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31.12.06

Ionarts Best of 2006 -- Live Performances

Top 10 lists are unavoidable at this time of year. Looking back over the archives for 2006, here are the ten most memorable performances we heard in the area this year, in chronological order. Ionarts travels, as you know, but we have limited this to local events.

1. Alfred Brendel at the Kennedy Center (February 9, 2006)

Not infallibility but the humanist touch that every note came with designated the performance as special and inescapably so even as soon as half way through the (admittedly long) Molto moderato e cantabile of the first movement (played without the repeat). Brendel, in his intimate relation with his Hamburg Steinway, created an atmosphere that would have compelled Beckmesser to drop his chalk and sit with – not amazement… but joyous awe. (Jens F. Laurson)
2. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Kennedy Center (February 15, 2006)
All in all, this was a startling and thrilling performance, with warm, cheerful Haydn playing (really good Classical style playing is not regularly heard here in Washington) and transcendent Strauss. The jangling, clamorous battle scene will remain in my ears for a long time. When the hero's melody rose up out of the orchestra, to triumph over his enemies, Jansons simply opened his arms and let himself be washed in the sound. (Jens F. Laurson)
3. Verdi, Requiem, Kirov Opera (February 25, 2006)
A Requiem is supposed to soothe and appease the heavens on behalf of the deceased: Gergiev unrepentantly raised hell. Even the searing soft moments were devilishly good, a tail of sulphur flames never far from his frock. Let him be the most overrated conductor of our times, in the hour and-a-half of the Verdi Requiem he redeemed himself from all past and future musical sins, as far as I am concerned. Bravi! (Jens F. Laurson)
4. Boston Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center (March 12, 2006)
Following the Strauss were Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs for mezzo-soprano and Orchestra, a commission by the BSO for its 125th anniversary. Much has been written about those five lovely, poetic, enchanting songs as well as the performing mezzo, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, including her recent bout with illness. There is little to add now. Mrs. Hunt Lieberson, sure enough, is one of the very outstanding mezzos in times that are generally blessed with great mezzo-sopranos; she has impeccable musical taste, intelligence, is incapable of gratuitous phrasing or showing off – and she has a stage presence that beams with dignity. Peter Lieberson’s songs are not only set to the Chilean poet’s love songs, they also feel and sound of true love. They shall be in the repertoire – and not just of co-commissioners BSO and LAPhil – for a long time to come. (Jens F. Laurson)
5. Ian Bostridge and Belcea Quartet, Library of Congress (March 13, 2006)
This British Dream Team of musicians first gave us the delicious song cycle On Wenlock Edge (1908/09), composed for this combination by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The Belcea Quartet added sounds, hues, atmosphere to the nostalgic words, like the thrashing gale in the first song, On Wenlock Edge, first in the whirring opening and later in creepy, near-the-bridge playing. Vaughan Williams divides the instruments in the third song, Is My Team Ploughing, to characterize the two characters in dialogue differently. In the same way, Bostridge used his unusual voice, often ethereal, to create the sense of conversation. This English tenor is the quintessential "intelligent singer," quite literally, given that Dr. Bostridge holds a doctorate from Oxford. His voice may not bowl one over with power, but few sing with more understanding and musical intelligence. (Charles T. Downey)
6. Angela Hewitt at Shriver Hall (May 17, 2006)
With her tall, thin frame sheathed in a soft blue gown revealing her shoulders, Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt played in her rather gestural style (lots of balletic whirling of arms), and her face often accompanied final or significant musical gestures with expressions of surprise, empathy, and even ecstasy. Far from being distracting, her mannerisms struck me as nothing more than the expression of her sincere feeling for the music she was playing. Hewitt opened with a programming choice that immediately won me over, as a musicologist obsessed with the French Baroque era. Jean-Philippe Rameau published this A minor suite in his third book of keyboard pieces, intended for the harpsichord, in 1728. Angela Hewitt will be recording this suite and two others by Rameau in June for a new recording to be released next year. That fluttering sound you hear is a musicologist's heart floating to heaven. Major concert artists are playing Rameau's music. (Charles T. Downey)
