Some Seen and Heard-International reviewers pick their Best of 2019
RAFAEL DE ACHA
Christopher Rouse’s Sixth Symphony commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and completed barely three months before his untimely death from cancer at the age of seventy spoke of a great life well lived nearing its end. The work’s now somber, now agitated, now elegiac tone uttered with profoundness what mere words cannot begin to convey, as moments of reflective stasis contrasted with blunt agitation, evoking life’s vicissitudes. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra gave a powerful, soulful performance, with Louis Langrée at the helm heroically holding together Rouse’s momentous creation (click here).
A variety of characters are subjected to the sorrowful vagaries of the American legal system and wrongfully convicted in Blind Injustice, David Cote’s and Scott Davenport Richards’s emotionally charged story of wrongful incarceration, ultimate exoneration, and eventual redemption in a memorable world premiere brilliantly staged by Robin Guarino and fiercely conducted by John Morris Russell offered a riveting musical/dramatic experience that will be remembered for a long time (click here).
Israeli director Omer Ben Seadia validated each and every aspect of her updated concept in a nimbly executed staging of Ariadne Auf Naxos for the Cincinnati Opera. She was greatly aided by designer Ryan Howell’s humorously over-the-top set as a celebration of nouveau riche bad taste. Ryan Park’s costumes were period-perfect, and James Geier’s wigs and makeup a hoot. Coloratura Liv Redpath sang her show-stopping 12-minute ‘Grossmächtige Prinzessin’ with uncanny ease and accuracy. Her seemingly limitless top voice — coupled with great looks and spontaneous acting — poises her on the brink of a major career (click here).
On a rainy September day in our mid-sized, mid-western, music-wealthy Cincinnati, two orchestras opened their seasons: one, the incontestably great Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the other the Philharmonia Orchestra at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), a terrific student group that alternating delicacy with bold assertiveness and led by the superb Mark Gibson sounded like seasoned pros in a concert of music by Brahms and Dvořák. The Brahms violin concerto was given a soulful, impassioned reading by the Israeli-American violinist Giora Schmidt, now on the CCM faculty. And Gibson, who listens closely to any soloist, supported Schmidt throughout the work’s forty minutes of quintessential Romanticism (click here).
Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Paris Opéra Les Troyens will surely prove a landmark in the history of this work’s chequered fortunes. Indifferent conducting could not blunt the impact of Tcherniakov’s searching interpretation, helped of course by some outstanding singing. What English Touring Opera’s Idomeneo lacked in ‘big house’ glamour and expenditure, it more than made up for with musicianship and dramatic commitment, making for the finest production and performance I have yet heard of this work in the theatre. The first staging I have seen of Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg, by Tobias Krätzer, will take some beating, not least on account of a commanding and moving performance by David Butt Philip. (Kratzer’s new Bayreuth Tannhäuser, which I did not review for this site, was to be another operatic highlight of the year.) Later in the year, Charlottenburg also played host to the premiere of Chaya Czernowin’s new opera, Heart Chamber. I can signal no higher praise than to say how keen I am to see it staged again as soon as possible.
To hear a Rameau opera performed by the likes of the Staatskapelle Dresden is a rare treat indeed; to hear it performed with such warmth and style as this year’s Platée is especially worthy of comment. Back to Berlin and two powerful repertory performances from the Staatsoper Unter den Linden demand mention: Andrea Breth’s Katya Kabanova and Hans Neuenfels’s Salome, both conducted by the excellent Thomas Guggeis. A few hundred yards away at the Komische Oper, Barrie Kosky’s new production of The Bassarids, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, was eminently worthy of the many plaudits it received.
2019 proved, as often, a golden year for pianists. The first highlight for me came with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s Wigmore Hall programme of Haydn, Schumann, Boulez, Ravel, and Prokofiev. From the same hall — ever a Mecca for instrumental music as well as chamber music and song — Louis Lortie’s sixtieth-birthday celebration with the three books of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage will not soon be forgotten. Likewise Igor Levit’s outstanding account of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Across town, at the Southbank Centre, Pierre-Laurent Aimard offered an invigorating weekend of Stockhausen, joined by Tamara Stefanovich and friends. Aimard opened this year’s Musikfest Berlin with a spellbinding performance of Messiaen’s complete Catalogue d’Oiseaux: one for the ages, I think. Later in the year, Aimard’s Bartok Third Piano Concerto with François-Xavier Roth and the Berlin Philharmonic, accompanied by excellent performances of Haydn and Ligeti, made for another memorable evening of first-class music-making.
