Vadym Kholodenko plays in the final round at the Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

2013 Review: The Year in Classical Music and Opera

Chief Classical Music and Opera critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs picks his favorite performances and events of the year.

published Friday, December 27, 2013

Van Cliburn

Making a Top Ten list is one of the most difficult jobs that a critic faces. First of all, the “season” and the calendar year do not coincide. After a summer of festivals, both in and out of town, it is not easy to connect everything back up. Secondly, how do you decide between a full scale opera production and a recital? An orchestra and a string quartet?

So, this year my editor has kindly allowed a different format. Here are my thoughts about the top performances in four different categories: Symphony, opera, chamber music, and recital. There is also a bonus category for honorable mentions. 

Even under these more lenient strictures, this is a tough job at best. The level of professional performances in the Metroplex is remarkably high. There is little difference in what we experience locally and what is heard in the major capitals of the world because we get all the same artists. But there are some things that we don't get.

One huge minus is that we don't get the touring orchestras. We also don't get the top strata of guest conductors. These are gaping holes indeed. Another missing element is an organ concert series at the Meyerson. The magnificent Lay Family Organ is little more than a beautiful backdrop that is used in the rare occasion that a performance requires it use (such one by the Dallas Symphony or the Dallas Wind Symphony). The American Guild of Organists bring in some distinguished organists, but these concerts are not well publicized and take place at churches, where many times it is difficult to see the performer.

Before we even start, one “performance” stood like a titan above everything else that happened. That was the Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition that held the musical world enthralled this summer, and happened a few months after the death of its namesake, a longtime local arts hero. TheaterJones was there with a team and we covered every event and every pianist's performances—from preliminaries to the finals. This was not only reviews, but interviews with the pianists and also those running the competition. We covered the back stories of what went on behind the scenes and published countless photos of all the action. It was a major effort, requiring two weeks of 14-hour days, and all of us at TJ are justifiably proud of our work. You can read the results of our extensive coverage with this page that links to all of the reviews

So, all that said, here is a list of the performances I most enjoyed this season. Under each category, they are listed in chronological order. 




Orchestra of New Spain, Las Nuevas Armas de Amor (Cupid's New Weapons of Love) (February)

The Dallas Opera, The Aspern Papers (April)

The Fort Worth Opera, Ariadne aux Naxos (April)

The Dallas Opera, Carmen (October)


Photo: Karen Almond
Carmen at Dallas Opera

We have two fine opera companies in the Metroplex and they are both very different. The Fort Worth Opera presents the brightest and the best of up-and-coming artists in a summer opera festival format. The Dallas Opera brings established opera stars to appear in world-class productions. While the two sometimes overlap in the area of the standard repertory, their individualistic approaches make for interesting viewing.

The Aspern Papers was remarkable for many reasons. First of all, it is by a living composer, Dominick Argento, who was in attendance. It was also he 25th anniversary of the première of the opera, a Dallas Opera commission. Further, it was the final performance by departing Music Director, Graeme Jenkins. Even more, it feature two of the top stars in opera today, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and baritone Nathan Gunn. But all that aside, it was a wonderful and evocative performance that asked more questions than it answered.

Carmen will long be remembered as the debut of the dynamic new Music Director, Emmanuel Villaume, only the third in that position since the company was founded in 1957. Clunky set aside, two incendiary singers burned the stage: mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine and tenor Brandon Jovanovich. Margaine is a stunning new talent with the perfect voice for Carmen, even though her physical portrayal was more of a bad girl than a sultry temptress. Jovanovich was amazing—his helden tenor voice floated a glorious pianissimo high note, usually a blaster, at the end of the flower aria (“La fleur que tu m'avais jetée"). As an actor, he was just as remarkable as he disintegrated before our eyes from tightly buttoned to mad disarray.


Photo: Ron T. Ennis
Ariadne auf Naxos at Fort Worth Opera

Ariadne was a remarkable occasion: a comic opera that was actually laugh-out-loud funny. Music Director Joe Illick led a very Straussian performance, but it was stage director David Gately's comic touches, and the fact that his young singers could pull them off, that made this production memorable. 

