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Best and Worst of 2014

We have reviewed our last concert of 2014, which means it is time to take stock of the year that was. The following is a list of the Top Ten live performances I reviewed this year, arranged in chronological order. We conclude with a few other year-end honors (and dishonors) in several categories, as well as a remembrance of the notable people we lost this year.

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Bartók, String Quartets, Takács Quartet
1. Takács Quartet, Bartók quartet cycle (Kennedy Center, January 21 and 22)

As the musicians sat down to play no. 6, a feeling of sadness descended over me, as I realized that the cycle had to come to an end. Geraldine Walther, who was once an associate principal in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, gave a plangent reading of the opening viola solo, setting the tone of tragedy that begins each movement and is left hovering in the room at the end of the work.
2. Paul Jacobs, organ (Kennedy Center, February 5)
If the first concert in the series, back in October and featuring Cameron Carpenter, was about flamboyance, Jacobs offered a program, on the theme of “Music in Paris,” that was about refinement. Seeing these two artists, who represent opposite temperaments in many ways, compete with one another, rather than in series, would be interesting to say the least.
3. Evgeny Kissin and the Yiddish Word (Pro Musica Hebraica, February 24)
Nothing prepared me, however, for the sensation offered by his latest performance, a concert of solo piano music by Jewish composers, presented by the series Pro Musica Hebraica and the Kennedy Center in the Concert Hall on Monday night. In a noble and out-sized gesture, Kissin took public note of his recent embrace of Israeli citizenship by having this program be his first concert in the United States since that decision became official. In between performances of this mostly obscure music, Kissin made the unprecedented choice of reciting some of his favorite Yiddish poetry.
4. Escolania de Montserrat (Strathmore, March 16)
Historically, boys choirs in Catholic churches were the training ground for many composers, from Guillaume Dufay in the 15th century to Puccini and Bruckner in the 19th. Schubert was a choirboy in Vienna in 1809, when he may have sung at the grand memorial service for Haydn, who had himself been a choirboy at the city’s cathedral in the previous century. The tradition is still going strong at the Escolania de Montserrat, a boys choir school in Spain that is making its first American tour, with a stop Sunday afternoon in the Music Center at Strathmore.
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The Art of Melancholy (songs by J. Dowland), I. Davies, T. Dunford
5. Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford (Vocal Arts, April 8)
Davies possesses one of the most refined and lucent countertenor voices, with flawless intonation, ease and beauty across its range and not even a hint of shrillness. With his love of text, intelligent phrasing and clean but not overdone English diction, Davies is a natural match for the English Renaissance lute-song repertory, and Dunford, who has a similarly delicate approach to his instrument, matched him phrase for phrase. In repertory that is so soft, requiring careful listening, the two musicians held the audience spellbound and still, except for a few inconsiderate coughs.
6. James Conlon, NSO, Die Seejungfrau (NSO, April 12)
Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef was mercurial and passionate in the violin solos of the little mermaid, numerous enough to make the work almost a sort of violin concerto. Conlon gave the work a decisive pacing, which added gritty excitement to the faster passages. A rollicking horn theme signifies the prince and his men, and a passage of music in the second movement, excised after the work's premiere, has been put back into the score, recovered from the manuscript in the Library of Congress, heard for the first time in the United States in these performances.
7. Martin Helmchen (Washington Performing Arts, May 10)
It is a thrill to have one's expectations for a performer, on the basis of his recordings (he signed with PentaTone in 2007), be exceeded on hearing him live. This is what happened at Helmchen's Washington debut recital, presented by Washington Performing Arts on Saturday afternoon in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, where he leaped to or at least near the top of my estimation among performers of every composer whose music he played.
8. Dover Quartet (Fortas Chamber Series, October 8)
Conservatories are churning out young new string quartets at a dizzying rate, but lovers of chamber music should put the Dover Quartet on their to-hear list. The group, formed at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music in 2008, swept the Banff International String Quartet Competition last year. Its local debut, last October as part of the Candlelight Concert Series in Columbia, Md., was a triumph, and its Kennedy Center debut, at Wednesday night’s Fortas­ Chamber Music Concerts season opener in the Terrace Theater, was in the same category.
9. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Rouse, Scriabin, Strauss (Meyerhoff, October 23)
It was even more of a shame that Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was not more full than it was. The three pieces together produced an overwhelming effect, sating the ears with a riotous palette of tonal color, with two rarely heard works by Christopher Rouse and Alexander Scriabin as lead-ins to Strauss.
10. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Washington Performing Arts, November 5)
We have been hearing a lot of Bruckner's seventh symphony (E major, WAB 107) in the last few years -- the Philadelphia Orchestra and the NSO most recently -- but you will hear no complaints from me. Chailley kept the cymbal crash in the slow movement, even though to bring two percussionists (percussion and triangle) on the tour just for that one climactic moment was an extravagance -- and one that I admire.
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Bach, Brandenburg Concertos, Freiburger Barockorchester
(Harmonia Mundi, 2014)

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(DVD, 2000)
BEST OF 2014
Recordings, Movies, Books (Charles)
Top 10 Recordings (jfl)

George E. Lewis, The Mangle of Practice (Library of Congress, October 30)

IONARTS SUGAR PLUM AWARD (Best Christmas Concert)
Anonymous 4 Farewell Concert (Fortas Chamber Series, December 11)

Sumi Hwang, soprano (Phillips Collection, November 2)

George Balanchine, A Midsummer Night's Dream (Pennsylvania Ballet, June 7)

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Brandenburg Concertos (Library of Congress, February 4)

Peking Opera (Kennedy Center, August 27 and 28)

Huang Ruo, Dr. Sun Yat-sen (Santa Fe Opera, August 7)

Georg Friedrich Haas, in vain (Library of Congress, October 30)

In 2014 we said farewell to conductors Lorin Maazel (July 13), Claudio Abbado (January 20), Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (June 11), Julius Rudel (June 26), and Gerd Albrecht (February 2); early music pioneers Christopher Hogwood (September 24) and Frans Brüggen (August 13); singers Carlo Bergonzi (July 25), Licia Albanese (August 15), Magda Olivero (September 8), and John Shirley Quirk (April 7); film directors Mike Nichols (November 19) and Richard Attenborough (August 24); actors Lauren Bacall (August 12), Elaine Stritch (July 17), and Philip Seymour Hoffman (February 2); writers P.D. James (November 27), Maya Angelou (May 28), and Gabriel García Márquez (April 17); comedians Joan Rivers (September 4) and Robin Williams (August 11); and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (October 21).

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