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2017: Music, Part 1

Chief music and opera critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs remembers his favorite music and opera performances of the year.

published Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Photo: Tim Tremble/Arizona Opera
Cruzar la Cara de la Luna at Fort Worth Opera


This year ended with a major surprise in the local music world: the resignation of Keith Cerny, General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. As of this writing, the dust is still in the air and the lack of information makes it is impossible to even say why he's leaving for the Calgary Opera. But, upon some reflection, Calgary isn’t such a surprise since that company was one of the co-commissioners of the hit world premiere opera, Moby-Dick. It is a much smaller company, though. Kern Wildenthal becomes the interim General Director.

Cerny was not the only high-level change, Jonathan Martin, CEO of the Dallas Symphony, resigned, in what is the last season for Music Director Jaap van Zweden, who will take his previously announced post at the New York Philharmonic with the 2018-’19 season.

Amy Adkins, President of the Fort Worth Symphony, resigned after a season that was half shut-down due to the musicians’ strike in the last half of 2016. David Hyslop temporarily stepped in, but he was soon out. And in another opera shocker, Darren K. Woods, who transformed the Fort Worth Opera, was fired in February, before the 2017 festival. In late summer, the opera announced his replacement, Tuomas Hiltunen, who came in and restructured the staff and canceled the previously announced Das Rheingold in the 2018 Fort Worth Opera Festival—too costly. (That Wagner work was not picked by Woods.)

In 2018, we'll probabably learn the replacements for Cerny, Martin, van Zweden, and Adkins.

One outstanding chamber music organization, The Hall Ensemble, gave its last concert in March. This innovative group presented delightful concerts in non-concert hall venues. They presented music in new arrangements and gave a number of world premieres. They are missed already.

All this is very sad, but made sadder by the explosion of performing arts organizations and the constantly rising level of performances.

Opera America held its national convention here and The Dallas Opera rolled out the red runners. This event, which attracted all the players in the opera biz, solidified TDO’s reputation as a major opera company: innovative, fiscally secure, nimble, in possession of one of the best opera houses in existence, and able to mount world-class productions. Cerny’s departure cannot dim this lasting impression.

Another major event was the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Thirty competitors from all over the world came to Fort Worth to compete for glory and a major career boost. Unlike the 2013 competition, when Vadym Kholodenko was the obvious winner from his first appearance, no one competitor stood out. While some were obviously outclassed and some outstanding pianists didn’t advance, the final winners were generally considered to deserve the laurels, if not in the same order selected by the jury. The overall impression of two weeks of pianism is that the trend of playing loud and very fast still wins the day, at least in competitions. I reviewed every performance from the preliminaries to the final rounds and they can all be found here.

Chamber music hit many high points in 2017. We are blessed with several fine chamber music organizations and they are all different. Dallas Chamber Music presents the top touring ensembles. So does the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, which also assembles groups for specific concerts. Chamber Music International relies on a group of magnificent players to present widely different concerts. Blue Candlelight Music Series presents concerts in a private home especially designed for the purpose. They also feature a stable of players as well as touring groups. Fine Arts Chamber Players presents local artists in free concerts at the Dallas Museum of Art. We also have new music champions Voices of Change, baroque lovers Dallas Bach Society, and more.

While it is impossible to rank so many fine performances, here are some standouts in no particular order.





Photo: Jamie Jung
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein

One performance that stood out was on a Dallas Symphony concert in late November, conducted by Jaap van Zweden. We heard a spectacular performance of Prokofiev's transcendentally difficult Sinfonia Concertante for cello, with the extraordinary Alisa Weilerstein doing the honors. It was a stunning and revelatory performance. Unfortunately, the second half of the program, a leaden and ponderous performance of Schumann’s third symphony, kept the entire concert from the list. My review is here.

Another individual performance of a concerto on a generally disappointing concert was conducted by another possible candidate for the DSO podium, Jakub Hrůša. He has impressed in the past but he overplayed the big moments and overgestured much of the time. What was spectacular was the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang’s astounding performance of Benjamin Britten’s brilliant, but rarely performed, Violin Concerto. The audience was so impressed that the applause started while she was still holding the last note. My review is here.

The Fort Worth Symphony presented a marvelous concert with another young and promising conductor who could also be a DSO candidate, Nicholas Carter. The musical selections were excellently programed and audience-pleasers. He opened with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ transcendentally gorgeous Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and ended with Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations (officially known as Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36). The firebrand pianist, Behzod Abduraimov, born in 1990 in Uzbekistan, gave an impressive and percussive performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1. While Carter’s stick technique tends to large-scale swoops, his musicianship and knowledge of the architecture of what he is conducting overcomes his occasional lack of clarity. My review is here.



Photo: Dario Acosta
Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado


In early November James Gaffigan, one of the oft-mentioned replacements for DSO Music Director Jaap van Zweden, delivered a high voltage concert with the Dallas Symphony. He opened with a jaunty reading of Aaron Copland’s delightful El Salón México. Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini followed with the superb pianist, Stephen Hough setting the piece on fire. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 got an equally incendiary performance to end the 110-degrees-in-the-shade concert. My review is here.

