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22.12.10

Best of 2010: Live Performances

What follows are some review highlights from the most moving and noteworthy live performances we heard in Washington over the past year. Once again, remember that if you buy through the links provided (to related purchases), Ionarts receives a portion of the proceeds.

#1. Musicians from Marlboro, Freer Gallery of Art (October 26)

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Duos from Marlboro, P. Robison, R. Serkin, D. Phillips, P. Zazofsky, I. Levin, J. Denk
Marlboro Music, the venerable music festival in Vermont, comes to Washington three times a year when performers bring some of the summer's programs to the Freer Gallery of Art. The first installment of this year's three Musicians from Marlboro concerts combined one beloved gem of the chamber music repertoire, Mozart's clarinet quintet, and three less familiar, more recent pieces. The discovery of the first half was mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson, a current participant in the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development program. She produced a rich, limpid tone, evenly balanced from a coffee-dark bottom to a ringing top that was never strained or strident, a voice one hopes to hear many times more. As for that Mozart clarinet quintet, the always marvelous K. 581, it featured the best instrumental performance of the evening in clarinetist Sarah Beaty. John Adams, himself a clarinetist, wrote in his recent autobiography that the clarinet's technical enhancements have made it a relatively easy instrument for a competent person to play: be that as it may, Beaty had a consistent and pure tone, controlled and never forced, shaped immaculately into beautiful phrases. [Read complete review]

#2. András Schiff, WPAS, Strathmore (October 20)

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Schumann, Davidsbündlertänze, Symphonic Etudes, A. Schiff
The periodic recitals by András Schiff presented by Washington Performing Arts Society have been a welcome opportunity to appreciate the Hungarian pianist's unaffected and meticulously detailed style of playing. He came to Strathmore with a program honoring the 200th anniversary of Robert Schumann's birth. In our appreciation of Schiff's intellectually rigorous side, we may have forgotten the exquisite way that he plays Schumann -- his recordings of the German composer's works are now harder, but not impossible, to acquire. This beautifully turned performance was an irrefutable reminder of it. He opened with the lesser-played Waldszene, little forest vignettes that have a menacing, fairy-tale air to them. Here and throughout the evening, Schiff proved himself an extraordinary storyteller, a master at limning a broad range of character pieces. [Read complete review]

#3. Arcanto Quartet, Library of Congress (October 12)

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Ravel / Debussy / Dutilleux,
Arcanto Quartet
The Arcanto Quartet played a magnificent concert at the Library of Congress, to a well-filled auditorium. The group's sound was honeyed, lustrous, refined, with the players happily never feeling they had to force in the intimate space of the library's Coolidge Auditorium. Fortes were never electrified by overexertion, and the degree of differentiation among soft dynamics was impressive. As noted of their recent recording, there is an evenness in the virtuosity of the players, four equals thinking as one, creating a unified sense of ensemble playing and collaboration, as well as scrupulous intonation and phrasing. The heart of the program was a glowing, vibrant rendition of Ravel's gorgeous F major quartet, featuring some of the best viola playing, from Tabea Zimmermann, heard at the Library of Congress from any group. The first movement alternated between whitewater turbulence and the quasi-orgasmic cry of the piece's pervasive main theme. The pizzicati of the second movement were deliberate, giving the full center of each plucked note, and the soft slow section and third movement were even quieter and more expressive than on the recording. [Read complete review]

#4. Music from The Tempest, Folger Consort, David Daniels, Strathmore (June 11)

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Locke, Music for The Tempest,
Il Giardino Armonico
The Folger Consort appended a special program to their 2009–2010 season. As expected, it turned out to be the best concert of the Folger's season, for the strength of the musical selections and the accomplishment of the performers, both musical and dramatic. The performance was a two-hour distillation of Shakespeare's enigmatic and excellent play The Tempest, arranged and directed by Richard Clifford. Carefully chosen excerpts from the play gave the bare outline of the story and touched on some of its most powerful language. Two selections taken from Handel's operas were marginally related to the story: the graceful but anguished slow aria Qual nave smarrita (from Radamisto, in which Daniels starred at Santa Fe Opera a couple years ago) and the dizzyingly virtuosic fireworks display Furibondo spira il vento (from Partenope, which Daniels recorded on his album Sento amor). [Read complete review]

#5. Yuja Wang, WPAS, Sixth and I Historic Synagogue (May 22)

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Yuja Wang, Transformation

Chinese-born, Curtis-trained pianist Yuja Wang is all of 23 years old, but she has already given so many striking performances in the Washington area: a stunning 2008 WPAS recital, accomplished performances of the Higdon piano concerto and Prokofiev second with the National Symphony, as well as the Prokofiev first and Liszt first in Baltimore -- indeed, she is coming back next season with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to play Rachmaninoff. In her latest recital appearance with Washington Performing Arts Society, on Saturday night at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, she gave the one of the most viscerally thrilling and musically profound performances yet to reach my ears. It was noteworthy both for its technical fierceness, with a few fatigued slips appearing only at the end of the last work on the program, Prokofiev's sixth sonata, and for its carefully calculated architectural orderliness. [Read complete review]

#6. Christine Brewer, Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (May 7)

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J. Marx, Orchestral Songs and Choral Works, C. Brewer, BBC SO, Trinity Boys Choir, J. Bělohlávek