One organization on this short list is a surprise. The Orchestra of New Spain is about as esoteric a group as you could imagine. They specialize in music of the Spanish Baroque, both in Spain and Iberamerica (in the New World), performed on original instruments. This authenticity was evident in their production of Sebastián Durón's zarzuela. The presence of Music Director Grover Wilkins assures the historical accuracy of the music but Stage Director Gustavo Tamabascio took care of the historical accuracy everything else. He is renowned for recreating authentic Baroque opera: stylized movements, grand gestures, declaimed half-sung dialogue, extravagant feathered costumes and posed stage pictures. Orchestra of New Spain put us in a time machine. We experienced this opera in much the same way you would have seen it in 1691.




Fort Worth Symphony, 2013 Russian Festival: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 and Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 (Aug. 25)

Fort Worth Symphony, introduction of composer-in-residence Donnacha Dennehy (Sept. 14)

Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Mahler Symphony No. 4, Barber Piano Concerto (Sept. 26)

Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Dvorak Te Deum and Symphony No. 8 (Nov. 1)


Photo: Courtesy
Conductor Tomas Netopil did a guest stint with the Dallas Symphony

Music Director Jaap van Zweden excelled in September when he delivered a definitive performance of Mahler's fourth. Mahler's extensive notes in the score, born of a desire to supervise, even from the grave, is a match for van Zweden's penchant for tightly controlled performances. A pristine, yet exciting, performance resulted. But another highlight of the concert was an astonishing performance of Barber's Piano Concerto by pianist Alessio Bax, who dominated its wild virtuosity by sheer will and strength. The other DSO concert on the list is remarkable for the performance delivered by the young Czech conductor Tomáš Netopil and giving us a reminder, as if we needed one, of how great a chorus the DSO fields.


Photo: Courtesy
Donnacha Dennehy is the Fort Worth Symphony\'s composer-in-residence for the 2013-14 season

The two Fort Worth concerts on the list are there for very different reasons. In September, Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducted a fine performance of  one unusual work (Fuquoi in the Sugar Cane by South African composer Henry Lissant-Collins), and two major works (Richard Strauss' Rosenkavalier suite and his very different tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks). But the real kudos here was the introduction of their new composer-in-residence, Donnacha Dennehy, something sadly lacking at the DSO. The other FWSO concert is on the list for the first local performance by pianist Alessandro Deljavan since the Cliburn Competition. Many thought that he should have won, or at least been a finalist, and he certainly validated that opinion when he delivered an amazing performance of Rachmaninoff's second concerto. It was like hearing it anew.




Dallas Chamber Music, Concertante (Feb. 4)

Soundings: New Music at the Nasher, Cuatro Corridos, four chamber operas by four different composers (Oct. 4)

Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, Miró String Quartet (Oct. 21)

Dallas Chamber Music, Danish String Quartet (Nov. 12)

Chamber Music International, Letters from Argentina, The Tango Concert (Nov. 30)


Photo: Caroline Bittencourt
Danish String Quartet gave one of the standout performances of the year for Dallas Chamber Music

Two on the list were presented by Dallas Chamber Music. Concertante is a red-hot group of six brilliant young musicians that tour as a chamber ensemble. As I said in my review: “they ripped through some Brahms, Elgar and Bridge giving a hold-on-to-your-seats performance that got a rousing response from the appreciative audience.” The Danish String Quartet was simply amazing. I wrote: ”They delivered a near perfect performance of a wildly varied program to an astonished audience.” Their performance of Ravel's String Quartet was definitive.

Also on the definitive side of the ledger was the performance of Debussy's String Quartet by the Miró, one of the top string quartets in the world, presented by the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth. This concert was also the most welcome debut of the new Artistic Director, Gary Levinson, Senior Associate Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony. We expect great things from him.

