden’s first Fall season in New York climaxed, literally, with this stunning concert, featuring Britten’s rarely heard Violin Concerto in a dazzling performance by Simone Lamsma, and a heart-pounding account of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony.
Apollo’s Fire, a period instrument orchestra from Cleveland, Ohio, made their Carnegie Hall debut in March with a program inspired by Bach’s coffeehouse, and they returned to the city this holiday season with a delightful program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled "Christmas on Sugarloaf Mountain,” a celebration of Irish-Appalachian musical heritage, and a brilliant variation on the usual territory trod by Early Music groups. Their founder and conductor, harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell, is a spirited conductor with a convincing point of view, and this was an uplifting, thought-provoking holiday celebration.