In October, we saw another possible music director replacement. The Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado presented a concert of all French music. He is a hot property these days with guest conductor slots with most of the major orchestras. He is young, handsome and sports a head full of tousled curly hair—all of which helps endear him to audiences. He gave two French masterpieces, Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s Suite No. 2 from his ballet Daphnis et Chloe more rousing performances than is usually heard; but they were still effective. But this high-energy approach worked to his advantage when he was joined by French pianist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, in a jaw-dropping performance of the exceptionally difficult Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. My review is here.

Regretfully, I was not able to attend the DSO’s landmark performance of a rarely heard masterpiece, Edward Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, because the Cliburn was at the same time. From all reports, it belongs on everyone’s end-of-year lists. A review by music critic Wayne Lee Gay can be found here.





Journalists rarely use the word “unique,” but that is the only word to describe the October concert presented by the Soundings: New Music at the Nasher concert series. The innovative ensemble Third Coast Percussion performed a live soundtrack to a 1966 Oscar-nominated movie, Paddle to the Sea. There is so much to say about this concert that I can’t go into it in this format. You can read my review, which has a full discussion of what went on here.

A second unique concert was presented in March by the Dallas Chamber Music Society. A singing group called Roomful of Teeth defied all expectations Monday night at SMU's Caruth Auditorium.  Here is what I said in my review: “They sang music that was highly dissonant, yet tonal in places. In place of a text made of understandable words, they used aspirations without a pitch and various clicks, clucks and sighs, counting numbers out loud that seemed to be architectural measurement and words spoken so quickly and compressed that it sounded like a crowded lobby.”

A third concert, while not unique, featured a concert of rarely performed lute music played Ronn McFarlane, one of the world's premier lutenists. Presented by the Allegro Guitar Society, the concert featured music from the 1500’s to the present with music written by lutenists. My review is here.

The Atrium Quartet made a most welcome return to the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth series on Nov. 11. They played Brahms’ String Quartet No. 2 and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 2, Op. 18. Both are well-known and beloved works. The Atrium delivered a superb performance of both. In between, before intermission, they sandwiched in Shostakovich’s weird String Quartet No. 12. Here is what I said: “They make it seem like the listener has the score right in front of them. This is a level of clarity that you would think is nearly impossible to realize. As the concert progressed, I tried to understand how they achieve this remarkable effect but it remains a mystery.” My compete review is here.

In November, Blue Candlelight Music Series presented a dual recital played by executive director of the series, Baya Kakouberi, and her husband, violinist Gary Levinson, who is the Senior Associate Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth. They opened with Gabriel Fauré’s first violin sonata. Following this, Kakouberi delivered a magnificent performance of Debussy’s suite for piano, Estampes. Back together as a duo, they played Ernst Chausson’s Poème and closed with Saint-Saëns’ rarely played sonata (because it is so difficult). My review is here.





Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
Norma at Dallas Opera

The Orchestra of New Spain, which started out as a group performing early music on period instruments, has moved into being an opera company. This is because of the success of its first incursions into the genre. In 2017, ONS made an incursion into dance as well. In February, they presented a concert that combined two related, but very different, performances simultaneously. As I said in a review: “One was a Baroque setting of the Catholic Mass composed in 1750 by Francisco Courcelle. The other is the flamenco troupe headed by San Francisco-based flamenco dancer Danica Sena. The two different art forms alternated. To add to the time warp, dancers from the local Avant Chamber Ballet performed a modern dance expression of the mass. Modernist quasi-religious paintings by artist Juan Carlos del Valle, both striking and inspirational, were projected on a screen in the back.” You can read the complete review here.

The Dallas Opera had an incredible year, including a superlative production of Bellini’s Norma, which would be at the top of my list. The also presented a marvelous production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, which gets an honorable mention. Rather than going into detail about these marvelous productions, I refer you to my complete reviews: Turn of the Screw and Norma.

However, this was just the regular TDO offering. At the Opera America convention, in addition to hosting four days of seminars and roundtables, TDO presented a semi-staged version of Joby Talbot’s Everest, Douglas J. Cuomo’s Arjuna’s Dilemma, and a performance of BreakThru films’ The Magic Piano with pianist Derek Wang offering a live soundtrack. Here is my complete report on the convention.

Fort Worth’s adventurous opera company presented the North Texas premiere of the mariachi opera Cruzar la Cara de la Luna. The chamber opera has few characters, minimal sets and authentic costumes. The plot is about the painful division of Mexican families caused by the American border. Instead of the tradition orchestra in the opera pit, this work has a large mariachi band in a semi circle across the back of the stage. It was unexpectedly terrific and left many in the audience in tears. My review is here.

FWO gets two gold stars, one star for presenting the world premiere of Voir Dire, and another star in that the opera grew out of its incubator program, Frontiers. The courtroom opera, Voir Dire, presents different cases, from pathetic to silly, in their preliminary hearings. Over all this hangs an important case. It is about the sentencing of an already convicted teenage boy who murdered his mother in a horrific way, by burning her alive. My review is here.

Here’s to an even better year in 2018.


» J. Robin Coffelt's thoughts on the year in music

» Andrew Anderson's most memorable classical recordings of the year Thanks For Reading

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2017: Music, Part 1
Chief music and opera critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs remembers his favorite music and opera performances of the year.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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