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2016 in Review: Music

Chief Classical Music and Opera critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs picks his favorite performances of 2016.

published Friday, December 30, 2016

One of the few onerous jobs that a music critic as to endure is writing a Top Ten list. This year, I limited myself to only the required 10, with a few honorable mentions.

The musical scene in North Texas is remarkably rich and varied and features subscription concerts, recitals, festivals and one-time special events. However, 2016 will be remembered more by what we didn’t hear that what we did. The strike of the Fort Worth Symphony left a huge hole in our musical tapestry. It is a fool’s errand to try to imagine where those missing concerts would have fallen on this list.

Some observers even began to despair about the very future of the orchestra. Thankfully, a contract was recently signed and their season will be presented in full starting in January.

There was also big news with the area’s major symphony, when Dallas Symphony music director Jaap van Zweden was named the new music director of the New York Philharmonic. He’ll remain on the podium of the DSO through the 2017-18 season. Meanwhile, several acclaimed musicians in the DSO, including Principal Flute Demarre McGill and Principal Horn David Cooper, accepted positions at other major orchestras (the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic, respectively).

2016 was a bountiful year for opera lovers, full of new productions, world premieres and important revivals.  It ended with a look at the future: The Dallas Opera’s Linda and Mitch Hart Institute of Women Conductors. This is a program dear to the heart of Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny. He personally guided it through the many steps to make it happen. Six remarkable women came to Dallas and worked with outstanding professionals from Marin Alsop to TDO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Nicole Paiement.

So, that said, here is my list. I could have easily come up with two or three completely different ones.


 1  Manon

The Dallas Opera


Winspear Opera House

Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
The Dallas Opera's Manon


The top spot has to go to The Dallas Opera’s revelatory production of Massenet’s Manon. It featured a local favorite, tenor Stephen Costello, as a virile Des Grieux and the superb French baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer, in the role of Lescaut. It also featured the return of Graeme Jenkins, TDO’s music director emeritus, who presided over a carefully plotted performance that drove the innate current of this romantic opera forward without ever overflowing its musical banks. But it was the Manon of soprano Ailyn Pérez that made this performance memorable. She transformed the character from a beautiful opportunist into a believable young woman who always tries to make the best of difficult situations. My complete take on her transformative performance can be found here.


 2  David Finckel and his Ensemble of Six

Dallas Chamber Music Society

Nov. 7

Southern Methodist University, Caruth Auditorium

Photo: Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
David Finckel and the Ensemble of Six


The players were violinists Sean Lee and Alexander Sitkovetsky, violists Matthew Lipman and Richard O’Neil, cellists Keith Robinson and David Finckel, who is the Co-Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and leader of the sextet.

While this entire concert was absolutely wonderful, it was the definitive performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) for String Sextet Op. 4 that brought this concert to the top of the list. My review used the word “scorching” and that was an understatement. My effusive review can be found here.


 3  Classical Masters Festival: Concert 3

Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra

Aug. 28

Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth

Photo: Ellen Appel/The Cliburn
Vadym Kholodenko


This concert was marked by some remarkably precise and musically refined performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G minor by Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya. But it was the magnificent performance of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto by reigning Cliburn Gold Medalist, Vadym Kholodenko, that brought this concert to this list. He made this familiar concerto sound completely new with his musical interpretation and attention to detail with out ever distorting Beethoven’s intent. A remarkable performance considering the tragedy of his children being killed earlier in the year. My review is here.


 4  Mostly Schubert’s Last Year

The Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth

May 14

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Photo: Courtesy
Allessandro Deljavan


CMSFW brought back the Italian pianist Alessandro Deljavan, a controversial contestant in the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. While this may be an unexpected choice, what made this concert special is that Artistic Director didn’t bring him back as a fiery soloist with astounding technical prowess. Instead, Deljavan was here to display his formidable talents as a collaborative pianist.

We heard marvelous performances of Schumann’s Sonata in A Minor for violin and piano with artistic director Gary Levinson joining Deljavan. Cellist Andrés Díaz joined the two artists for the second half of the program, which featured Schubert’s Piano Trio in B-flat Major.

However, it was a performance of a piece that is rarely heard on chamber music programs, Schubert’s entrancing Fantasy in F Minor for piano four-hands (two pianists at the same keyboard) that was the take-away. Deljavan was joined by the Dallas-based virtuoso pianist Baya Kakouberi, giving it a lilting performance.


 5  A Life in Song: Frederica von Stade with Jake Heggie

The Dallas Opera’s Titus Art Song Recital Series

Jan. 31

Dallas City Performance Hall

Photo: Lieberman Photography
Frederica von Stade


The recital by mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade with composer Jake Heggie at the piano, courtesy of The Dallas Opera’s Titus Art Song Recital Series, was a magical experience. To quote myself: “The concert, titled ‘A Life in Song,’ was an autobiographical collection of her favorite songs from a career that spans 45 years and appearances in major opera houses and concert halls around the world.” The phrase “you had to be there” was never more appropriate. My review is here.


