The Dallas Opera\'s \"Tristan and Isolde\"
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Year in Review: Music and Opera

Classical music critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs picks the 10 best local performances of 2012.

published Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012 was both a year of cutbacks and triumphs. The Dallas Symphony and Dallas Opera made significant cutbacks, but each had some spectacular successes with what remained. In fact, deciding on which performances by the two organizations to include in this list was a tough job. The conservative programming of the DSO was a disappointment for new music fans. Not so the Dallas Opera, the Fort Worth Symphony and Fort Worth Opera, which make new music a priority. But on the new music front, Voices of Change sets the standard; not just locally, but internationally.

Chamber music in the Metroplex is on the rise with more concerts coming closer to filling the hall. House concerts are also popular with groups such as Blue Candlelight, the Hall Ensemble and the Bach Society bringing back, from a more elegant era, this more intimate setting for a concert. There were quite a few outstanding piano recitals in the area and I could have made a "Top Ten" list of just pianists performing around town.

The new City Place Performance Hall opened giving us a 750-seat venue for concert music. The acoustics are adjustable, and they are still finding out how to work that, but the results are promising. Complaints that it is too large (500 would have been better) and too expensive are still circulating. Also, they don't have a decent piano, the Kawai that the fabulous Alessio Bax had for his recital was abysmal. However, rumor has it they are still shopping. The Dallas Chamber Symphony made its debut. The orchestra itself is populated by some of the best musicians in town, but Artistic Director Richard McKay was unimpressive. However, their commissioning new music to accompany silent films is innovative and welcome.

We lost Marvin Hamlisch this year, principal pops conductor of the DSO. Hamlisch is one of 12 people to have won the quadruple crown of entertainment awards—at least one each of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony─and add him to the shorter list of those who have a Pulitzer mixed in. He composed the groundbreaking musical A Chorus Line and wrote the scores for such films as The Way We WereThe Sting and Ordinary People. Our obituary is here. A notorious and unapologetically bad conductor, he brought a combination of musical skill and the ease of a natural born entertainer to the pops concerts that elevated them to a new level. He will be a hard act to follow.

Now to the list of the top ten performances of the year. You can also click on the slideshow icon underneath the photo box above and view the list as a slideshow presentation.


1. Tristan and Isolde, The Dallas Opera at AT&T Performing Arts Center, Winspear Opera House (February)

This production went through a number of transformations on its way to the stage at the Winspear Opera House. What we ended up with was a stunning production with jaw-dropping projections by Elaine McCarthy. The third act was especially astonishing with the waves of the ocean rolling into the orchestra pit. The singing was just as astonishing with  New Orleans born Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Isolde, Rhode Island native mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips as her loyal servant Brangäne, Tennessee native and Southern Methodist University Professor Clifton Forbis as Tristan, and the Finnish Bass-baritone Jukka Rasilainen, in his American debut, as Kurvenal. However, the vocal stunner of the evening was the Icelandic  bass, Kristinn Sigmundsson, as King Marke. As I said in the review, "Conductor Graeme Jenkins carefully paced his performance so that the final moment of Isolde's love-death is more like an inevitable "Amen" than climax."

  • Story about Tristan and Isolde's journey to the stage
  • Story on projectionist Elaine McCarthy
  • My review


2. Britten's War Requiem, The Dallas Symphony Orchestra at the Meyerson Symphony Center (November)

This rarely performed work was given a magnificent performance. Joshua Habermann, the new director of the Dallas Symphony Chorus, certainly proved his worth. Cynthia Nott's Children's Chorus of Greater Dallas was equally impressive, as was Dallas Symphony organist Mary Preston. Van Zweden was at his best. German baritone Dietrich Henschel, British tenor Ian Bostridge, and Russian soprano Olga Guryakova were all excellent. In my review, I said, "Overall, the performance on Thursday, by DSO and their musical guests, was a striking experience. The full impact of Britten's cri de coeue, right down to the last chord (one of the few beautiful romantic-era style cadences), left the audience in stunned silence for a good minute as Music Director Jaap van Zweden slowly lowered his hands."


