\"Rigoletto\" was the best of a strong spring 2011 for the Dallas Opera
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Year in Review: Music

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs looks back at the best music and opera performances of 2011.

published Monday, December 26, 2011

This past year was a difficult one for me. A broken leg slowed me down, but didn't get in the way of attending and reviewing more than 90 concerts—and that's not counting seeing every single performance at the Van Cliburn Foundation's Sixth Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs while in a wheelchair.

Coming up with only 10 to put in a best-of list was a difficult task. It is a credit to the vibrant music scene in North Texas that almost all of the concerts I attended were outstanding and many others would not have been out of place on anyone's list. There were also more than a few events that I was regrettably not able to attend, such as the concerts presented by Voices of Change. You can just assume that one of them would be on this list if I had been able to be in two places at the same time. I also heard good things about Hydrogen Jukebox at the Fort Worth Opera.

So, with these caveats mentioned, here is my list of the 10 best of 2011 (to see the list as a slideshow presentation, click the slideshow icon to the right).


1. Rigoletto, Dallas Opera at AT&T Performing Arts Center's Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, Dallas (March 25)

This one had to be picked by a flip of a coin. Rigoletto was produced in tandem with Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, and what a fascinating pairing it turned out to be. Both operas have demanding roles at their core; roles that require a singer's full attention throughout their career in order to succeed. If you don't have a superlative Boris or Rigoletto, then you don't have a cast for either show. This, by the way, is not intended to denigrate any of the other roles. They are all equally challenging and Dallas Opera was successful in bringing world-class talent to every character in both productions. But the Boris of Mikhail Kazakov, stately and haunted, and the misshapen dwarfish jester Paolo Gavanelli created as Rigoletto were extraordinary. It is doubtful that you will experience their equal no matter how many subsequent productions you may attend. However, Gavanelli's insightful portrayal of the pathetic Rigoletto won by a nose.


2. Ax Plays Brahms, Dallas Symphony Orchestra at Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas (Sept. 8)

Almost any of the concerts that were conducted by Music Director Jaap van Zweden were in the running. The Mendelssohn Festival was a strong runner-up, especially the wonderful performance on Sept. 24 by Italian pianist Alessio Bax in the G minor piano concerto. The Beethoven Symphony No. 9 was another stunner.  But the opening concert of the 2011-'12 season was a highlight that proved hard to top. This success was the result of a combination of exciting, yet sensitive, music making by Emanuel Ax, one of the greatest pianists of our generation, and a concentrated and controlled Music Director, Jaap van Zweden, on the podium. Brahms' massive Concerto No. 1 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra Op. 15 opened the concert. Van Zweden kept the stormy orchestral introduction under control without sacrificing its dramatic impact. Ax made the first piano entry quiet without sacrificing the energy that infuses the entire movement. Balance is always difficult in this piece but van Zweden managed to rein in the orchestra, on most occasions, while Ax played vigorously without ever overplaying. Ax has an impeccable technique. He puts this solely in the service of the music rather than self-aggrandizement and flash, as is so often the case with the raft of young pianists on the circuit today. He is truly a master and one of great pianists of our age. Prokofiev's ever-popular Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, Op 100, is one of the composer's best efforts. Van Zweden brought out both serious and sarcastic sides of the music at the same time.


3. Ysaÿe Quartet, Dallas Chamber Music at Southern Methodist University's Caruth Auditorium, Dallas (March 1)

Once again, this was almost a toss-up. The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio on Oct. 17 was a close runner-up.  But the Ysaÿe Quartet's performance at Southern Methodist University's Caruth Auditorium sent me running for the thesaurus. I ran out of adjectives on the way home. Their blend and intonation are without peer. They seem to have some kind of ESP that enables them to think as one. All four musicians are equally strong and impressed when it came time for each to shine. They played without much fuss, only moving around in their seats minimally, but always in an appropriate manner to the music at the moment. They played a historically progressive program: Haydn, Beethoven and Debussy. However, not only did we move through eras of musical composition, we also moved through styles of playing. Haydn's Quartet in G Major Op. 33, No. 5 was played with sparse vibrato and classical reserve. Beethoven's Quartet in E flat Major, Op. 74 was played to accentuate the composer's abrupt changes of mood. But the real "wow" moment arrived when they tore into the impressionistic ecstasies of Debussy's Quartet in G minor, Op. 10. Wisely, they didn't play an encore, although the audience stood and cheered. What else could have followed that would have added to the experience?


4. Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2, Fort Worth Symphony at Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth  (Nov. 18)

I must give some high praise to the American Festival that opened the season. The only reason that this was not at the top of the list is that they didn't play anything by a living composer and only concentrated on Bernstein, Copland and Gershwin, who hardly need championing. First place must go to the concert that contained a double whammy. FWSO Principal Horn Mark Houghton gave a definitive performance of Strauss' notoriously difficult concerto and the orchestra played at high peak under the brilliant young guest conductor, Bulgarian Rossen Milanov. He showed his mastery as both a concerto collaborator and conductor in Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, a big sprawling romantic work. In both areas, he was exemplary. While not afraid to be expansive on the podium, he pulled his beat back to tight and precise where needed. His hands were independent, with the right hand clearly indicating both tempo and interpretation, while his left hand was completely expressive. Few conductors, even big names, achieve this worthy goal. Let's hope he returns soon.