 6  ReMix: Carnival at the Symphony

Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Sept. 9

Dallas City Performance Hall

Photo: Chris Lee
Case Scaglione


The Dallas Symphony’s first ReMix concert of the season was so excellent that I wandered, “Is it possible that one of the concerts, eventually on the Top Ten list, would occur on opening night?” And so it did.

The program started out with Mozart’s Serenata notturna and progressed to Igor Stravinsky’s Danses concertantes, a masterpiece of his so-called neoclassical period. But the jewel was Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals (1886) for chamber ensemble. The lion’s share of the credit goes to guest conductor Case Scaglione. He is a brilliant talent with an impeccable baton technique and sure musical instincts. The DSO would do well to take a serious look at him for the soon-to–be-vacated musical directorship of the DSO. (But better move quickly before he is snatched up.) My review is here.


 7  JFK

Fort Worth Opera

April 23

Bass Performance Hall

Photo: Nine Photography
Matthew Worth and Daniela Mack as JFK and Jackie in JFK at the Fort Worth Opera


The Fort Worth Opera’s JFK, by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, deserves a spot on this list. It was a wild drug-induced ride through some important scenes from the life of the President. It was a far cry from the chamber opera Dog Days by the same pair (seen in a previous season at Fort Worth Opera). The production was as fantastical as the narrative and the musical kaleidoscope moved from neoromantic swells to crass pseudo-country/western ditties.  My review is here.


 8  Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1

Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Feb. 25

Meyerson Symphony Center

Photo: Festival de Saint-Denis
James Gaffigan


Another possibility for the DSO to consider as musical director is conductor James Gaffigan. In February, he conducted a spectacular performance of Tchaikovsky’s much-loved Piano Concerto No. 1 with the young Uzbek-born pianist Behzod Abduraimov. The program opened with John Adams’ Tromba lontana (“Distant Trumpet”), dating from 1986, featuring antiphonal trumpeters Ryan Anthony and Kevin Finamore. Aaron Copland’s Quiet City followed with English Hornist David Matthews replacing Finamore. The program ended with a marvelous performance of Schumann’s Symphony No. 4. While not a barnburner like the Tchaikovsky concerto, Gaffigan’s involving performance kept the audience entranced. My review is here.


 9  Pipedreams Live!

Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Oct. 23

Meyerson Symphony Center

Photo: WikiMedia Commons
The Lay Family Organ


The sadly ignored Lay Family Organ, a magnificent instrument housed in the Meyerson Symphony Center, got a workout in October when the American Pubic Media radio program Pipedreams Live! came to visit.

The program opened with James Diaz, the organist and choirmaster from 1988 at Saint Michael and All Angels Church in Dallas, one of the country’s largest Episcopal Churches. Scott Dettra, director of music and organist at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, was up next.  The next two organists represented the new generation of virtuosi. First was Jonathan Gregoire, who is the associate director of music at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano.  The program ended with Monica Czausz who is both the organist at Christ Church in Houston since 2015 and perusing a master’s degree in organ performance at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. The program was too much of a potpourri, but hearing the organ played by different organists brought out its amazing variety of sounds. We need more programs than use this instrument—the crown jewel of the Meyerson. My review is here.


 10  Heroes

Turtle Creek Chorale

March 30

Dallas City Performance Hall

Photo: Michael McGary
The Turtle Creek Chorale's Heroes concert


The Turtle Creek Chorale presented a collage of music by some of today’s best composers to honor the memory of Tyler Clementi. In 2010, Tyler Clementi, a promising violinist in his first year at Rutgers University, was cyber bullied. Using a webcam, his roommate caught Clementi in an intimate act with another guy and posted the video online. It went viral. Suddenly the safety of being away at college and having privacy in his own room vanished. Clementi, who came out to his parents before leaving for college, was ridiculed. He jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death. The collected work, called “Heroes,” was curated by Stephen Schwartz, the highly successful Broadway composer and lyricist of GodspellWicked, and many other musicals. He invited some distinguished composers and songwriters to each contribute one song/movement. Ann Hampton Callaway, John Corigliano, Stephen Flaherty, Jake Heggie, Mark Adamo, Craig Carnelia, Nolan Gasser and Lance Horne. My review is here.


Honorable Mentions:  

The Orchestra of New Spain is doing baroque recreation, both with music and onstage with costumes and acting, like no one else. Its February presentation of José de Nebra's 1747 zarzuela Iphigenia en Tracia at Dallas City Performance Hall was another fine example. My review is here.

The revival of The Dallas Opera commission, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s masterpiece Moby-Dick, was the same but also completely different. The difference was the presence on the podium of TDO’s Musical Director Emmanuel Villaume. Previously, in the hands of the excellent conductor Patrick Summers, the opera received a crisp and clear performance as befits a modern opera. Villaume approached it as the most recent installment of a line of romantic Italianate operas: from Bellini to Puccini to Barber. It was a wonderful performance of an opera, transformed by a conductor’s approach. My review is here.




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2016 in Review: Music
Chief Classical Music and Opera critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs picks his favorite performances of 2016.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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