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2019 IN REVIEW

The Magic Flute at Dallas Opera
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2019 in Music, Part 1

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs outlines his favorite performances of the year in six movements.



published Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
The Magic Flute at Dallas Opera

 

PRELUDE

This past year was full of wonders and surprises, I heard some terrific concerts and operas as well as discovering some new artists and, most importantly, hearing some new music. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend as many performances as I would have wished, so there are some gaping holes in this year’s summary of goings-on in the Metroplex in classical music. This will not be the case is 2020.

 

 

I. THEMES AND VARIATIONS

Outstanding individual performances

 

Photo: Barbara Luisi
Fabio Luisi

 

Roman Rabinovich, piano

The Cliburn

Kimbell Art Museum

Nov. 24

My review

Rabinovich appeared on this Cliburn concert as the pianist for cellist Camille Thomas. While her performance was excellent overall, I had some reservations about her approach to the instrument in general. But as the concert went on, Rabinovich began to come into focus as, probably, one of the best collaborative pianists that I have ever heard. He closed the deal with his amazing and intuitive performance of famously difficult piano part of Franck’s Violin Sonata as arranged for cello.


Fabio Luisi

Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony

Meyerson Symphony Center

September

My review

The debut concert of a new music director is always an important event, much like the coronation of a minor potentate. For this opening concert of the 2019-2020 season — the first full season with Luisi as Music Director Designate — Luisi took the podium recently occupied by the force on nature that is Jaap Van Zweden (now at the New York Philharmonic), all musical eyes turned to Dallas. Luisi is completely different. While he is every bit as exciting as his predecessor, he is not as prone to the micro-management that constricts some of his performances. I have had some reservations about him in the past, particularly in a few misfires at the Met, but endorsed his appointment when he conducted his “audition” performance at the DSO. In this concert, he did what was required.  He wowed the audience, confirmed the wisdom of his appointment, and appeared to be appreciated by the orchestra. He also proved that he can whip up Category 5 storm with his dynamic reading of the musical depiction of one in Strauss’ “Alpine” Symphony. But he really won my heart by programming Aureole, a relatively new work by an American composer, not to mention a woman composer, Augusta Read Thomas. Let us hope that works like this continue to appear. He has promised a number of new commissions, with at least half to be by women. Get excited, Dallas. 

 

II. INVENTION

Outstanding world premiere

 

Photo: YouTube
Composer George Tsontakis


Concerto No. 3

 

By George Tsontakis

Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Meyerson Symphony Center

September

My review

Concerto No. 3 was commissioned from composer George Tsontakis and written specifically for DSO Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster Gary Levinson and conducted by Robert Spano.

The concerto is a combination of neo-romantic, modernist, and even some jazz influences. The composer uses a five-note motive that moves by upward leaps and bases the entire work on that musical gesture.  Instead of using its discrete repetitions as building blocks for an ever-higher structure, Tsontakis lays his motivic bricks side by side and builds the piece in a process of accumulation. Even the scherzo movement’s theme is a hurried version of this seminal motif.

As Tsontakis manipulates this sparse piece of music in a Beethoven-like manner, his concerto begins to sound vaguely familiar even on the first hearing. But our patience is rewarded at the very end when he finally reveals it, all assembled, as a lovely and singingly neo-romantic melody. But even then, he continues to let the orchestra bubble in discontentment under Levinson’s gorgeous melodic realization and Spano’s empathetic conducting.

 

III. RONDO

Outstanding chamber music

 

Photo: Lawrence Semrad
Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth performing in October

 

Fine Art Chamber Players

Women of Note

Dallas Museum of Art, Horchow Auditorium

March

My review

In honor of Women’s History Month, the Fine Arts Chamber Players presented a fascinating concert on March 23 featuring almost all women composers. It was a delightful afternoon of excellent players performing mostly unknown music by equally unknown women composers.

The musicians that performed this exceptionally superb concert are all associated with Opus Nova, a chamber music group. Opus Nova’s mission statement (from their website) describes the group as a “Fort Worth-based chamber music series devoted to enriching lives by presenting a refined and eclectic chamber music experience in traditional and alternative venues.” The pianist that joined them was the superb Daniel Anastasio, a concert musician, but all of the instrumentalists are also members of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

 

 

Modigliani Quartet

Dallas Chamber Music

SMU, Caruth Auditorium

Dallas

November

My review

The Dallas Chamber Music Society presented the welcome return of the Paris-based Modigliani Quartet at Southern Methodist University's Caruth Auditorium. The last time they were here they impressed. This time, they were even better, performing Haydn’s Quartet in D Minor, Op. 76, No. 2, “Quinten”; and Ravel’s Quartet in F Major. For the second half of the program, they were joined by pianist Fabio Bidini on Dvořák’s beloved Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81.