5. Yuja Wang, Cliburn Concerts at Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth  (Oct. 11)

While all of the Cliburn concerts have been excellent, as well as those at the Modern Art Museum, the local debut of Yuja Wang was a red-letter day. Here is a performance by an artist who, at the age of 23, is already one of our great pianists.  She has a dazzling and magnificent, dare I say unequalled, technique and it is amazing to witness how much better she plays than anyone else currently in competition for the title of Horowitz's heir. Wang presented a concert that she took on tour that astounded audiences everywhere she played it. Wang's program starts with a set of Scriabin (Preludes, Etude Op. 8 and Poeme, Op. 27, No. 1). This grouping gave the audience their first clue that Wang was not just a technical powerhouse. She then played two monster sonatas, Prokofiev's Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 82, and Liszt's multi-movement Sonata in B Minor, S 178. No technical challenge gave her a moment's pause. She sat upright on the edge of the bench, with her body ramrod straight, with textbook arm and finger positions. There was absolutely nothing of "the show", which mars some other young virtuoso pianists, about her demeanor. She was elegant throughout. Further, as impressive as her loud and fast playing was, it was her control over the very soft sounds and passagework that was the most extraordinary and that lingers in the memory. 


6. Sharon Isbin and Mark O'Connor, Allegro Guitar Series at Texas Christian University, Ed Landreth Auditorium, Fort Worth  (Feb. 13)

Guitar concerts are well attended by guitar aficionados but normally fly under the radar of many concertgoers. Not so when Sharon Isbin (guitar) and Mark O'Connor (violin), performed under the Allegro Guitar Series banner.  The hall was packed, no matter which name attracted them, and the two world-class artists certainly didn't disappoint. Ms. Isbin's playing was sheer perfection; subtle, musical, and precise. But what she does better than anyone is to separate out the voices inherent in the pieces she played. Mr. O'Connor comes from a completely opposite place from the Spanish music Ms. Isbin presented. His style, he only plays his own music, is a unique amalgamation of the American Folk traditions and classical music. Fiddle meets violin, as it were. The final work on the program was most certainly the highlight of the evening. It is a piece that O'Connor wrote for the CD Journey to the New World that Isbin released in 2010, and won a Grammy that year.  The composition, called "Strings and Threads Suite," is a collection of 13 short pieces that traces American folk music from its immigrant roots to the present day: jigs, reels, bluegrass, blues, ragtime, and even some be-bop. In fact, it is hard to think of an evening of music where it would not be the highlight.


7. PianoTexas Festival, Texas Christian University at TCU's PepsiCo Recital Hall, Fort Worth (June)

While the PianoTexas International Academy and Festival usually makes most Top 10 lists, this year the entire festival has to be mentioned. It is rare that a critic uses the word "unique," but it is fitting for this series of concerts. On every Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon in June, at Texas Christian University, there was a different distinguished pianist, performing four sonatas and the thus the festival surveyed all of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas. Many of these artists have played the entire cycle in recital, as have many other pianists. However, using eight different pianists, each with an individual approach and style of playing, to play them all was something else again. Some of the pianists impressed more than others, but this was the first time that I have been able to hear all of these sonatas in a grouping. It was an amazing effort on the part of the Festival, just in scheduling such busy world-class artists.


8. Mimir Chamber Music Festival, Texas Christian University at TCU's PepsiCo Recital Hall, Fort Worth (July 10)

While the entire festival is always one of the best bets in the Metroplex, this one concert stands out. They presented three surprisingly offbeat works (followed by Brahms, of course). The concert opened with a real rarity—a piece for cello and marimba. Mariel for Cello and Marimba was written in 1999 by the Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov, who happens to be the only living composer that Mimir has programmed all season (hopefully, this oversight will be corrected in the future). Cellist Brant Taylor, who wowed everyone on another concert with the Rachmaninoff sonata, was joined by Drew Lang on the marimba. It was a haunting composition in which a soulful cello line was accompanied by undulating chords in the surprisingly resonant marimba. Stravinsky's suite, L'histoire du soldat (A Soldier's Tale), boils the score down to a piano, violin, and clarinet. In the hands of Grammy-nominated violinist Jesse Mills, Stravinsky's suite became a virtuoso showpiece. You probably couldn't do better for the other two players, no matter where you looked. Greg Raden, principal in the Dallas Symphony, is a truly superb clarinetist and John Novacek is one of the great all-time collaborative pianists. The program ended with an amazing performance of Brahms' Piano Quartet in G minor, Op 25. Taylor and Novacek were joined by violinist Jun Iwasaki and violist Kirsten Docter.