This time with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Roth conducted a further inspiring evening of Haydn and Ligeti, this time joined by Martinů. Haydn and Ligeti also featured in a fine string quartet programme from the Heath Quartet, completed by Beethoven’s op.127. That Wigmore Hall concert would be followed by an equally memorable evening of Bartók by the Jerusalem Quartet. Brahms and Dvořák from Vadim Repin and friends at the Vienna Konzerthaus proved to be my highlight from that musical capital. An evening of Brahms, Enescu, Webern, and Franck from Christian Tetzlaff and Alexander Lonquich at Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal offered another highlight. Though I was hardly short of first-class singing this year, I shall confine myself to a single Liederabend: Mahler from Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber, once more at the Boulez Saal.
Another keyboard highlight was provided by Mahan Esfahani’s harpsichord recital of music by Sunleif Rasmussen, Miroslav Srnka, and Anahita Abbasi. No harpsichord recital would be complete without some early music, for which Esfahani offered Berio and Cage. Would that the greater number of his fellow harpsichordists showed a fraction of his enthusiasm and musicianship in any repertoire, let alone this. Speaking of contemporary and new music, a Musikfabrik concert of music by Helmut Lachenmann, Toshio Hosokawa, and Peter Eötvös demands mention even in a crowded field.
Raphaël Pinchon’s Salzburg Festival Mozart Matinée with the Mozarteum Orchestra offered a model for festival performances: excellent performances, with a fine cast of young singers, offering illuminating context for Mozart’s operas both from his own œuvre and music by his contemporaries. Returning to Berlioz, Daniel Harding’s Berlin Philharmonic Roméo et Juliette proved equally refreshing and illuminating.
To conclude, Daniel Barenboim requires a category of his own. First up here was a Salzburg concert with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and Martha Argerich, no less: Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Lutosławski. A follow-up evening of chamber music by Schumann and Prokofiev proved no less rewarding (though Barenboim here played a less role). For the Divan’s twentieth anniversary, a programme of Bruckner and Beethoven (Barenboim on piano joined by Anne-Sophie Mutter and Yo-Yo Ma) will longer in the memory. Finally, two further portents for the Beethoven year to come: piano trios with Michael Barenboim and Kian Soltani, and the first in a series of the complete piano sonatas.
The top rewards of Philadelphia’s music year, for me, ran the gamut of physical size from those with just one or two people on stage to the whole orchestral, choral, and scenic shebang.
At the smaller end of that range, Brahms benefitted from a Garrick Ohlsson Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital that did justice to two sides of the composer’s musical personality, from the intimacy of Opus 76 to the virtuosity of the Paganini Variations, and from Ignat Solzhenitsyn and Korbinian Altenberger’s Academy of the Fine Arts presentation of the complete corpus of his music for piano and violin. To pass from two performers to three takes me to the pleasures of Lawrence Brownlee, Eric Owens, and Craig Terry’s Perelman Theater celebration of styles from Mozart and Donizetti to gospel and Broadway. There are recitals that deliver the profound experience associated with high art, and there are recitals that offer the more relaxed fun that comes from popular art. This one was both.
The violin provided some of the year’s most memorable experiences. The dazzling young Spaniard Francisco Fullana, at once technically commanding and thrillingly spontaneous, threw new light on a work I have tended to take too much for granted with his stunning account of the Beethoven Concerto with Dirk Brossé and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, who on another evening gave Mozart’s ‘Linz’ Symphony a splendidly polished and stylish work-out. Another of the three greatest truly classical embodiments of the genre, by Elgar (the third is Brahms’s), was compellingly realized by Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider with Stéphane Denève and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which also figured under Cristian Mâcelaru’s direction when the great Leonidas Kavakos scaled the expressive heights of Shostakovich’s post-classical and romantic First Violin Concerto.
Certainly, there were also some excellent piano-concerto performances: the one that gave me the most pleasure was Shai Wosner’s of Mozart’s Concerto No.14 in E flat major, K.449, with ECCO (the enterprising East Coast Chamber Orchestra).
Among several characteristically fine performances conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the most revelatory was his spine-tingling Bruckner Ninth Symphony with the largely student ranks of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra: it was hard to imagine that the monumental work could have been played better than this by any orchestra in the world.