3. Circles & Sketches, Voices of Change at Caruth Auditorium (March)

Artistic Detector Maria Schleuning continues to take this important group to new heights. I gave some thought to giving their entire season this spot on the list, but there was one concert that stood above the rest. "Circles," Luciano Berio's 1960 work for mezzo-soprano, harp and percussion, is one of the seminal compositions of the 20th century, but one that few have ever heard in a live performance. Mezzo-soprano Laura Mercado-Wright, fresh from her highly regarded New York City performance of the work, was spectacular. The reminder of the program was also interesting, but the Berio will remain in the memory of those who heard it for a lifetime.


4. Olga Kern, AT&T Performing Arts Center, Winspear Opera House (November)

There  were a number of world class piano recitals in the area in 2011, but the one by Olga Kern was unique in that she created a musical world that included the audience. For a short while, we were transported into her sonic universe. When it was over, we found ourselves back in the reality of the opera house. It wasn't the music per se, and there were lots of other problems such as the lack of a program, but the overall effect was magical.


5.  The Most Happy Fella, Lyric Stage at Irving Arts Center (October)

Lyric Stage is usually found on top ten lists for theater. Their production of Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, which many opera companies produce, was a crossover. Music Director Jay Dias has an international reputation for digging out the original versions of musicals from the past, sprucing them up, restoring the orchestrations and then presenting them with a full symphony. The support of Producing Artistic Director Steve Jones is highly laudable and it is no small job for him to get the budget for these very expensive productions. However, the Metroplex is richer for his efforts.  As I said in my review, "Lyric Stage has met and exceeded the challenges and it would be hard to imagine a better production by any regional theater or opera company anywhere." Watch for the Loesser's final musical, Pleasures and Palaces (1965), which closed in out-of-town tryouts, at Lyric Stage in a staged concert version coming up in January.


6. John B Hedges' clarinet concerto Fantasía sobre Yma Sumac, Fort Worth Symphony at Bass Performance Hall (February)

Musical Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya has transformed the Fort Worth Symphony. They play better and better each year and, while he is uneven, the Maestro can deliver a world-class performance when he is at his best. But more importantly, his commitment to the music of our time, and that of South American composers who would not otherwise be heard in this country, raises him up to stellar status. His commitment to having a composer-in-residence has put him and the orchestra on the musical map and set a standard that should cause other musical organizations in the Metroplex, still stuck with constantly repeating the music of DWEM (dead white European males), to hang their heads in shame. Their new CD, Take 6, has selections by recent composers in residence, such as Jennifer Higdon, Gabriela Lena Frank, Kevin Puts, Peter Boyer, Behzad Ranjbaran and John B Hedges. It was Hedges' clarinet concerto that guaranteed Harth-Bedoya and his merry band a place on this list. Principal clarinetist Ana Victoria Luperi was miraculous and looked amazing in a dress that put an exclamation point on the entire performance.


7. Expressions, Orpheus Chamber Singers at Spring Valley United Methodist Church (April)

Under the direction of Artistic Director Donald Krehbiel, this choir made up of outstanding professional singers always turns in a highly polished performance (sometimes too much so). This particular concert, despite some reservations, was a highlight. One reason for this is that it was held in Spring Valley United Methodist Church, which turned out to be an excellent venue for concerts. Another reason was Krehbiel's deft hand at programming put together an evening of music, ranging from Elizabethan times to the present day, that offered contrasts but still kept within a genre so that the entire concert had a natural progression. Like Olga Kern, Krehbiel took us somewhere and then safely returned us back to reality.


8. Brentano String Quartet, Cliburn Concerts at Bass Performance Hall (November)

In addition to a proliferation of piano recitals, string quartets continue to impress local audiences. Dallas Chamber Music and the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth continue to bring the best of them to the Metroplex. However, the outstanding performance of the Brentano presented the additional frisson of giving us the opportunity to preview the quartet that will take part in the eagerly anticipated 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which runs from mid- May to mid-June, 2013. String Quartets that tour together, giving hundreds of concerts a year, always have great ensemble work, but the Brentano's borders on ESP. In addition, the quartet plays on instruments that are matched in sound in that they are marginally less brilliant, especially the two Strads that the two violinists play. This produces a unique, and noticeably more mellow tone, than other quartets.