Christine Brewer's voice is that rara avis, a luscious and buttery dramatic soprano that has the power to strip paint off the walls but with the control and suavity to apply that nuclear force only when needed. It is the instrument of choice for some repertories, like the songs of Wagner and Strauss, such as she sang on her last recital in the area, but Brewer has also excelled in works by other composers that can benefit from a large, broad voice. The main attraction of the first half was an extended set of songs by Austrian composer Joseph Marx (1882-1964), all of which Brewer recorded (of many more) with conductor Jiří Bělohlávek on a must-purchase CD released last year. Like Strauss, the love of Marx's life was a talented soprano, Anna Hansa (1877-1967), who remained married to another man the composer knew in Graz even during the many years of her liaison with Marx. The songs test the limits of the soprano voice without pushing it over the edge, well, at least with someone like Brewer. [Read complete review]

#7. Mitsuko Uchida, WPAS, Strathmore (April 21)

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Schumann, Davidsbündlertänze / Fantasie, M. Uchida

On Wednesday night, devotees of Mitsuko Uchida filled the Music Center at Strathmore. The technical mastery of the Japanese-born pianist, now in her 60s, does not necessarily inspire awe in the listener, although there is plenty of daring virtuosity left in her agile fingers. No, what people came to hear was her way of turning a phrase. She gave carefully measured weight to each note, evoking again and again sounds as delightful and delicate as a wildflower, small daubs of bright color on tiny petals, like minute lines carved with painstaking care into glass. Uchida performed pieces by two of her favorite composers, Mozart and Schumann, and one had the sense that in the late phase of her career she is becoming even more of a specialist. [Read complete review]

#8. Quatuor Diotima, La Maison Française (April 19)

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Thomas Larcher, Madhares
The Quatuor Diotima came back to La Maison Française, for another appearance on the French embassy's highly esteemed contemporary music series. As heard in the three recent works on this program, the group's approach to dissonance and unconventional instrumental techniques is little different from how they approached the gorgeous late tonal string quartet of Maurice Ravel: even when a more savage or pitiless interpretation could have been justified, they simply let the sound emanate and make its own point. The listener never feels beaten over the head, either by lush extended triadic harmony or by tone-neutral growls or rasps. The opening work, Bitume, is the second string quartet by French composer Gérard Pesson (b. 1958), an evocative piece, using all manner of unusual techniques to create strange combinations of sounds. A pleasing rhythmic pulse would be established, only to recede again into the cloud of strange sounds, vaguely insect-like and all of it sotto voce. [Read complete review]

#9. Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexandre Tharaud, Library of Congress (March 12)

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Debussy / Poulenc, J.-G. Queyras,
A. Tharaud
When you hear and evaluate many concerts, the excellent ones stand out from the fair, good, and even very good ones in an almost self-evident way. Not much more needs to be said about the recital by cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexandre Tharaud at the Library of Congress, other than that it rises to the top of concerts heard by these ears so far this year. As Queyras mentioned in his recent interview with our own Jens Laurson, he and Tharaud were thrown together more or less haphazardly, because they were represented by the same agency. This is extraordinarily good luck because their natural and collaborative rapport makes it seem at times like they were born to play together. The French first half opened with two of the shorter Poulenc pieces from their Debussy and Poulenc disc. The Sérénade from Chansons gaillardes warmed the room, the luscious legato of Queyras's singing cello supported by the often self-effacing Tharaud. [Read complete review]

#10. National Symphony Orchestra, with Michael Stern and Emanuel Ax, Kennedy Center Concert Hall (January 17)

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Sullivan / Sibelius, Incidental Music for The Tempest, Kansas City Symphony, M. Stern
The National Symphony Orchestra has been in a sort of leadership vacuum this season, with a carousel of guest conductors filling time until Christoph Eschenbach takes the helm next season. While the results have been varied, the month of January is shaping up to be, as expected, one of the best in recent memory for the hometown band. After a lovely performance of Elgar's violin concerto last week, with former NSO music director Leonard Slatkin, the podium featured the return of Michael Stern, who has been putting in some solid work as music director of the Kansas City Symphony. The exciting program combined two symphonies of the 20th century with an old favorite, Beethoven's second piano concerto, played by another old favorite, pianist Emanuel Ax. [Read complete review]

Best Christmas Concert of 2010: Anonymous 4, Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (December 16)

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Noël: Carols & Chants for Christmas, Anonymous 4
The peerless and now resurgent vocal quartet Anonymous 4 won last year's Ionarts Best Christmas Concert award last year, with their Cherry Tree program at Dumbarton Oaks. Their latest program, called Noël: Carols and Chants for Christmas, is drawn from five of the group's celebrated Christmas albums: the most recent one is last year's Cherry Tree program, recorded on a CD we have already highly recommended; the group re-released a 4-CD set of the others (Wolcum Yule, Legends of St. Nicholas, On Yoolis Night, and A Star in the East) a few years ago, which is a bargain for anyone who does not already own any of those discs. Something about the austerity of the music selected -- lots of chant and other monophony, with many simple hymns and carols in unusual versions -- hit all the right Christmas buttons, as if you had wandered into the home of four talented and knowledgeable women and got to listen as they celebrated Christmas with a few old favorites. [Read complete review]

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