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24.12.09

Top 10 Live Performances of 2009

We hear so much good music every year, which makes this annual post difficult to compile, but here is the list of the ten best Washington-area concerts we heard in 2009 (Jens will have a separate list of the best heard by Ionarts at Large). It is pointless to try to rank these excellent concerts from best to least best, so they are listed in chronological order, with an excerpt from my review. As always, your comments about the year in review are welcome.

#1. Smithsonian Chamber Music Society, Viol Consort (Renwick Gallery, January 11):

The concert was programmed at the request of an anonymous patron -- thank you! -- who wanted to hear a performance of all nineteen of Christopher Tye's five-part settings of the In Nomine melody. You might think that this would be the kiss of death as far as selling tickets, but every seat was filled, many of them an hour beforehand for Slowik's pre-concert lecture. In Nomine was a fragment of the Sarum chant used as the cantus firmus of a famous four-voice passage in the Benedictus section of John Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi trinitas, played widely by viol consorts in the English Renaissance and used as the basis for an array of new compositions based on it. Composers tackled the In Nomine like a proof of one's contrapuntal chops, but few took to the genre like Christopher Tye, who seemed intent on doing as many different variations on the concept as possible. This performance was technically assured, if not note-perfect, weaving the warm halo of sound from these exquisite 17th-century instruments into a carefully balanced ensemble.

György Kurtág, autograph score to Hommage à Bartók (first movement, "Adieu, Haydée I"), Library of Congress (photo by Robert Pohl)
#2. György and Márta Kurtág (Library of Congress, February 7):
György Kurtág has long been on the list of Ionarts favorite composers. As part of the 82-year-old Hungarian composer's first visit to the United States, the festival devoted to the Hungarian Cultural Year (infelicitously named Extremely Hungary) included a concert of historic importance on Saturday night at the Library of Congress. On April 13, 1940, violinist József Szigeti gave a concert with Béla Bartók at the Library of Congress, two days after the Hungarian composer had arrived in the United States. That concert was recorded on acetate discs, which have been transferred to CD (see this review), and Kurtág calls it an event "sacred for all Hungarian musicians." Continuing the legacy of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who helped so much to sustain Bartók's late career, the Library of Congress commissioned a new work by Kurtág, premiered at this concert by the composer and his wife, Márta Kurtág.
#3. Evgeny Kissin (WPAS, March 1):
Opening with Prokofiev's Three Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, op. 75, Kissin captured Juliet's flightiness in restless runs, the wild romp of Mercutio's Queen Mab speech, and the heavy-footed dance of the Montagues and Capulets, orchestral in scope and marvelously differentiated in voicing. That was a pleasing overture to the meat of this recital, an unforgettable performance of Prokofiev's eighth sonata (B-flat major, op. 84). From the opening note of the first movement (Andante dolce), which Kissin set gently and sweetly in place with such deliberate care, this was a display of patient craftsmanship, alternately elegiac and then restive in the inquieto sections. The piece has never much appealed to me, by comparison to the flashier Prokofiev sonatas (no. 2, no. 7), but Kissin's case was persuasive, giving the second movement (Andante sognando) the feel of someone fallen asleep outside a dance hall, with chromatic chord alterations soft-pedaled and Kissin's velvety touch making time seem to stand still. Finally, the third movement (Vivace) was an outrageous toccata that rumbled with trumpet-like fanfares through to its booming conclusion.

Quatuor Ébène (Pierre Colombet, Gabriel Le Magadure, Mathieu Herzog, Raphaël Merlin), photo by Julien Mignot
#4. Quatuor Ébène (Library of Congress, March 12):
For the most part, when string quartets play jazz, the result is often so stilted that I just avoid it when possible. Not only did the Quatuor Ébène play a jazz arrangement of Un jour mon Prince viendra (otherwise known as Someday My Prince Will Come, a song written by Larry Morey and Frank Churchill for Disney's Snow White and performed by jazz legends like Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis) as their encore, and very well at that. They even introduced it by standing and singing it in more than passable four-part close harmony (you can hear part of it at the end of the promotional video embedded after the jump), in what had to have been a first in the history of the Library of Congress. [...] Making a switch from the printed program, the Ébène opened with the best performance of the three, the Ravel F major quartet -- which they also played at the Corcoran two years ago. As they relate in the video, it was the first quartet they rehearsed as a group; they wanted to give it the "performance of the century," and that is exactly what they did last night. It was a viscerally exciting performance: tonally varied, not overly sweet, but luxuriating in the decadent chords at the end of the first movement.
#5. Lera Auerbach, Alisa Weilerstein, and Sasha Cooke (Kennedy Center CrossCurrents Festival, May 1):
We have been enthusiastic fans of Auerbach's music since hearing her sonata for cello and piano, on a 2005 concert by Wu Han and David Finckel, but had already been convinced of her talent from other works heard in recordings. Once again after this program devoted entirely to her compositions, with the composer herself at the piano, Auerbach more forcefully strikes me as that rarest of new voices, a composer who sounds most often only like herself, rather than reminiscent of the work of earlier composers.