Finally, there were two opera performances of rare quality. Conductor Gary Thor Wedow’s collaboration with director James Darrah in Opera Philadelphia’s Handel’s Semele was one of those performances that can change your world. I think of myself as pretty well clued up on Handel, who ranks for me – as he did for Beethoven – as the greatest of all composers. Greatness, though, has its gradations, and I used to think that the work itself might be thought to occupy a place fairly low down in the hierarchy of Handelian masterpieces. But not anymore, after this vivid and indeed implacable portrayal of a world where, despite the stately period environment, vain ambition and irresponsible frivolity form a combination that leads inevitably to self-destruction.
And aside from the greatest composer, it was an especial delight to witness a worthy production of the greatest work ever written. I have suffered through too many inadequate representations of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro:, but under Cristofer Macatsoris’s baton and David Gately’s directorial hand, the Academy of Vocal Arts got it exactly right, triumphantly illuminating the shifting relations among the principals, and carrying off the story’s challenging comic touches as deftly and clearly as its at least equally important explorations of profound human interaction.
JONATHAN SPENCER JONES
Arguably the most significant event in opera in Buenos Aires in 2019 was the 20th anniversary of the independent company Juventus Lyrica. Conceived in 1998 and launching its first production the following year as a platform for young, up and coming singers, who at that time had few such performing opportunities, the company has survived and thrived while others have come and gone.
With more than 100 productions and the launching of artists on international or national careers, along with development of programmes for the youth and children, Juventus Lyrica has firmly established itself in the musical and cultural life of Buenos Aires. To mark the occasion – and in another first – the Teatro Colón opened its doors for the company’s ‘grand gala’. The nearly 30 arias and extracts from 26 soloists, a 20-strong chorus and a reduced orchestra in the hands of co-founder maestro Antonio Maria Russo provided a fine panorama of the company’s trajectory. And with the two nights both sold out, some funds are assured for its continued advancement.
In the Teatro Colón’s programme, two productions stood out, the local premiere of Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, but especially the new local production of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Set in a sunny sea view location, and with a modern twist, the almost completely local cast demonstrated that despite the variety they bring, it is not only visiting international singers that are requisite for an international level production.
Among the other local independents, Ensamble Lírico Orquestal broke new ground with its production of Il barbiere di Siviglia in a new for it and non-traditional opera venue. With the two performances almost sold out, it was successful in attracting a new audience in the city downtown.
MARK SEBASTIAN JORDAN
2019 saw the end of the Cleveland Orchestra’s celebratory centennial season, followed by the opening of its 102nd season, which has so far been, if anything, even more brilliant.
It has been a great year for guest conductors in Cleveland, with no fewer than five notable debuts happening. First, the French conductor François-Xavier Roth led an outstanding concert mixing rarities with a trenchant, biting performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka last winter. Near the end of the spring season, the veteran Russian conductor Michail Jurowski made a stunning impact with a glowering performance of Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony in what was both his Cleveland and US debut. The lone outstanding concert from a rather drab Blossom Music Festival this summer was when Australian conductor Gemma New substituted for an ailing Bramwell Tovey and delivered an electrifying concert that peaked with a thrillingly expressive Elgar Enigma Variations.
This season has continued to bring in brilliant guests. Russian conductor Dima Slobodeniouk all but blew the roof off Severence Hall with a terrifyingly concentrated reading of Nielsen’s Fifth (including a breathtakingly quiet clarinet solo from principal Afendi Yusef that brought the audience to spellbound silence). Then, Swiss/Italian conductor Lorenzo Viotti, only 29 years old, made a startlingly strong impact with a powerfully controlled concert of French and Russian, culminating in a fascinating examination of Ravel’s sardonic La Valse.
Any discussion of notable guest conductors has to be led by Jakub Hrůša, who has been building an impressive relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra in recent years. In recent years, I celebrated Hrůša’s glorious renditions of Suk’s Asrael Symphony and Shostakovich’s Fifth. This year, Hrůša led two weeks of concerts. The first week contained an excellent Shostakovich First Violin Concerto, with a good but less impressive Beethoven Eroica. The next week, though, Hrůša was back at peak form with a concert pairing the local debut of John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.
Stéphane Denève brought an unrestrained sense of color in an adventurous concert ranging from Jennifer Higdon’s lovely blue cathedral to James MacMillan’s wildly inventive Piano Concerto No.3, through a colorful rendition of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (featuring the orchestra’s brilliant solo flautist, Joshua Smith), and closing with a roaring renditions of Scriabin’s sub-Wagnerian ravings in The Poem of Ecstasy.