In a way, it was the composers that stood out. These performances were so clean and thoughtfully played that the listener became aware of the genius of Haydn and Dvořák, and especially Ravel.

These thoughts were going through my mind as I heard the performance and I realized how infrequently I can get my attention out of the notes and performance peccadillos and actually hear, even see, the music. I look forward to their next return.

 

 

Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth

Which Instrument Matters?

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

October

My review

Violinist and Artistic Director Gary Levinson was assisted by several of the CMSFW superior regulars in the varied program. Violinist Swang Lin is the Associate Concertmaster of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. The French-American cellist Jesús Castro-Balbi is a Professor of Cello at Texas Christian University. Violist Michael Klotz produces a sound on the viola that is, in my experience, unmatched. In addition to touring as a soloist and chamber musician, Klotz is also a dedicated pedagogue. Currently, he is on the faculty of The Heifetz International Music Institute.

The revelation of the day was the impressive performance delivered by the Boston-based pianist Asiya Korepanova, a CMSFW newcomer. The statuesque Russian pianist, with a riot of red hair, immediately proved that she is not only a superb soloist but an exceptional collaborative pianist as well. This is no easy task.

Her dynamic level was always appropriate to the intent of the music. She brought out what was important, even a single chord in one passage, but retreated to a supportive position in such a manner to catch the ear of even the most knowledgeable listener. This program was piano-heavy and so she had the even more difficult role of subtly underwriting the interpretive direction without appearing to do so.

 

IV. ARIA

Outstanding opera performances

 

Photo: Bree Nichols
If I Loved You... at UNT Opera

 

The Magic Flute

The Dallas Opera

AT&T Performing Arts Center, Winspear Opera House

October

My review

This performance, heard on opening night, is terrific in almost all respects. The cast is generally excellent and, as a bonus, there are even some real standouts. Maestro Emmanuel Villaume’s extensive research into the score presents a refreshing new take on the music that will delight those familiar with the music, but even first-timers will be surprised by the freshness he brings to whatever they may have expected.

Director Kyle Lang keeps the show moving without extraneous busyness or commentary. The orchestra and chorus are in top form and you will soon forget that it is being performed in the original German by the slightly modernized supertitles. The hand-painted sets, colorful costumes and a fantastical group of forest animals, are museum-worthy.

 

If I Loved You…

University of North Texas Opera

Murchison Performing Arts Center, Denton

May

My review 

The remarkably original Jonathan Eaton is always a surprise. He is the Director of Opera at the University of North Texas and he has put that company on the map in just a few years. This astonishment continued when I attended his and Robert Frankenberry’s original dramatic revue If I Loved You… in April. The revue utilized a wealth of Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, linking them together in a new dramatic scenario, with new dialogue and contemporary characters. It was delightful, engaging, moving and gloriously sung.

 

V. SCHERZO

Outstanding solo recitals

 

Photo: Chris Lee
Olga Kern

 

Simon O'Neill, heldentenor

The Dallas Opera

Titus Art Song series

Moody Performance Hall

February

My review

Robert E. and Jean Ann Titus Art Song Recital Series through The Dallas Opera is a local gem This series grows out of a family tradition of a love of art songs and the series brings a great variety of singers. Some are more known for song recitals and dabble in opera (Ian Bostridge immediately comes to mind) and the opposite, opera singers who occasionally sing recitals.

The concert on Jan. 27 featured the latter. Namely, one of today’s the leading Wagnerian tenors: Simon O'Neill from New Zealand. Since art songs require an evenly matched duo, O’Neill fortunately brought the sensitive collaborative pianist Terence Dennis with him. He also treated u to some Wagnerian selections.

Vocally, O’Neill sounded slightly different in the art songs and the operatic selections. In opera, he sounded more like a baritone and in the songs, he sounded more like a tenor. He sings with a relatively high larynx, lowering it for the arias. But he is a true heldentenor without a hint of the Italianate high notes such as those in Puccini and Verdi (with the possible exception of Otello.) Such a voice is indeed a rarity and it was a distinct pleasure to hear him in a relatively small venue as opposed to large opera houses.

 

Pascal Rogè, piano

PianoTexas International Festival and Academy

Texas Christian University, PepsiCo Recital Hall

June

My review 

Tamas Ungar, Artistic Director and Professor of Music at TCU, turned the festival’s direction to focus on French music in 2019. The opening concert certainly accomplished that goal right off the bat with a revelatory recital by Pascal Rogé. He was the perfect choice for this opening concert in that his résumé is purely French. He was born in Paris and studied at the Paris Conservatory. The effect of the entire recital was enlightening. Hearing Rogé’s highly personal take on French music created curiosity in any of the attendees as to how the other French pianists take on the same musical genre.

