<em>Carmen</em>&nbsp;at Dallas Opera
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The Year in Music, Part 1

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs runs down the year in music and opera, and picks his 10 favorite performances.

published Sunday, December 30, 2018

Photo: Ben Torres/Fort Worth Opera
Don Pasquale at Fort Worth Opera


My initial list for the Top Ten list ran to 26 possible entries. This embarrassment of riches leaves me completely bewildered on how to even begin to choose. Of course, there is the old problem of scale, such as deciding between a huge production of an explosive opera with a sedately memorizing guitarist. Another conundrum is the situation of one spectacular performance on an otherwise ordinary, or worse, concert. Think about the fact that you easily fill such a list with opera alone. Then, there is the all-too-common artist mismatch situation. For example, hearing an uncomfortable pairing of a fine soloist with a recalcitrant musical partner: do I praise just one?

So, what’s a critic to do? The dartboard solution? Ouija board? How about the advice I got from my college Italian teacher when I ask her if there was any way to get an “A” that semester? “Prega per Santo Jude,” she said.



It starts with an example of the critic’s difficulty. In February, The Dallas Opera presented a delightful production of Korngold’s one-act Viennese confection, The Ring of Polykrates. It was terrific, but it was paired with a struggling performance of the composer’s violin concerto by Augustin Dumay.

TDO tripped out with Michel van der Aa’s opera, The Sunken Garden, which uses live action, 3-D video, and holograms. The singers are alive, dead, and somewhere in between. TDO brought us a superb performance of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. They also mounted a fine performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, but the set did nothing to advance the action or even place it in a locality. The same problem occurred in Houston with the same opera: a musically excellent production and bizarre set was set in some bizarre factory.

Photo: Merri Cyr
Nadine Sierra

TDO’s Carmen was simply magnificent but once again hampered by the set crowding the action. However, it featured two very different but equally wonderful conductors. One was Emanuel Villaume and substituting for him was Pierre Vallet, who will hopefully return in the future. The highlight of this Carmen was Stéphanie d’Oustrac, who simply owns the role and the first performance of Don Jose by tenor Stephen Costello. Bravi to both.

TDO also presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Villaume on the podium. But the role of the Don was taken on by the understudy, baritone Craig Verm, who wowed not only local audiences but caused an international sensation.

New York’s Metropolitan Opera mounted Bizet’s Pearl Fishers with a masterful Emanuel Villaume in the pit working against a cramped vaguely Asian cityscape dominated by a roadside-style billboard with a woman’s face advertising nothing discernable. Villaume also conducted a dynamite performance of Puccini’s Tosca, stepping in the James Levine.

The University of North Texas College of Music faculty now boasts Jonathan Eaton, one of the most creative stage directors working today. He gave us three astounding performances: a gritty version of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, a condensed, very dark and de-sugared version of Gounod’s Faust and a jaunty trip to the animal kingdom with Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen.

The Fort Worth Opera gave us a good laugh with Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. The Orchestra of New Spain continued to give us fascinating historical versions of Baroque Operas with Francisco Courcelle's 1744 opera Achilles in Skyros.

One important performance that fell under the radar was a new opera about our armed forces. The opera was The Falling and the Rising, with music by Zach Redler on a libretto by Jerre Dye. It is based on the true stories of injured soldiers and their heroic struggles to persevere in the face of adversity. Conductor Tyson Deaton was magnificent in keeping the poignant character of the story from being over flooded by the slightly overly romantic music. It was impossible not to be moved by the performance.

The opera was commissioned by the U.S. Army Field Band and Soldier's Chorus to be specific. The Falling and the Rising was co-commissioned by a collection of opera companies in addition to the army: Seattle Opera, San Diego Opera, Arizona Opera and Opera Memphis. But there are also some non-opera companies in on the commission including Fort Worth's Texas Christian University and the Seagle Music Colony, which is run by Darren K. Woods, former General Director of Fort Worth Opera.