Alan Gilbert had a fine moment leading the Cleveland Orchestra in stripped-down, standing-up fashion in Bach’s Orchestral Suite No.3. But his best moment was in leading the orchestra in Busoni’s ecstatic and slightly kooky Piano Concerto, which leads us to a discussion of soloists. That epic piece featured Garrick Ohlsson in a commanding performance, one of the highlights of last season. Yuja Wang not only provided star power, she even managed to hold Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto together to make a focused impact (see the Viotti link above). Vadim Gluzman made that most hackneyed of solo pieces new again with an effortlessly brilliant performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (see the Michail Jurowski link above).
In new music, Paul Jacobs was the busy soloist in Okeanos, a glorious organ concerto that served as a preview of work to come from the Cleveland Orchestra’s next Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow, Bernd Richard Deutsch. If the concerto is anything to judge by, we are in for fantastical adventures. Deutsch, a young Austrian composer, brings together the avant-garde and the popular touch, covering all the ground from imposing clangor to delicate delight, and with a sense of humor, no less. Okeanos marks the only time I have heard Cleveland audience members gasp and giggle in sheer joy during the local premiere of a new piece. Deutsch’s first commission is awaited eagerly.
Olga Neuwirth’s Masaot/Clocks Without Hands was the other outstanding modern piece presented. It starts with fragments of Jewish folk music but sends ripples through that warp and destabilize the music. If that sounds serious, it is, but it is also music of wit and humor, presented with conviction by the Cleveland Orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst.
Welser-Möst is riding high in Cleveland, with his contract just extended to 2027, which will make him the longest-serving music director in the orchestra’s history. The hallmark of his tenure has been insightful programming, putting together works that often shed tremendous light on each other. He has also made it one of his projects to explore lesser-known works of certain composers, including in last season and again this season, Schubert and Prokofiev. In regular repertory, Welser-Möst’s highlights have included a lithe Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, a dramatically explosive first act of Prokofiev‘s Romeo and Juliet ballet, and a vital Mahler Fifth.
Also notable were two recitals programmed at Severance Hall this year. One was a dramatic exploration of Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise by Simon Keenlyside, supported and challenged at the piano by Natalia Katyukova. The Schubert exploration was continued by a thoughtful and sensitive program of piano sonatas played by the great Mitsuko Uchida.
Musical life in northeast Ohio isn’t restricted to the Cleveland Orchestra and its associated activities. The region also boasts the residence of a world-class baroque orchestra, Apollo’s Fire. Created over a quarter century ago by Jeannette Sorrell, the ensemble has grown to become a major creative force thanks to innovative programming, expressive performing, and widespread touring. This year saw two Bach pillars brought to life by the ensemble, in April Sorrell leading a towering performance of the Mass in B minor the very same day that Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned, and just this month, guest conductor Julian Wachner leading Bach‘s Christmas Oratorio. Other worthwhile forays have included programs of medieval and renaissance English music and concerts of Vivaldi. Notable soloists have included the incandescent soprano Amanda Powell, the brilliant and engaging soprano Molly Netter, the subtle and intense lutenist Brian Kay, and the masterful violinist Olivier Brault.
One of the best solo recitals of the year came when Alexandre Tharaud substituted on short notice for an ailing Piotr Andreszewski to perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Oberlin College’s Finney Chapel as part of that institution’s 140th year of artist recitals. Tharaud led a wide-ranging performance that slowly grew in intensity, with one eye kept on the overall architecture of Bach’s keyboard Olympus.
As I write these lines, I am listening to Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony played by Mariss Jansons and his beloved Munich-based Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. The sound has a glorious intensity. Each note speaks. We are mourning the loss of a giant.
Earlier this year, another giant, Bernard Haitink, decided it was time to retire. I was lucky to be in Munich where he conducted his last Beethoven Ninth Symphony with Jansons’s orchestra and in Berlin where he conducted another Ninth, this time Mahler’s. I did not attend his Lucerne farewell but heard the broadcast and read John Rhodes’s account of a moving night.
A page is turning as we say farewell to these amazing artists, who have given us so much.
But a new generation has emerged. Yannick Nézet-Séguin replaced an ailing Jansons with some superb Shostakovich and Strauss in Salzburg, Philippe Jordan conducted an autumnal Brahms, Igor Levit played revelatory Beethoven, Beatrice Rana found a mastery in Ravel alternating between classicism and modernity, Lahav Shani is a huge talent … apologies to the many deserving who are not mentioned.
All have learned from these masters, but like Walther (in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger) are taking their art further forwards. We all look forward to many more discoveries.