 

Olga Kern, piano

The Cliburn

Kimbell Art Museum

October

My review

Olga Kern’s varied program was a veritable piano feast. Her approach is marked by her absolute enjoyment of playing the piano for us. She doesn't convey the usual “recital hall performance attitude” that is so common among artists of her status and ability. Rather, we feel invited in as guests, rather than as ticket buyers, as if she is sharing her favorite pieces in her living room.

But this doesn’t mean she plays a casual, relaxed performance. The opposite, rather. Indeed, her playing-for-friends approach inspires her to greater heights. It allows her the freedom to let loose and play these pieces with the abandon that her secure technique and finely honed musicianship allows.

Kern plays with polish and power but even in her most forceful moments, she never overplays the instrument. Instead, it sounds like multiple pianists are playing on multiple pianos. Her softest touch never fails to speak, which is even more difficult to achieve.

 

 

VI. ALLEGRO GIOCOSO

Outstanding holiday performances

 

Photo: Radz D. Photography
The Women\'s Chorus of Dallas

 

Dallas Bach Society

Handel’s Messiah

Meyerson Symphony Center

December

My review

 

This was one of the most enjoyable performances of this iconic work that I have ever experienced. Too oft overblown and turgid, this was a Messiah that was light on its feet and, well…, “bounced.” Adding to the agility and clarity of this alert performance, Richman’s perky pace was relatively consistent throughout — if allowing for the tempo difference created by time signatures. Further, Richman used forces that resembled the small number of performers that sang the 1742 premiere: 25 singers, harpsichord, and a small Baroque orchestra playing on period instruments. So, turgid and overblown it was not. I left the hall energized by what I had heard.

 

Women’s Chorus of Dallas

Chillin’

Moody Performance Hall

December

My review

Since this was my first visit, I didn’t quite know what to expect when I attended the concert presented by The Woman’s Chorus of Dallas on Dec. 8. What I discovered was a delightful, unpretentious, and musically satisfying concert that celebrated the holiday season with a combination of Christmas, Hanukah, secular seasonal selections, and a touch of show biz. I also heard some excellent singing, well conducted by Music Director Melinda Imthurn, and accompanied by Will Varner on the piano assisted by a string quintet. But most importantly, I felt the camaraderie of all assembled — singers, instrumentalists and audience.

 

 

CODA

Four small music organizations who do excellent work and are worth of your patronage

 

Photo: Dickie Hill
Verdigris Ensemble performs a Dia de los Muertos concert with Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico in October

 

Allegro Guitar Society/Fort Worth Classic Guitar Society

I have often bewailed the lack of solo recitals in the musical world, but ones that feature some of the more unusual instruments, such as the guitar, are almost nonexistent. But in the Metroplex, we are fortunate to have the Allegro Guitar Society/Fort Worth Classic Guitar Society. This group regularly bring the greatest guitarists of our era to present pairs of recitals — one in Dallas and the other in Fort Worth.

 

Blue Candlelight Music Series
Ever wonder what the elegant fin de siècle musicales, that featured pianists such as Chopin and Brahms as well as equally distinguished chamber ensembles, were like? Alas, time machines are still a tech-nerd’s dream. But…you can experience the modern-day equivalent by attending any Blue Candlelight musicale soirée. They are presented in a magnificent modernish home, owned Richard and Enika Schulze, with a great room specifically designed for such performances. All the right touches abound: complimentary valet parking and wine bar enhanced by a gourmet spread of hors d'oeuvres and diminutive decadent desserts. But the ambiance is only ancillary to the stellar musical performances, curated by Artistic Director and pianist Daredjan "Baya" Kakouberi, that features a superb and diverse assemblage of world-famous artists — some of whom you will not hear anywhere else in America.

 

Verdigris Ensemble
Their mission is to bring some innovation to choral ensembles, which is a genre that could certainly use some updating, without going all avant-garde like some modernist ensembles. Verdigris IS a group of 16 professional singers, both local as well as from other cities, that are absolutely top-notch. Under the direction of music director and conductor Sam Brukhman, there always is excellent singing, interesting selections and highly creative presentation.

 

Voices of Change

VOC concerts are about the composers, their musical language and their place in the swirl of 20th and 21st century music and contemporary experimentation. Performances are always excellent because the VOC ensemble is made up of some of the best musicians in the Metroplex who have a love for and a mastery of such a wild swing from the avant-garde to the “neo” take on what came before.

 

» Looking for more on the year (2019) and decade (2010s) in the performing arts? Here's a guide to our special section. Thanks For Reading





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2019 in Music, Part 1
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs outlines his favorite performances of the year in six movements.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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