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Best (and Worst) of 2015

We have reviewed our last performance of 2015, 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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Bach, Goldberg Variations, A. Tharaud
1. Alexandre Tharaud, piano (Phillips Collection, January 25)

Alexandre Tharaud continues to surprise me. At his latest recital here, at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon, it was not surprising to hear him play jewel-like Couperin (his opening set) or a delightful Scarlatti sonata as an encore (the guitar-like K. 141). The bulk of the program, though, showed the French pianist going in new directions, with composers not previously associated with him, at least by these ears.
2. Mahler, Symphony No. 3, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, J. Barton, M. Alsop (Strathmore, January 31)
Gustav Mahler may not have written any operas, but his longer symphonies approach, perhaps even surpass, opera in their metaphysical scope. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s excellent performance of the composer’s Third Symphony, heard Saturday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, certainly had the feel of epic drama: funereal grief, ecstatic awakening, hushed birth of self-awareness and, finally, consummation. Best of all, music director Marin Alsop has found her Mahler groove after her rocky first efforts on an unofficial symphony cycle with the BSO a few years ago. Both this performance and the season opener of Mahler’s fourth symphony last September have been excellent.
3. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Charles Dutoit (Washington Performing Arts, Kennedy Center, February 21)
The orchestra from Geneva, which last visited Washington in 1989, shone immediately in Debussy's Ibéria, with glimmering washes of string sound and polished contributions from the woodwind section. Dutoit shaped the perfumed second movement with its murky, incense-heavy sighs of sound and guided the orchestra seamlessly into the third movement. The ensemble traded on its history by performing Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale, which was premiered by Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1919. With top-notch solo work from celesta and principal flute, the musicians revealed this sensationally colored music in all of its riotous variety.
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Mozart, Requiem / Vesperae solennes de confessore, C. Sampson, M.B. Kielland, M. Sakurada, C. Immler, Bach Collegium Japan, M. Suzuki
4. Mozart, C Minor Mass, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Masaaki Suzuki (Strathmore, March 12)
Suzuki coaxed an incisive and beautifully balanced performance from the Classical period-sized orchestra. The smaller number of strings played almost entirely without vibrato, and the well-drilled University of Maryland Concert Choir sang in a mostly straight, white tone, with the soprano sound especially light. Crowning their work was a stupendous performance by Slovak soprano Simona Šaturová, her voice laser-precise and perfectly placed from a firm low A-flat up to a crystalline high C in her two solo movements.
5. Evgeny Kissin, piano (Washington Performing Arts, Strathmore, April 22)
Kissin remains at the top of my list among living interpreters of the music of Chopin, an impression maintained by this performance. In his hands, these pieces had an extemporaneous feel to them, right from the gesture of beginning the first nocturne on the program (B-flat minor, op. 9/1) with the right hand almost from nothing, hesitant even to start the piece. Kissin has a fluidity of rubato that sounds like improvisation, not rushed or dragged out sentimentally, but hesitating and impetuous in equal measure, with even the embellishments to the melody sounding not practiced but added on the fly.

6. Verdi, Aida, S. Hendricks, M. Owens, and M. DeYoung (Wolf Trap, July 24)
No one, however, matched the intensity of mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, whose Amneris was fawning, venomous, deceitful, and yet ultimately sympathetic, someone who pays dearly for loving too deeply. When the microphone level was adjusted in the second half, it brought her searing voice into sharp focus, and it was guilty fun watching her exult in Aida's pain. Current members of the young artists program filled out the cast quite nicely, Evan Boyer as Ramfis, Christian Zaremba as the Egyptian king, and Kerriann Otaño as the high priestess.
7. National Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (Kennedy Center, October 1)
Without doing any kind of official count, I probably have issues with the NSO's string sections most often in my reviewing. What a delight to hear the strings sounding so good in Elgar's Serenade for String Orchestra, op. 20, the violas purring on the little energetic motif running through the first movement and the first violins weaving a single, limpid thread of sound. The second movement, taken not too slow and therefore more heartfelt than schmaltzy, was lush and tender, capped by a genial third movement, in no way agitated, which felt completely opposite from the approach often taken by Eschenbach.
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Debussy, Images / Préludes (Book 2), Marc-André Hamelin
8. Wagner, Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen, Issachah Savage, National Philharmonic, P. Gajewski (Strathmore, October 3)
Wagner's Rienzi, Hans von Bülow reportedly quipped, is Meyerbeer's best opera. Wagner completed it, his third opera, when he was still in his late 20s, before he disavowed his one-time admiration of French grand opera. Meyerbeer, who was so instrumental in getting the young Wagner's early operas to the stage, ended up with Wagner's scorn as thanks, when Wagner targeted Meyerbeer in his anti-Semitic tract Das Judenthum in der Musik. Wanting to bury that part of his development as a composer, Wagner banned Rienzi from performance at Bayreuth. Kudos to the National Philharmonic and conductor Piotr Gajewski for bringing an all too rare concert performance of the work to the Music Center at Strathmore on Saturday evening.
9. Marc-André Hamelin, piano (Clarice Smith Center, October 4)
Sheer virtuoso display came out in the last piece, Liszt's Venezia e Napoli, from the Italian year of Années de pèlerinage. Hamelin took the barcarolle of the first movement (Gondoliera) at a leisurely tempo, tickling the ear with the many lacy figurations and trills of the right hand. Somehow the insistent tremolos of the second movement, at times almost like a furiously strummed mandolin accompanying the song -- an aria from Rossini's Otello -- managed not to sound hokey, and the Tarantella of the third movement provided the necessary ignition to fuel a bacchanal of encores.
10. Bach Collegium Japan (Library of Congress, November 4)
Many historically informed performance ensembles perform on original instruments. Some play with exceptional virtuosity; a few expand our understanding of a work by playing it. Bach Collegium Japan, which returned triumphantly to the Library of Congress on Wednesday evening, does all of these things. Beyond that, as demonstrated at this concert perhaps even more than on its last visit here, in 2006, the ensemble is never willing to sacrifice musical instinct and ensemble cohesion on the altar of authenticity.
BEST OF 2015
Recordings, Movies, Books (Charles)
Top 10 Recordings (jfl)