7. Turn of the Screw, Châteauville Foundation (May 25, 2006)
Britten’s Turn of the Screw is a fantastic opera – for chamber forces, three sopranos, tenor, and boy and girl soprano – but also a difficult opera and not likely to appeal to everyone. All those who attended the Châteauville Foundation production at the Terrace Theater knew what they were in for: a dense, chilling, creepy, and creeping psychological thriller set to haunting music that matches the action (or unbearable inaction) every step of the way. I cannot recall the last time I had – literally – chills from head to toe. Here I did, when Miles, the boy, musters his courage, acknowledges the evil done to him, and cries out against his tormentor, the (molesting) spirit: “Peter Quint, you devil.” (Jens F. Laurson)
8. Julia Fischer, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (May 26, 2006)
Cutting a dashing figure in a very red dress as she did, it was not enough to detract from the sternly delicate, searing Largo, where she made the otherwise middle-of-the run, broad rendition of the work sound very special; nuances well placed called attention to the music, not her. Grace and purity abounded. Under Temirkanov’s caring hands – here was something he visibly cherished doing – the BSO performed this and the cadenza-linked last movement splendidly, even with delicacy when called upon to do so. The ripping finale topped it all off in great style. This was an example of 45 minutes of music-making as it should be – and the audience sensed it: the longest standing ovation and sustained applause (did anyone at all sneak out into intermission?) I have witnessed at Meyerhoff Hall forced an encore out of her: Paganini’s Caprice No. 2 in B Minor; delicately sawed out of the musical material if perhaps not ideally prepared. Secretly, I had hoped for some of her Bach. (Jens F. Laurson)
9. Ground, Ignoti Dei Opera (July 1, 2006)
Would anyone, myself certainly included, ever think that a group of young performers, many of them graduates from Peabody and other leading early music conservatory programs, could make Baroque music cool? Yet here is Ignoti Dei creating a theater piece with a contemporary story, in a cutting-edge theater space in a renovated townhouse in downtown Baltimore, that uses the cyclical music of the 17th century. The idea, I admit, borders on the quixotic, to take virtuosic vocal chamber music, madrigals and other difficult pieces, and make people sing it while accomplishing choreography and staging. The two singers -- countertenor Brian Cummings (Him) and soprano Elizabeth Baber (Her) -- do their best, with some minor difficulties in the more complicated parts, like rolling themselves up in the same piece of cloth on the floor, but for the most part they did very well. (Charles T. Downey)
10. Louis Lortie, National Gallery of Art (October 9, 2006)
It was a gutsy move to open with a piece as technically demanding as Liszt's showy transcription of Wagner's overture to Tannhäuser. Liszt tried to capture as much of Wagner's score as he could, and with that many notes on the page, it is hardly surprising that Lortie may have missed one or two. Still, what was marked in this stunning performance of a viciously difficult work was the orchestral sound, from the booming Wagnerian brass to the chromatic voluptuousness of the Venus music. A second Liszt selection, the "Vallée d'Obermann" from the first volume of the Années de pèlerinage. The first half is not all that technically challenging, but Lortie showed his extraordinary skill at voicing the complicated harmonic twists around the theme. Lortie's virtuosity was tested again at the end of the piece, when he responded with sweeping, ecstatic gestures in the repeated chord section. This was truly mind-blowing Liszt. (Charles T. Downey)
Honorable mention:

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

The NSO Mahler 8th doesn't even get an honorable mention?

Charles T. Downey said...

We reviewed it. It didn't leap out in my memory, but it was good.

jfl said...

I know that I agree with every one of Charles' choices (assuming I was there and/or wrote the review) as being to be placed above the NSO Mahler 8th. It was an "event" for sure, and exciting at the time... but it wasn't something I now look back on and linger over in and with warm, kind thought in the same way I did just now, reading about the above mentioned concerts.