The Dallas Opera presented its orchestra in a concert conducted by Music Director Emmanuel Villaume It was not a surprise that they played at the level of most if not all professional orchestras. The surprise was the performance of Rachmaninoff’s ever-popular third piano concerto by the pianist Andrew von Oeyen. For once, a pianist played the music and not the flash in a revealing performance.

The big news was the announcement by the Dallas Symphony of Italian conductor Fabio Luisi granted a five-year contract as Music Director, beginning in the 2020-2021 season. He plans to commission 20 new works, half by women. His audition concert on March 13 was really quite wonderful, if a little overblown. The program was huge, and so was the orchestra for Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, but wisely pared down considerably for the program opener, Beethoven’ Piano Concerto No. 4 with pianist Lise de la Salle.

The highlight of the DSO this season was undoubtedly on Feb. 24 when they played a mind-blowing performance of Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 2. Outgoing Music Director Jaap Van Zweden was at his very best, as were mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and the Dallas Symphony Chorus, under the direction of Joshua Habermann.

In January, the DSO gave a memorable performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with violinist Nicola Benedetti as soloist, Sibelius’ rarely heard Symphony No. 7, and Beethoven’s masterful Leonore Overture No. 3. Maestro Donald Runnicles was terrific. Some thought that he might make a good replacement for Van Zweden when the concert was over.

The Fort Worth Symphony gave us the chance to hear Joaquin Achúcarro, the 85-year-old Basque pianist. He has been on the faculty of Southern Methodist University since the 1980’s. Combined with the orchestra’s Peruvian-born music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya on the podium, the all-Spanish program was appropriate. Achúcarro played Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and Albéniz’s Rapsodia Española feature a piano soloist, with extensive and challenging music to play, but is a part of the orchestra. The rest of the program was more ordinary but Achúcarro’s performance will always stick in my memory.



In November, The Dallas Chamber Music Society presented the return of the Paris-based Modigliani Quartet at Southern Methodist University's Caruth Auditorium. The excellence of this performance is hard to put into words.

Not to be outdone, the Chamber Music Society of Worth gave us a rare treat to hear the Díaz Trio. The violinist is the Cuban-born virtuoso Andrés Cárdenes, who is equally well known as a conductor. On viola, we have the Chilean-American Roberto Díaz who, after a series of principal chairs in top orchestras, assumed the role of President/Director of the storied Curtis Institute. The cellist is his equally marvelous brother, Andrés Díaz, who won the 1986 Naumburg Prize and now teaches at Southern Methodist University. The program ended with the highlight, Gabriel Fauré’s divine Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 15. The Díaz Trio was joined by the Taiwanese-born pianist Gloria Chen.



Photo: Peter Grote
Anna Malikova

Summer is piano time in Fort Worth. PianoTexas presents some of the top pianists in the world and more music lovers should attend. The highlight was a fiery recital by superstar and Cliburn Gold Medalist Olga Kern. The eagerly anticipated Islamey by Mily Balakirev at the close of this huge program sent the audience into a frenzy. Also, Uzbek pianist Anna Malikova made an extraordinary American debut at Texas Christian University's PianoTexas Festival. Bring her back, please.

Speaking of Cliburn Gold, The Blue Candlelight Music Series presented another such honoree, Alexander Kobrin. A bigger contrast to Kern is hard to imagine. He is equally famous for his absolute mastery of technique, quiet musicianship and stoic presence. No one ever accused Kobrin of showmanship or even of having a drop of charisma. But the music-making was marvelous.

Speaking of a lack of charisma by a top-ranked artist, Allegro Guitar Society/Fort Worth Classic Guitar Society gave the November pair of recitals played by the Grammy-winning guitarist, Jason Vieaux. Drawn from his inner world, his playing was astounding. 

Soprano Nadine Sierra was in top form performing for the Dallas Opera's Titus Art Song Recital Series in January. This series is one of the gold star events in the Metroplex.