On other topics, the most stunning performance I attended this year was also in Munich where I was lucky to hear Kirill Petrenko at the Bayerische Staatsoper in the last performance of a superlative Richard Strauss Salome. Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging was not for all (conservative) tastes, but I personally found it a convincing and fascinating re-reading of the work that made many subtle and coherent references to Jewish culture. Marlis Petersen was not a ‘Wagnerian-sized’ Salome but supported by Petrenko’s silken orchestra, made every word audible and every spine shiver.
Finally, I was in Zurich a few times and had the opportunity to hear the Tonhalle Orchestra under its new chief conductor Paavo Järvi. I was struck by the parallel evolutions of both the Zurich Tonhalle and the Suisse Romande Orchestra. Both are definitely being positively challenged by their first-rate principal conductors, Paavo Järvi in Zurich and Jonathan Nott in Geneva. Both are stretching the mainstream repertory and taking musicians and audiences outside of their comfort zone.
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony showed the standard of playing Järvi is developing while Jonathan Nott gave a sumptuous reading of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony that was the result of the work started already a few years ago.
Finally, both are operating in temporary halls which are not totally adequate. The Tonhalle will soon move back to their renovated classic hall in the centre of the city.
But there is a major difference for which I would like to ask for your personal support. There are plans to build a new ‘Cité de la musique’ which will also host the Haute Ecole de Musique (High School for Music); construction is underway (anticipated to finish by 2024) but the project has yet to receive public support. May I therefore please encourage readers to add their voice for this project (click here) to help enjoy the present and prepare for the future – and we hope to see many of you in Geneva.
Vancouver’s music in 2019 was unique in its combination of anniversaries: the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra had its centenary season, and festivities celebrating both Early Music Vancouver’s 50th anniversary and the Vancouver Recital Society’s 40th are in progress. Here is my list of ‘memorable’ events, relative to genre.
Best Orchestral/Concerto: Otto Tausk Brings Invigorating Style to Mozart’s Last Three Symphonies (March); Louis Lortie Shines in Bramwell Tovey’s Return to the VSO (May); A New Goldberg Variations Highlights Kraggerud’s Night of Magic (February)
Best Chamber Music: Striking Sensitivity and Intelligence in Brahms and Shostakovich from the Z.E.N. Trio in Vancouver (October); The Ehnes Quartet Makes an Inspired Vancouver Debut (January)
Best Piano Recital: Zlata Chochieva’s Unique Chopin and Rachmaninoff Arrive in Vancouver (November); The Astonishing Fillipo Gorini (February); Paul Lewis Shows Fortitude in Completing his Haydn-Beethoven-Brahms Project (March)
Best Early Music: Exalted Singing in Handel and Purcell at the Close of the 2019 Vancouver Bach Festival (August); The King’s Singers Push Forward to Their Next 50 Years (February)
Best Celebrations: The VSO Completes it Centenary Season in Style (June); Ton Koopman Maintains all his Energy and Spirit at 75 (November)
The concert year in Zurich has been dominated by the much-heralded arrival of Paavo Järvi as Chief Conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra. His selection of Beethoven symphonies at the start of the year augured well (review), but we were blown over by a gripping performance of Kullervo (review) to kick off the new 2019/2020 season. Järvi is now recording all the Tchaikovsky symphonies with the orchestra; I was much taken by his view of the Fourth, in particular.
Other conductors who impressed during the year were Alan Gilbert with Nielsen’s Third Symphony (review) Robert Trevino with Heldenleben (review), and the veteran Herbert Blomstedt, who never fails to amaze, with Brahms’s Third Symphony (review).
The pick of the visiting orchestras, to my mind, was the Academia di Santa Cecilia – a scintillating Schumann Second Symphony under Sir Antonio Pappano (review).
Soloists who impressed me during the year were pianists Paul Lewis (review) and stylish Rudolf Buchbinder (review) mischievous violinist Pekka Kuusisto (review) and, at the other end of the spectrum, the somewhat austere Leonidas Kavakos (review) and virtuosic clarinettist Martin Fröst (review).
At the opera, the year started with a sparkling and spectacular Semele, the indefatigable Cecilia Bartoli in the title role (review).
Evelyn Herlitzius was stunning both as Elektra (review) and in The Makropoulos Case (review). Tamara Wilson as Chrysothemis made a fine impression in Elektra. Il turco in Italia was rollicking good fun (review). A revival of Der Rosenkavalier (review) in an excellent production was also memorable.
Operetta hit the spot in an unusual and hugely amusing production of Oskar Straus’s Eine Frau, die weiss, was sie will (review): Max Hopp was an absolute star.
Lucerne Festival at Easter featured Teodor Currentzis and his MusicAeterna and choir from Perm in Verdi’s Requiem (review): memorable perhaps more because it came over rather as a sacred rite than just an ordinary concert.
