As has become usual in North Texas, 2019 offered a cornucopia of riches on the classical music and opera scenes, and some milestone events. The concerts and performances I liked best weren’t always flawless, but they all had something special to recommend them. Here are a few of my favorite things from the year:
January’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, with conductor Donald Runnicles and vocal soloists Kelley O’Connor and Russell Thomas, was an extraordinary way to begin the year. The orchestra and chorus were both at the top of their game, and Mahler’s song cycle is performed seldom enough that any opportunity to hear it live is a treat.
February’s The Cliburn Concerts recital by violinist Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace wasn’t always perfect, but I would happily listen to Kavakos play an hour of scales. He is one of the all-around best violinists currently concertizing and getting to hear him and the also-formidable Pace in recital was a rare treat. But the acoustics of the Renzo Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell do no one any favors, alas. Still, it was a huge program of works by Beethoven, Prokofiev, Bartók, and Enescu, and no one plays 20th-century Eastern European repertoire better.
March’s Blue Candlelight Music Series is a long-running house concert series at a stately Preston Hollow home. These concerts are a treat, because they allow listeners to hear chamber music in a private home, just as it was originally intended. But Artistic Director Baya Kakouberi also, importantly, champions the works of neglected women composers. In addition to works by Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, the March program included works by American composer and pianist Amy Beach, who died in 1944. House party concerts, with their snacks and drinks and fancy houses, are fun. But these concerts serve a bigger purpose, too, and the performance quality is nearly always top-notch.
In April, Fabio Luisi made his début with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra as Music Director Designate. His programming, which included works by the African-American composer William Grant Still and the Swiss composer Frank Martin as well as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, he seemed to be making a statement that we can expect a mixture of the familiar and the unknown, and that he will for sure be making his own stamp on the orchestra.
May’s Dallas Symphony Orchestra performances of Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety and Stravinsky’s The Firebird, under guest conductor David Robertson, were especially fine. Orli Shaham was piano soloist on the Bernstein, and her assured performance was a delight. But most gratifying was the exceptional playing by the entire orchestra. This program was a reminder that we are so fortunate that the DSO has become an orchestra of a truly high caliber, that can recruit and, mostly, retain some of the finest instrumentalists in the country.
The summer is a time for festivals. While most orchestras and opera companies are on summer break or traveling to music festivals elsewhere, we get the PianoTexas Festival in June and the Mimir Chamber Music Festival in July, both held at TCU. If you haven’t been to these festivals yet, make 2020 your year. Highlights in 2019 included pianist Philippe Bianconi at PianoTexas and the Horszowski Trio at Mimir.
September brought a new season for local performing arts groups and special attention paid to the Meyerson Symphony Center itself, with a special celebration to mark its 30th anniversary. While the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s celebratory concert, led by Assistant Conductor Katharina Wincor, was a strange musical hodgepodge, the occasion was an important one. In May 2019, we both mourned the passing of the Meyerson’s celebrated architect, I.M. Pei, and celebrated the agreement through which the Dallas Symphony would take over management and operations of the hall. I am optimistic that with the DSO managing the hall, much-needed repairs of leaky roofs, unreliable elevators, and other issues will be fast-tracked.
October brought my favorite Dallas Opera production of the year, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel. This rambunctious, flamboyant production featured fine singing— high tenor Barry Banks as The Astrologer was alone worth the price of admission—and vivid, funhouse costumes and sets by Gary McCann.
In November, the Dallas Symphony featured Principal Guest Conductor Gemma New in a program of Debussy, Steven Mackey, and Salina Fisher. On works both new and old, Gemma New proved her mettle. She is an outstanding addition to the DSO’s roster—the orchestra’s rendition of Debussy’s La Mer was among the best performances of French music I’ve heard from the DSO.
December included the usual run of holiday concerts, but also a reminder that the Fort Worth Symphony is seeking a new music director. Since this will be Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s last season with the orchestra, the FWSO is vetting new conductors. Because Bass Hall was booked when some of those conductors were available, three of the concerts with guest conductors are taking place in Denton. The first of these took place a week before Christmas, with Norwegian conductor Rune Bergmann at the helm. The FWSO is sounding especially fine these days and deserves a strong successor to Harth-Bedoya.
From chamber music to orchestral concerts to opera, the scene continues to thrive in Dallas. We are fortunate to have tremendous depth among local musicians, and also to attract exceptional international stars. In 2020, there is some uncertainty, sure — how will the DSO change under Fabio Luisi? What direction will the FWSO’s new music director take? — but the picture is decidedly optimistic.
» Looking for more on the year (2019) and decade (2010s) in the performing arts? Here's a guide to our special section.