Ben Heppner as Ahab in the Dallas Opera\'s \"Moby-Dick\"

Best of 2010: Classical Music and Opera

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs lists his Top 10, with a few extras.

published Tuesday, December 28, 2010

First off, I just want to say that I've always thought it strange that critics write an overview of the calendar year. The classical music and opera season starts in September and ends in the summer months, when the festivals take over. This means that a year-end summary like this one bridges two completely different and separately conceived seasons.

Also, there is a big difference between the best and the most important concerts. Another problem is that sometimes the concerts are uneven. While one piece might be endomorphic, the rest of the concert might be somnambulistic.

So, with all these qualifiers in mind, here's a completely subjective list of the best classical music and opera performances of 2010, coming from a relatively new critic with barely a season-and-a-half behind him. 

The first two picks represent the biggest local music news of the year: world premiere operas by our two major opera companies. The composers of them, Jake Heggie and Jorge Martín, share an expertise in orchestration, which makes for highly colored scores. Both productions relied almost exclusively on projections as sets, with a few other pieces, such as chairs, used to convey physical locations. While both operas are significant, one triumphed.

1. Moby-Dick, Dallas Opera (April)

The opening of the new Winspear Opera House in Dallas occasioned a commission of a new opera. Moby-Dick, by composer Jake Heggie mesmerized and thrilled the audience. Gene Scheer’s libretto worked a small miracle in condensing a massive jumble of a book into three hours of opera. The visual effects were stunning and the singing on a world-class level.

2. Before Night Falls, Fort Worth Opera (May)

The plucky company in Fort Worth also had a première up its sleeve as well. They presented Before Night Falls, an opera by Cuban-born composer and librettist Jorge Martín based on the shockingly frank autobiography of Cuban gay dissident Reinaldo Arenas. Both Moby-Dick and Before Night Falls were composed, thankfully, in a highly accessible musical language by theatrically astute composers who are masters of their craft.

3. Brahms’ Requiem, Dallas Symphony and Chorus (October)

Jaap van Zweden took a mile-high view of the piece while still carefully crafting every detail. He started it from nowhere and then built the entire work to a magnificent climax on the words Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg? (Which means “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” from I Corinthians). These lines are the message of the entire work. In all of the performances I have heard of this piece, this moment has never been so clearly underlined.

4. Magnificent Mahler, Dallas Symphony Orchestra (May)

Those hooked into van Zweden’s concept—more muscular than elegant—of the symphony, from the first notes, were taken on the dark-to-light spiritual journey that Mahler intended, but is so rarely achieved. Mahler himself said that he didn’t know where the inspiration came from and found himself amazed at what he had accomplished. The audience was also amazed. Dazzled is a better word.

5. Chamber Music International (January)

CMI presented an absolutely magnificent performance of Dvorák’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81. Cellist Jungshin Lim Lewis lit the fuse right from the beginning. She has an immense cello sound and Dvorák’s glorious opening melody sounded even more wonderful than usual. There were many such details to point out: Alessio Bax's incredibly clean performance and sympathetic collaboration at the piano, Nai-Yuan Hu Lee’s solos in the second movement, violinist Nai-Yuan Hu’s equally striking sound and leadership throughout, and everything cellist Jungshin Lim Lewis played.

6. Mimir Chamber Music Festival at Texas Christian University (July)

Mimir made the list by performing Messiaen’s tripped-out Quartet for the End of Time. There are whole chapters of books and countless doctoral dissertations on this exploration of the end of everything as described in the Bible’s Book of Revelations. Ana Victoria Luperi, the principal clarinetist with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra did an amazing job and pianist Alessio Bax impressed as well. Violinist Nathan Cole and cellist Brant Taylor were also terrific.

7. John Musto and Amy Burton, Van Cliburn Foundation (November)

The Cliburn at the Modern Series lets you get up close and personal with composers and performers. In November, they presented a concert of music by, and with, John Musto.  Although he specializes in opera, he is equally well-known for piano and chamber works. His wife, soprano Amy Burton, gave a stellar rendition of some of his songs and the radiant mezzo, Virginia Dupuy, paid a surprise visit. However, the focus of the event was an appearance by the blind teen-aged pianist, Nobuyuki Tsujii,. He has become an international sensation since co-winning the gold at the recent Cliburn. He was led to the piano, sat down, and carefully got his bearings and orientation to the keyboard that he cannot see. Then, he launched into a breathtaking ride through Musto’s Improvisation and Fugue, which he played in the competition. There was no doubt in anyone's mind why he won.

8. Mozart & Schumann with Hans Graf, Dallas Symphony Orchestra (April)

Graf, the Austrian-born Music Director of the Houston Symphony since 2000, took the helm of the DSO. While the program was impressive, it was Graf who made this a standout concert. He is a conductor’s conductor, worthy of study and admiration by students and professionals alike. Graf is expressive but always within a clear textbook beat pattern. He pays great attention to detail without being fussy. He brings clarity to the score without letting insignificant inner workings clutter the texture. He remains cool while conducting the biggest moments without sacrificing any of the required passion.

9. Di Wu with Fort Worth Symphony (September)

As Di Wu joined the Fort Worth Symphony with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, it was easy to see how she won the hearts of the audience and equally obvious why she was a finalist at the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Her impressive technique aside, Wu shines with her sheer youthful enjoyment at making great music, and it's this quality that most enchants. She eschews making a profound statement on the human condition, as some soloists are wont to do, and just enjoys playing the concerto. In Selections from Prokofiev’s glorious ballet, Romeo and Juliet, Harth-Bedoya turned in one of his very best jobs on the podium that I've seen from him, without a score, and with every gesture both meaningful and purpose driven.

10. Armen Babakhanian at PianoTexas (June)

In the lineup of facile and practically indistinguishable pianists, multiple prize-winner Babakhanian is a distinct voice. His performance was so highly individualistic that well-known, even over-played, pieces sounded so fresh and new that he sent this reviewer scurrying back to the scores for a look-see. Hunched over the keyboard, he often watches his fingers at close range in amazement, as though they belonged to someone else and he is fascinated with what they are doing. It was an amazing evening.

Honorable mentions:

  • American Guild of Organists’ Robert T. Anderson Recital Series with Isabelle Demers (November)
  • The Blue Candlelight Music with Dallas Symphony Senior Associate Concertmaster Gary Levinson, cellist Ko Iwasaki and pianist Yurie Iwasaki (October)
  • Dallas Chamber Music with Claremont Trio (February)

Editor's NoteIn the week between Christmas and New Year's, we'll run our looks back at the year in the performing arts, including: The year in theater from local critic Alexandra Bonifield, whose blogsite Critical Rant is a new TheaterJones media partner; Mark Lowry's look at the year in theater with a best-of list; biggest theater and arts stories of the year; and the year in local performing arts photos. Margaret Putnam's year in dance is here; and M. Lance Lusk's year in Shakespeare is here.

 Thanks For Reading

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Best of 2010: Classical Music and Opera
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs lists his Top 10, with a few extras.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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