At Lucerne in the summer we collectively shed a tear when Bernard Haitink gave (probably) his last ever concert, Bruckner’s Seventh with the Vienna Philharmonic (review). Earlier in the year, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony, he brought us Bruckner’s Sixth (review) (as did Juanjo Mena with the Tonhalle earlier in the year – review). My favourite Bruckner symphony, his Eighth, is always a highlight, especially when done well – Andris Nelsons and the Leipzig Gewandhaus hit the spot (review).
I was in Munich to see and hear Mariss Jansons with Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony at the Gasteig. As he emerged onto the stage, I was taken aback to witness his clearly fragile state of health and not at all surprised to hear of his sad demise less than a month later. I will hold his many marvellous concerts in fond memory.
I always particularly enjoy major choral works: the amateur choir, with which I sing, the Gemischter Chor Zurich, performed Mozart’s Requiem at Easter in a newish version by Pierre-Henri Dutron; and then Bach’s entire Christmas Oratorio (all the six cantatas, but thankfully without all the repeats).
Herreweghe’s B Minor Mass also with Collegium Vocale Gent was also a highlight earlier in the year (review).
The Los Angeles area has long had a thriving opera scene with LA Opera and Long Beach Opera at its core. Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic have taken to staging opera, and The Industry continues to present offbeat productions. Dance has always taken second place here, but that appears to be changing. With the maturing of homegrown companies like Los Angeles Ballet, BODYTRAFFIC and LA Dance Project, to name a few, plus visiting international companies performing all over the city, Los Angeles is no longer a distant outpost for dance. Here are some highlights from the season in dance and opera:
In a triumphant collaboration, music, dance and art came together in Thomas Adès and Wayne McGregor’s The Dante Project Part 1(Inferno) to create that rarest of species, a perfectly realized contemporary ballet that takes its place in a line of classics beginning with the nineteenth century’s famed story ballets. Adès’s score for Inferno is 45 minutes of pure excitement, evoking but never imitating Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and, by the composer’s own declaration, Liszt. The piece premiered at Disney Hall in May with Gustavo Dudamel leading the LA Phil. Conducted by Adès and exquisitely danced by the Royal Ballet at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in July, its success as a ballet score was wildly apparent.
The Mariinsky Ballet brought Balanchine’s Jewels to town. Maria Khoreva, Timur Askerov and company were at their glorious best in the last section, ‘Diamonds’, which distills the splendor of every nineteenth-century Russian ballet into one abstract dance and honors the tradition of the Russian school through the lens of Balanchine’s vision.
BODYTRAFFIC reprised their marvelous rendition of Matthew Neenan’s A Million Voices and channeled the world of James Brown in Micaela Taylor’s thought-provoking Snap. Taylor, dancing a principal role, was a galvanizing presence throughout with her long limbs and elastic line. Also worthy of note was the collaboration of choreographer Lucinda Childs, composer David Lang, dancer Wendy Whelan and cellist Maya Beiser in Childs’s THE DAY. Divided into two parts, the day and the world to come dealt with the pangs of memory and loss and, though too literal at times, had committed performances by Whelan and Beiser.
LA Opera continues to embrace the unique productions of Barrie Kosky of the Komische Oper Berlin. In addition to reprising his popular The Magic Flute this season, LAO staged his new version of La bohème, which placed the bohemians in loft-like digs in an industrialized Paris circa 1900. The story became personal to our time by shelving sentimentality and nostalgia and creating an honest exploration of youth. Beautifully sung and acted and rendered with tantalizing freshness under the baton of James Conlon, the result was nothing short of revelatory.
An outstanding cast led by tenor Russell Thomas and more exceptional music making from Conlon and the LAO orchestra marked the company premiere of La clemenza di Tito. Even the lavish sets of director Thaddeus Strassberger and Mattie Ullrich’s over-the-top costumes couldn’t distract from the expressive singing of Thomas, Elizabeth DeShong, Janai Brugger, Guanqun Yu, James Creswell and Taylor Raven.
At Disney Hall, the LA Philharmonic New Music Group conducted by Paolo Bortolameolli created a sensation with Yuval Sharon’s staging of Meredith Monk’s Atlas. And LAO, in their ‘Off Grand’ series at Redcat, presented the world premiere of Ellen Reid’s prism, which was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for music. Once again Los Angeles proves that it is in the forefront of presenting new music by contemporary composers.
Big changes involving music directors of San Francisco’s two major establishments drove some of my most memorable concert moments of 2019.