9. Joyce DiDonato, Cliburn Concerts at Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth (Feb. 9)

Cliburn makes the list again. If the vocal recital is on death's door, as many say it is, then Joyce DiDonato gave it a shot of adrenaline and maybe even a pacemaker. It may be too late to help this most intimate of musical experiences survive in the era of the Three Tenors belting out O' Sole mio at the Arena di Verona in front of millions of screaming fans. Can a program of intelligently chosen but relatively unknown arias and songs, sung magnificently, hope to compete with that spectacle? Only time will tell. It didn't matter much what she sang, although the program was interestingly filled with rarities. The Willow aria from Otello was not Verdi's, but Rossini's. Reynaldo Hahn, a composer much loved by singers and completely unknown to anyone else, was represented with a set of songs based on the city of Venice. Haydn's concert Scena di Bernice was another work new to these ears. As to her voice, it is a perfectly trained and beautiful instrument that can easily navigate all of the coloratura roulades and trills of the Rossini repertoire. She is able to float the most beautiful and focused pianissimo line for entire phrases, indeed, for entire songs. She is a real mezzo, and not a push-down soprano or a push-up contralto. She is able to act without "acting" and she struck the perfect balance between what would be acceptable on stage and what works in a recital. The pianist, David Zobel, was a perfect collaborator. He never missed a note and was with her every step of the way. Those who were not in attendance really missed something awesome (as the kids would say) and important (as I would say).


10. Cultural Heritage, Creative Voices, Soundings: New Music at the Nasher at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas (Nov. 5)

When a concert takes you suddenly to unknown regions and keeps you there, it belongs on anyone's Top 10 list. The second Soundings concert of the 2011-'12 season at the Nasher Sculpture Center was just such a concert. Much like remembering the details of a dream, it is hard even to remember the program order. Part of this confusion is that all of the music on the program was new to this listener and it was played without pause with constantly shifting players. There was a string quartet on the stage. A singer would enter down the side aisle, singing in an unrecognizable language. A clarinetist would wander in. An accordion player appeared. They all took turns playing and it was so dark that the program was useless as a road map through the modernist and vaguely Hebraic-Middle Eastern-klezmer influenced musical landscape. It was wonderful to be a bewildered visitor in a different world. The actual works on the program so melded into each other that the most distinguishing signposts were blurred. An occasional rousing ending would elicit applause. Since the players went right on after the applause died down, you were unsure if that was a change of composition. The string quartet players were Keats Dieffenbach and Anna Elashvili, violin; Margaret Dyer, viola; and Hamilton Berry, cello. The featured artists were Checkpoint KBK, a trio that brings together the unique talents of violinist-vocalist Iva Bittová, clarinetist; David Krakauer (a klezmer specialist); and accordionist Merima Ključo.


Honorable mentions:

Here are five more concerts worthy of remembering, in chronological order by the date in which they happened:

Jan. 30: The Cliburn at the Modern series gave us the chance to hear National Medal of Arts/Pulitzer Prize/Grammy winner William Bolcom talk about his music, and to hear some selected pieces. Bolcom was witty, personable and informative and the music making was world class. "Black Max" and "Radical Sally," two of Bolcom's 24 Cabaret Songs, were sung by mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle. Bolcom's Octet, performed by quartets from the University of North Texas, was a treat to hear. It is a wonderful piece from start to finish. The final work on the program was a song cycle for voice and an instrumental ensemble, "The Hawthorne Tree."

Oct. 10: The Blue Candlelight Music Series featured the outstanding Mexico-based and Russian-born pianists that make up Duo Petrof, was just marvelous. Vlada Vassilieva and Anatoly Zatin gave a program that was exciting and even humorous. Fans of ensemble piano playing missed something special.

Nov. 10: Patricia Racette may be one of the only opera singers able to cross over to cabaret successfully. She offered evidence of her cabaret chops at the Winspear Opera House, presented by The Dallas Opera.

Nov. 14: In 2009, Musical America named the Pacifica Quartet the Ensemble of the Year. Dallas audiences had the chance to hear them play an extensive—if a bit long—program, presented by Dallas Chamber Music. The ensemble is made up of violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos.

Nov. 16: It would take a lot of superlatives to properly describe the concert by pianist Jon Kimura Parker and violinist Cho-Liang Lin, under the auspices of the Cliburn Concerts. They presented "An Evening in Paris," but it was really an evening in a musical heaven.

◊ Editor's note: This is the part of year-end lists/wrap-ups of 2011 for local performing arts. Margaret Putnam's list of Top 10 dance events is here, and Cheryl Callon's take on the year in dance is here. Look for musings on the year in theater on Dec. 28. Thanks For Reading

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Year in Review: Music
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs looks back at the best music and opera performances of 2011.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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