Auerbach first partnered with cellist Alisa Weilerstein and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, both Ionarts favorites, in the 2003 song cycle Last Letter. As Auerbach explained in an engaging introduction, it is a setting of a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva, the author of a passionate correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke, although they never met. She wrote this poem upon learning of Rilke's death, some time after he had stopped answering her letters, and carries on in it her conversation with the Rilke in her mind, whom Auerbach said she cast as the cello, as if Rilke were involved in the dialogue although he is deprived of words. It opens the work in a frenzied A string cantillation focused on keening half-steps and continues often in agonized trills, spectral overtones, and disembodied sound from the bow sul ponticello.
#6. Jenny Lin (Mansion at Strathmore, May 7):
Lin gave tribute to the nineteenth century, when the etude was perfected as a concert genre, in a ferocious performance of the tremolos and chromatic runs of Liszt's "Etude transcendente No. 12." Two Debussy etudes also referred to the past, including the cheeky reference in no. 1 to Carl Czerny's five-finger exercises, which all piano students love to hate. Some of the choices were obvious, if encountered all too rarely, like the boundary-shattering etudes by György Ligeti and the "Ile de Feu" rhythmic studies of Messiaen.

Just as compelling were lesser-known works like the early Stravinsky etudes (op. 7) and, to complete the menagerie, strikingly different attempts at the genre by living composers Unsuk Chin, Gabriela Ortiz, Carlos Sánchez-Gutiérrez, and Jason Freeman. With hard-fingered, percussive technique Lin tamed them all, a series of stunningly difficult pieces of the sort one might sprinkle here and there in a normal concert.

Pianist Till Fellner (photo by Francesco Carrozzini)
#7. Till Fellner, Beethoven Cycle, Part 3 (Embassy of Austria, May 11):
Fellner's op. 106 was nothing short of a technical marvel, an almost breezy handling of a viper that made one forget the poison in its fangs. Indeed, the audience's restrained applause may have been due in part to the ease with which Fellner played the work, meaning that a listener might not have realized just how difficult it was. The exposition of the first movement established the tone of Fellner's interpretation, a careful balance of hammer (explosive where needed) and lightness (exceptional clarity of independent lines) that never felt overplayed, resulting in a sort of Schubertian grace. In fact, never has the Hammerklavier struck my ears as so close to the Schubert sonatas, which of course it was, composed only about a decade before D. 960. In terms of tempo, Fellner was generally steady as a rock, yielding only as Beethoven indicated, no matter the demands to be negotiated, although the first movement's tempo was slower than the absurdly fast metronome marking that Beethoven indicated. The same was true of the enigmatic scherzo (although Fellner did almost meet Beethoven's metronome marking), kept lively and bouncing with energy right to its abrupt conclusion, slowing only slightly at the trio, perhaps in reaction to Beethoven's marking semplice.
#8. Susanna Phillips: languid legato (Bishop Ireton High School, November 3):
Soprano Susanna Phillips, in the area to perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this weekend, gave an exceptionally beautiful recital on Tuesday night in the auditorium of Alexandria's Bishop Ireton High School. Those in attendance received a preview of the delectable program of songs Phillips will present later this month at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. Even better, the proceeds went to support the creation of a summer music camp for the students of Mount Vernon Woods Elementary School. Phillips has a charming stage presence in operatic roles, but her greatest strength may be as a singer of lieder. As in her Vocal Arts Society recital in 2007, Phillips sang with a tone of consummate beauty, strength and consistency, a voice suited more to the spinning out of flowing legato line than to pyrotechnical acrobatics.
#9. American 'Ring' Cycle Comes to Surprising Conclusion
(Washington National Opera, November 7):
In 2006, when Washington National Opera opened its American Ring Cycle, few could have imagined that it would end as it did on Saturday night, with a concert performance of Götterdämmerung. After very promising productions of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in 2006 and 2007, financial considerations delayed the staging of Siegfried by one season, to last spring, when it ended up with a troubled casting and special-effects woes. The collapse of the financial and housing market last fall was the final nail in the coffin, forcing the company to give up on the ultimate goal, canceling the plans to mount the entire four-opera cycle this month. Instead of an international operatic event, we had a hastily reconfigured season, until now less than stellar, and two concert performances of Götterdämmerung. By all logical expectations, this doomed Ring should have come to an ignominious end, with nothing but the fact that it finally concluded to show for all the trouble. So, imagine the surprise of everyone in the Kennedy Center Opera House -- critics, subscribers, and likely even the orchestra and the cast -- when this Götterdämmerung turned out to be one of the most transcendent musical experiences in recent memory.
#10. Kim Kashkashian and Tigran Mansurian, Armenian Musical Evening (National Museum of Natural History, December 8)
The Smithsonian Associates and the Embassy of Armenia presented a memorable concert in the National Museum of Natural History's Baird Auditorium on Tuesday night. The hour-long program of Armenian music, performed by violist Kim Kashkashian, Armenian composer and pianist Tigran Mansurian, and percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, was drawn largely from their admirable series of recordings for ECM.

Speaking through an interpreter before the concert, Mansurian noted that, although he was going to sing some of the pieces, he is not a singer, and he was not kidding. Even with a voice that was barely audible, wobbly and generally unreliable, the venerable composer contributed something affecting and mysterious to two sets of Armenian folk song transcriptions by Vartabed Komitas, whose work on Armenian folk music is comparable to what Bartók and Kodály did in Hungary. Seeming to rise out of a distant past, Mansurian's voice, almost disembodied even with amplification, was echoed by many in the audience, humming along softly.
ADDENDUM:
Each year Ionarts picks the best Christmas concert of the many that we heard in the last month of the year. This highly prized award is utterly subjective and based on an incomplete selection, since we could not (and frankly will not, for our sanity) attend all of the concerts that might qualify. Unfortunately, this year a late December nor'easter canceled two of the possible contenders, but it means that the award goes to the first such concert we heard, back on the first Sunday of Advent, a new Christmas program by Anonymous 4 called The Cherry Tree. Congratulations to the folks at Dumbarton Oaks and to Anonymous 4: long may they reign!

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