First was San Francisco Symphony, which had surprised the music world with its December 2018 announcement that Esa-Pekka Salonen, who had sworn off being anyone’s music director, signed a five-year contract to succeed Michael Tilson Thomas as the orchestra’s music director. With excitement levels high for his already-scheduled January concerts in Davies Hall, he delivered big time in a program that bracketed Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra with pieces from the conductor’s native Finland.
The evening offered a tantalizing preview of what might be in store. The canny program found musical ties among the works, and Sibelius’s Four Legends from the Kalevala emerged with subtle thrusts of rhythm. His palpable connection with these musicians demonstrated the conductor’s masterful tone-painting skills.
For his part, as he enters his final year as music director Tilson Thomas provided several program gems, not least a revelatory revisit of Mahler’s Symphony No.7. Mahler has been a touchstone of his 20-year tenure, and this traversal gleamed with sassy brass playing, seasoned with let-it-all-hang-out percussion work and dazzling colors from the woodwinds. The finale wallowed in every wry swing the composer took in his pastiche of the music of such forebears as Beethoven, Mozart and, especially, Wagner.
The year ended with another surprise announcement from San Francisco Opera, which has been without a music director since Nicola Luisotti’s final performances of his seven-year tenure in December 2017. The Korean-born Eun Sun Kim, the standout among a parade of guest conductors who were up for the job, made a huge impact with her work on the company’s Rusalka in June 2019, a highlight of an already excellent 2018-2019 season.
That Rusalka had plenty of star power, featuring rich-voiced Rachel Willis‐Sørensen in the title role, heroic Brandon Jovanovich as The Prince, a gruff Kristinn Sigmundsson as The Water Goblin, and the glorious Jamie Barton as Ježibaba. Kim’s sense of timing, impeccable balance, and flair for the dramatic touch made the whole thing fly. Reports from friends within the opera gave Kim the highest marks for pulling together all the details with deftness and heart.
Kim takes over an orchestra that has been on a brilliant roll since Donald Runnicles (who had preceded Luisotti as music director) returned for a memorable traversal of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in June 2018 that seemed to whip the band into fantastic shape. The level of musicianship, responsiveness, and sheer sound went up several notches and hasn’t backed off. The orchestra’s work buttressed several of the company’s highlights this year. Aside from that Rusalka, performances of Billy Budd (conducted by Laurence Renes), The Marriage of Figaro (Henrik Nánási), and Hansel und Gretel (Christopher Franklin) benefited from the sheen of the orchestra’s sound.
Violinist Daniel Hope, the new leader of the conductorless Century Chamber Orchestra in San Francisco, kicked off his tenure in January with a delicious program, a collection of pieces ‘recomposed’ centuries after the originals. The poster child for this idea was the minimalist composer Max Richter’s highly personal contemporary take on Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, in which the Presto finale of ‘Summer’ skids off into the occasional seven-beat measure and the original repeated rhythm of the opening Allegro of ‘Autumn’ sprouts modernist overtones. The violinist not only gave the piece a dynamic and rhythmically lively reading, he got the ensemble into the spirit for a satisfying and coherent performance.
Written for Hope, who recorded it in 2012, the piece capped an evening that included a couple of lightly tweaked 20th-century arrangements by Benjamin Britten of Baroque and Romantic works, and a re-jiggered Renaissance-era dance suite by the all-but-forgotten Peter Warlock. It made a great calling card for Hope’s introduction as the group’s leader.
The Silkroad Ensemble fairly lifted the roof off Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley in their Cal Performances appearance in May. After 21 years Silkroad’s immensely talented musicians continue to make something new and exciting by freely drawing from their respective cultures. Especially delectable were pipa artist Wu Man, drummers in a taiko version of Elektra (the Greek story, not Berg’s music), and Sandeep Das’s superb tabla playing in violinist Colin Jacobsen’s ‘Arjuna’s Revelation’.
Guest artists provided major highlights in San Francisco Symphony’s fall programming, most especially the awe-inspiring singing of heldentenor Stuart Skelton in an Act I of Wagner’s Die Walküre in November that seriously put me in mind of Lauritz Melchior’s recordings, with a haunting pianissimo at the start of ‘Winterstürme’ that built to a thrilling climax. Conductor Simone Young, soprano Emily Magee and bass Ain Anger completed a near-perfect performance all-round.
The best orchestral moment during my annual six-week stay for the music festival in Aspen, Colorado, came with a sensational performance of the Elgar Enigma Variations conducted with intensity and beauty by Leonard Slatkin.