The Soundings concert might just as easily made honorable mention in the opera category. Cuatro Corridos is an hourlong, intense opera for one soprano (an amazing Susan Narucki), guitar, percussion, and piano, divided into four scenes, each by one of  four composers: Hebert Váquez, Arlene Sierra, Lei Liang and Hilda Paredes. Each also explored a different character: all young girls (between 7 and 18 years old) victimized by the Mexican border gangs. They entice and then enslave them into prostitution to keep equally trapped agricultural workers “satisfied.” It was a shattering experience.

CMI's Tango evening has to be mentioned. Not only was it the most unusual concert of the season, it was also one of the best performances, featuring by some outstanding players (best known was clarinetist David Shifrin). The program consisted of music by Astor Piazzolla, the Tango King, and surprisingly, by Lalo Schifrin, best known for film and TV scores. As I said, the performers were interested in “...capturing the spirit of the tango, from its sexually charged origins in the barrio of Buenos Aries to the concert hall of today, and caution was jettisoned.”  




Cliburn Concerts, Violinist Joshua Bell and Collaborative Pianist Sam Hayward (Feb. 19)

Cliburn Concerts, Pianist and new Cliburn Gold Medal Winner Vadym Kholodenko (Sept. 9)

Cliburn Concerts, Soprano Deborah Voigt and Collaborative Pianist Brian Zeger (Oct. 25)


Photo: Robert Hart
Vadym Kholodenko plays in the final round at the Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

All these are part of the Cliburn at the Bass concert series. Solo recitals are a rarity and this category is here to support such efforts in the future. A recital is not a chamber music performance. It is a close and intimate encounter with an artist that tells you about them as a person, almost more than as a musician. This is not only in the way they perform, but in the music they choose and the banter they offer about their selections, with biographical details sometimes tossed as well. Each of these powerhouse artists presented programs uniquely tailored to their personalities and the vocalists ran the gamut from the classics to cabaret. Bell presented three major, but lesser known, sonatas by Prokofiev, Schubert, Richard Strauss. Kholodenko played an all-Russian program of blindingly difficult music by Medtner (not so well known) and Rachmaninoff (very well known). One other aspect of these recitals is stellar quality of the collaborative pianists. In the past three decades, collaborative pianists (don't call them accompanists) have come into their own as an artistic category. This recognition was long overdue and the three that appeared on these concerts are consummate pianists and equal billing is rightly deserved.



It is vitally important that we hear professional performances of the music of our time. These four groups are stars in our musical diadem.

Soundings, the avant-garde series at the Nasher Sculpture Center 

Voices of Change, internationally recognized for decades 

Cliburn at the Modern, bringing living composers to talk about their music, which is performed by local artists

Frontiers, a new series by the Fort Worth Opera, that presents scenes from works still in progress


Photo: Robert Hart
The composers in the Fort Worth Opera's inaugural Frontiers, along with General Director Darren Woods (at right)


The music of living composers, and those one generation back, are the inheritance that we leave to the future of music.  As it has always been, history will sift though what we hear but these concerts are especially exciting because we get to make the first sort. Is this composer you are hearing for the first time our Beethoven or our Sergei Titov? He was Beethoven’s contemporary, a Russian composer of works for the stage, now totally forgotten—unlike Beethoven. 

Can you guess? 



There are some final mentions that should be made. These are groups that fill a vital need that no other organization occupies. One is The Fort Worth Classic Guitar Society and Allegro Guitar Society of Dallas. They merged a few years ago and consistently present some of the best guitarists and guitar ensembles in the world. 

The other two are summer festivals—PianoTexas and the Mimir  Chamber Music Festival. Both take place at Texas Christian University and attract world class artists. More importantly, they both have an extensive educational program attached that attract students from around the country as well as locally. They also present fine concerts with renown performers in the otherwise musically bereft summer doldrums.

Also, mention has to be made of Voces Intimae, a local group dedicated to presenting art song recitals with local and imported singers. It nearly closed operations, but Karen Moyer (who we remember from her time at WRR) simply would not let that happen. They have reconstituted and the future looks bright. They deserve our support.


The 2013 Year in Review series:

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2013 Review: The Year in Classical Music and Opera
Chief Classical Music and Opera critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs picks his favorite performances and events of the year.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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