9. Concert 6, Chamber Music International at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church (May)

CMI does not import established chamber music groups. Instead, they put together musicians, using some regulars, for a specific concert. While the ESP of the Brentano is missing, this potluck approach can bring some amazing results. This concert was an alignment in the musical heavens with Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker (who won the prestigious Leeds International Pianoforte Competition in 1984), Taiwan-born violinist Cho-Liang Lin (who was Musical America's Instrumentalist of the Year in 2000), another Canadian, cellist Desmond Hoebig (a prize-winner at the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow) and violist Aloysia Friedmann, who is married to Parker. While the whole concert was amazing, it was the memorable performance of the Brahms Piano Quartet in C minor, Opus 60, that was the takeaway.


10. Mozart & Schubert, Dallas Symphony Orchestra at Meyerson Symphony Center (January)

The Dallas Symphony presented a wonderful concert with Principal Clarinetist Gregory Raden playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. My regular readers know that I put him in the list of the greatest clarinetists of the generation and his performance on this, the most beloved of all clarinet concerti, was definitive. In an interview, he was informative about the ins and outs of clarinet; stuff that non-clarinet players know little about. Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C is called "The Great," and was also terrific, with Jaap van Zweden in top form. Another DSO favorite, Principal Oboe, Erin Hannigan, had some standout moments.


Honorable Mention

I have to admit, this is my least favorite assignment. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to boil an entire season of superb music down to a top ten list. Further, it is unfair to those who are not on the list that belong on it, if it was longer. The fact that similar lists by my distinguished colleagues frequently name other events is a testament to this problem. However, I will add my list of concerts that were just as deserving of mention. With that in mind, here are the honorable mentions of the year, in no particular order:


The Fort Worth Opera's production of Jake Heggie's revamped opera, Three Decembers, was a riveting experience. Placed in the Scott Theatre with an orchestra behind the set, stage director Candace Evans put the audience right in the middle of the messy lives of the characters. Heggie's new version is a marked improvement, but it was Evans who brought the work to life.


The Dallas Opera's production of Verdi's masterpiece Aida will long be remembered for the triumphant return of one of their discoveries, Latonia Moore, in the title role. After her "a star is born" moment in the role at the Metropolitan Opera, it was an emotional homecoming.


Joyce Yang, who took the silver medal in the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, made two stellar local  appearances. One was a solo recital for the Cliburn Concerts series at Bass Performance Hall and the other was as a collaborative pianist with Chamber Music International. It was in the latter that we heard a roof-raising performance of Sergey Taneyev's ultra-romantic Piano Quintet.  

  • Cliburn Concerts review
  • Chamber Music International review


There are two festivals that deserve mention. Not only do they bring wonderful to the Metroplex in the summer, but they also are among the country's premiere educational festivals for young players: PianoTexas International Academy Festival (June) and Mimir Chamber Music Festival (July), both produced by and at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. In both, faculty members present outstanding programs, but it is the opportunity to hear the students that is one of the joys of the festivals. PianoTexas has the added advantage of begin able to bring in some of the world's great pianists for both recitals and master classes that are open to the public.

  • Interview with Tamas Ungar of PianoTexas
  • My review of Paul Badura-Skoda at PianoTexas
  • My review of the final concert of Mimir, which links to reviews of other concerts in the festival this year

◊ The following are also in TheaterJones' Year in Review series:

  • The year in comedy by comedy writer Amy Martin here
  • The year in theater by chief theater critic Mark Lowry here
  • The year in dance by chief dance critic Margaret Putnam here
  • More thoughts on dance by critics Cheryl Callon and Katie Dravenstott here
  • The year in music and opera by chief music critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs here
 Thanks For Reading

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Year in Review: Music and Opera
Classical music critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs picks the 10 best local performances of 2012.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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