Percussion played an outsized role in other Aspen moments, including a thrilling debut of Christopher Theofanidis’s Drum Circles. The Percussion Collective played with an intoxicating mix of musicianship and showmanship, delivering with rhythmic and sonic inventiveness. Conducted with flair by Michael Stern, the piece was also a big crowd pleaser. The Collective registered my pick for encore of the year — a driving performance of Astor Piazzolla’s ‘Le Grand Tango’ arranged for four mallet instruments.
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein topped off a recital with Viktor Derevianko’s delicious chamber reduction of the Shostakovich Symphony No.15 in A major. It celebrated the composer’s witty and often delicate writing for percussion. Visiting artist Colin Currie and festival stalwarts Jonathan Haas and Douglas Howard chimed, tinkled and tumbled engagingly along with Weilerstein, violinist Philippe Quint and pianist Inon Barnatan.
Other highlights in Aspen included a deliciously eclectic recital by violinist Augustin Hadelich and piano partner Orion Weiss. They made Debussy’s Violin Sonata into a rainbow of colors and transcending the mind-boggling demands of playing the notes in Ysaÿe’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin in E major, Hadelich made it into a tour-de-force of sun-drenched brilliance.
As usual, my concert-going was dominated by the Three Choirs Festival and by performances by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. However, a few events elsewhere also stood out. I have long been an admirer of the music of David Matthews but until this year my experience of his works had been confined to radio and CD. At the end of May, however, I heard live performances of two major works and, what is more, both were world premieres. In the closing concert of the Chipping Campden Music Festival the Festival’s Academy Orchestra and Thomas Hull unveiled Matthews’s Concerto for Orchestra, Op.150, a Festival commission (review). A matter of days later, Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan included the world premiere of Mathews’s work for soprano and orchestra, Le Lac, Op.146. In this we heard an engaging and sensuous performance by the soprano, April Fredrick (review). Both of these important scores are fascinating and beautifully crafted, and I should like to hear them again soon; in the case of Le Lac I would wish to hear it in a more pleasing acoustic than that of The Play House, Stratford-upon-Avon. The Chipping Campden Festival was also the occasion for a memorable performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang by baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Susie Allan (review).
It is a long journey to London from where I live but it was worth making the journey to hear the first London performance since 1889 of Parry’s oratorio Judith. The work is musically somewhat uneven, though the strong passages definitely outweigh the less interesting ones. However, if the music could be described as uneven the same could not be said of the performance led by William Vann, which was magnificent (review). Subsequently, the same artists made a recording which I hope will be released in 2020.
Several trips to Symphony Hall, Birmingham found the CBSO in fine fettle. In November their Principal Guest Conductor, Kazuki Yamada was on the rostrum for an exciting performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah (review). The orchestra’s Music Director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla led a blazing traversal of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony in June (review). To launch the 2019/20 season Ms Gražinytė-Tyla directed gripping performances of two major English works: Tippett’s A Child of our Time and Britten’s searing Sinfonia da Requiem (review). The CBSO has launched an extended celebration of their centenary, which falls in autumn 2020 and, on the evidence I have heard in 2019, the orchestra is in peak condition to mark this notable anniversary.
This year’s Three Choirs Festival was on my doorstep, in Gloucester and Artistic Director Adrian Partington had constructed an enticing and varied programme. My personal highlights in a packed week began with the marvellous concert by Merton College Choir which included a compelling performance of James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross (review). Roderick Williams gave a distinguished recital of English song which included the song cycle Maud by Arthur Somervell in a performance that showed the cycle in a revelatory light (review). His recording of a full disc of Somervell songs, due for release in 2020, is eagerly awaited. I wish an enterprising label would record the memorable and moving sequence From your ever-loving son, Jack. This was the second time I had heard tenor Joshua Ellicott and pianist Simon Lepper give this recital and it was just as affecting as the first time (review). I was delighted that Adrian Partington revived An English Requiem by the late John Joubert. It is a fine, eloquent work and it received a performance wholly worthy of it (review). Look out for the BBC Radio 3 broadcast which should air sometime in early 2020. However, in the year that we marked the 150th anniversary of the death of Hector Berlioz it is fitting that the most exciting concert I attended in the whole of 2019 should have been the Three Choirs Festival performance of La damnation de Faust. Adrian Partington led an electrifying performance of this extraordinary work of genius. Though the conductor and all the performers deserve the highest praise, the show was stolen by Christopher Purves’s unforgettable portrayal of Méphistophélès (review).