Mention must be made of Verdigris Ensemble. Here is what I said and I stand by it every time I hear/see them perform.If you think that a choral concert consists of a group of singers on risers singing a range of music from uninteresting to esoteric, passing through wonderful on occasion, then you haven’t seen Verdigris Ensemble.” Sam Brukhman’s innovative chorale, populated by some of the top local singers, is always as excellent as it is surprising.  A recent concert paired them with the Avant Chamber Ballet in a creative collaboration. The choir moves around while they sing, always in a manner appropriate to the music. The group’s The Consolation of Apollo performance in April was a highlight of the year.



That’s a lot to talk about in a busy year, and if you want it in Top 10 form, here goes. My favorite music and opera events of the year are below, listed in chronological order:


The Complete Brandenburg Concerti of J.S. Bach, Dallas Bach Society at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, Dallas, performed on historically correct instruments (Dec. 31, 2017 — technically not this year, but we’ll let it slide)


Nadine Sierra, presented in the Dallas Opera’s Titus Art Song Recital Series at Moody Performance Hall (January)


Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, The Dallas Symphony at the Meyerson Symphony Center (February)


The Consolation of Apollo, Verdigris Ensemble at the Planetarium at the University of Texas at Arlington (April)


Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Fort Worth Opera at Bass Performance Hall (May)


Anna Malikova, piano, presented by PianoTexas Festival at Texas Christian University


The Díaz Trio with pianist Gloria Chen, presented by Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (September)


Bizet’s Carmen, The Dallas Opera at the Winspear Opera House (October)


Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, University of North Texas College of Music (November)


Modigliani Quartet, presented by Dallas Chamber Music Society at SMU’s Caruth Auditorium (November)


Honorable mention goes to Voices of Change for everything they do to keep the music of our time in front of the public. All their concerts are outstanding.  We grieve with them over the death of William F. Barstow, who died in September. He served as President of the Voices of Change and was its leading light.


Announcements, appointments, and departures of note

In April, The Dallas Opera announced the appointment of Ian Derrer as its next general director and chief executive officer, effective July 2018. He leaves his post at the Kentucky Opera.

In May, the Fort Worth Symphony announced that Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya would leave at the end of the 2019-2020 season. A search for his replacement has begun.

In June, the Dallas Symphony announced Fabio Luisi as its new Music Director, replacing Jaap van Zweden, who left for the New York Philharmonic.

In July, John von Rhein, classical music critic of the Chicago Tribune since 1977, retired from his post. He is one of the greats and will be missed.

In August, The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra announced the appointment of Keith Cerny, recently General Director and CEO of the Dallas Opera, as its next president and CEO, as of January 2019. He leaves the Calgary Opera.

In October we lost one of the most beautiful voices in the worked with the death of Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé. Check out her CD with Freddie Mercury in Barcelona if you want to be astounded.





Friday, December 28

Saturday, December 29

Sunday, December 30

Monday, December 31

  • The Year in Performing Arts Books by Cathy Ritchie
  • The Year in Classical Music Recordings by Andrew Anderson
  • The Year in Theatrical Recordings by Jay Gardner
  • The Year in Film by Bart Weiss
  • The Year in Performing Arts News by Mark Lowry

Tuesday, January 1

  • The Year in Theater by Frank Garrett
  • The Year in Theater by Jan Farrington
  • The Year in Theater by Janice L. Franklin
  • The Year in Theater by Martha Heimberg
  • The Year in Theater by Teresa Marrero
  • The Year in Theater by Jill Sweeney

Wednesday, January 2

  • The Year in Theater by Mark Lowry

Thursday, January 3

  • A challenge for our readers

Friday, January 4

  • Looking ahead to 2019
 Thanks For Reading

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The Year in Music, Part 1
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs runs down the year in music and opera, and picks his 10 favorite performances.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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