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K. Saariaho, Light and Matter (for violin, cello, and piano)
(Chester Music, 2015)

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Bach, Violin Concertos, A. Ibragimova, Arcangelo, J. Cohen
(Hyperion, 2015)
IONARTS SUGAR PLUM AWARD (Best Christmas Concert)
Tallis Scholars (Kennedy Center, December 3)

Kaija Saariaho, Light and Matter (Library of Congress, May 22)

Alina Ibragimova, violin (Phillips Collection, March 8)

Vocal Arts D.C., which presented excellent concerts by Matthew Polenzani (January 14), Karine Deshayes (February 3), Karen Cargill (April 7), Susan Graham (September 12), and Jamie Barton (October 15), among others. A fitting tribute to the founder of this series, the late Gerald Perman.

Copland, Rodeo (American Ballet Theater, March 24)
Honorable Mention: Stravinsky, Rite of Spring / Spectre de la Rose (Mariinsky Ballet, January 27)

Alexei Ratmansky, Pictures at an Exhibition (New York City Ballet, April 8)

Stile Antico (Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes, February 25)

Pēteris Vasks (Phillips Collection, February 12)

Philip Glass, Appomattox (Washington National Opera, November 14)
Jennifer Higdon, Cold Mountain (Santa Fe Opera, August 5)

Romeo and Juliet, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, October 16)

In 2015 we said farewell to conductors Kurt Masur (December 19), Heinz Fricke (December 7), Norman Scribner (March 22), and Robert Craft (November 10); early music pioneer Alan Curtis (July 15) and choral director and arranger David Willcocks (September 17); directors Luc Bondy (November 28) and Nikolaus Lehnhoff (August 22); composers James Horner (June 22), John Eaton (December 2), John Duffy (December 22), and Gunther Schuller (June 21); concert presenter Gerald Perman (April 11); singers Jennifer Holbrook (January 20) and Jon Vickers (July 10); pianist Aldo Ciccolini (February 1); critics Andrew Patner (February 3), Rodney Milnes (December 4), and Andrew Porter (April 3); opera broadcaster Margaret Juntwait (June 3); actors Christopher Lee (June 7), Leonard Nimoy (February 27), Anita Ekberg (January 11), Maureen O'Hara (October 24), and Omar Sharif (July 10); ballerina Maya Plisetskaya; jazz musicians Phil Woods (September 29), Ornette Coleman (June 11), Ward Swingle (January 19), and B.B. King (May 14); writers Oliver Sacks (August 29), Günter Grass (April 13), and E.L. Doctorow (July 21); and poet Philip Levine (February 14). SVILUPPO: artist Ellsworth Kelly (December 27), multi-instrumentalist Tom Zajac (August 31).

Truth be told, 2015 is a year I am glad to see come to an end, having undergone an eye surgery in October that was hard to recover from but has so far prevented a retinal detachment and loss of vision in my right eye. It has been a sorely depressing year all around, with two devastating terrorist attacks in Paris, at the office of Charlie Hebdo in January and more widespread through the city last month, not to mention the killing, kidnapping, and cultural destruction perpetrated by other lunatics around the world. What little faith I had left in humanity has been diminished yet again. It is time to save the last flickering flame of civilization and, as Bernard-Henri Lévy wrote in his book Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism (the English version of Ce grand cadavre à la renverse), put an end to the encroachment of religious radicalism on free societies. Some billionaire should publish enough copies of Voltaire's Traité sur la tolérance for everyone who can read in every possible language. As Voltaire put it in that work, "Men must first not be fanatics to be worthy of Tolerance." The minds of these barbarians, sadly, will not be changed, no matter how much good will and tolerance we extend toward them.

1 comment:

violinhunter said...

Indeed. It was not a very good year for humanity as a whole. The juxtaposition of the noblest of events (magnificent cultural undertakings) taking place alongside the worst horrors (killing of innocents) is puzzling. In our times, a cure for violent, murderous extremism is as important as a cure for cancer. In the meantime, the noble arts (and noble people) continue. Let us hope 2016 is better.