Best classical: 'Billy Budd'

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2007 saw more key changes locally than a Debussy score. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra hired Manfred Honeck and Leonard Slatkin as its music director and principal guest conductor, respectively, Pittsburgh Opera's Mark Weinstein left his post as general director and Antony Walker conducted his first operas as the company's music director, and violinist Julie Andrijeski announced a departure from Chatham Baroque.

Some new groups made strides, too: Cellofourte, IonSound and Alia Musica, and opera found a new home in Undercroft Opera. There's more reasons than ever to check out the local art music scene.

A few concerts that should have made this list but couldn't be squeezed in include: Pittsburgh Opera's "Madama Butterfly," Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society presentations of the Kremerata Baltica and Pacifica Quartet and Opera Theater's production of Pitt composer Mat Rosenblum's trippy "Red Dust." The River City Brass Band had some stout concerts, including a performance at Bach, Beethoven and Brunch (which in general was outstanding last summer at Mellon Park).

But here's our top of the top of live classical concerts from 2007:

1. Pittsburgh Opera, 'Billy Budd'

Benedum Center, May 5

This was as good as it gets. The Opera went out on a limb by presenting a 20th-century work, but it helped its chances immensely by booking a top cast headlined by Nathan Gunn as Budd, Greer Grimsley as Claggart and Robin Leggate as Capt. Vere, and hiring a Francesca Zambello production. Her design, an abstraction of a British man-of-war, was stunning. Even Gunn's sickness halfway through didn't dampen things, as baritone David Adam Moore stepped in nicely. Conductor Walker superbly steered the difficult score. Here was a production that in its totality could have taken place anywhere in the world, a testament to the company's recent upsurge in quality.

2. Pittsburgh Symphony with pianist Yefim Bronfman

Heinz Hall, Nov. 23

This Thanksgiving concert was a feast. Conductor Gianandrea Noseda, rapidly becoming a Heinz Hall favorite, brought an expressive complete Stravinsky "Firebird," a delightful Respighi "Burlesque" and was an excellent collaborator with that original PSO favorite, Bronfman, in Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. Bronfman "performed with delicacy and grace [allowing] inner textures to emerge more prominently.

3. Pittsburgh Symphony with Anne Martindale Williams

Heinz Hall, Dec. 7

Sometimes it all just comes together. PSO principal cellist Anne Martindale Williams seems made for Elgar's Cello Concerto. Her experience and expression are the perfect backdrop and vehicle, respectively, for this dramatic but intimate work. She gave a marvelous interpretation with great drive. Elgar expert Andrew Davis dropped off the PSO map earlier this season, but he was easily matched by another master interpreter of the British composer, Slatkin. He marshaled the forces well and also presented a deft reading of John Corigliano's "Phantasmagoria" and Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony.

4. Zehetmair Quartet

Carnegie Music Hall, Nov. 7

"A spellbinding concert played from memory that is indelibly etched in my musical memory," critic Burkhardt Reiter wrote in the Post-Gazette. "A rare treat for American audiences." The string quartet played Mozart's G Major and Hindemith's fourth, but the highlight was when Thomas Zehetmair led them in Schubert's Quartet in A Minor. This concert also gave local chamber aficionados a chance to hear the electrifying sounds of the local group, Cellofourte, in a pre-concert performance.

5. Bach and the Baroque, 'Christmas Oratorio'

Heinz Chapel, Dec. 15-16

It was bittersweet that this final concert in Pitt's Bach and Baroque Society series would be so excellent. Director and Pitt professor Don Franklin assembled an all-star orchestra (an expensive proposition) for Bach's masterful collection of cantatas, and the soloists and chorus also were outstanding. "Using an economy of gesture and only interceding where needed, Franklin [conveyed] an aura of lightness and elegance," wrote P-G critic Jane Vranish. It was a resplendent swan song, presented by the Renaissance & Baroque Society and the Pitt Department of Music.

6. Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble

City Theatre, July 6

From the funny to the sublime, this concert took the PNME multidisciplinary approach to new heights. Artistic director Kevin Noe created a seamless performance beginning with the bizarre "Ohio Entelechron," a humourous musical meta-play by Pitt's Roger Zahab, and the sentimental, Kevin Puts' "Einstein on Mercer Street," a song cycle brought to life by baritone Timothy Jones. The top-notch group was bolstered by singer Robert Frankenberry and trumpet player George Vosburgh.

7. Academy of Ancient Music

Synod Hall, April 28

Now led by harpsichordist-extraordinaire Richard Egarr, this British period orchestra gave Pittsburgh a fantastic program of Handel, Bach and Telemann. It played with vitality and verve in fast passages and colorfully shaped the slow ones. But more than anything, the tempos were flexible. That's a hallmark of Egarr's aesthetic. It was a chance to hear one of the world's best orchestras, and it did not disappoint. Presented by Renaissance & Baroque Society.

8. Chatham Baroque

Synod Hall, April 21

The concert I most enjoyed this year was Chatham Baroque's performance at the Gypsy Cafe, one in which the audience was fed a sumptuous meal. But this concert a few months earlier exceeded it in quality and programming. With guest violinist David Douglass, the period-instrument group interspersed writings on music between works by 17th-century composers. PG theater editor Christopher Rawson gave animated readings and some skits added to the fun, but this was a night when Chatham Baroque was extraordinarily in step with itself. Entire works moved with appealing ebb and flow, while individual efforts by each player were precise and engaging.

9. Bach Choir, 'Messiah' in space

Hunt Armory, Dec. 8

It's not set in outer space, but my emotions felt like they traveled there in this gutsy, site-specific "production" of Handel's "Messiah." Placed in the unlikely venue of Shadyside's Hunt Armory, director Thomas Douglas' extraordinary vision had soloists singing on top of military vehicles, the chorus moving throughout the audience, the orchestra in the center and a screen with haunting images. Presented in such a novel manner, good ole "Messiah" became fresh and moving despite the odd acoustics.

10. Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival with David Krakauer

Rodef Shalom, June 4

Clarinetist Krakauer put on a real show at this concert of classical/crossover klezmer. With members of the PSO and pianist Luz Manriquez, Krakauer's performance made one almost believe they were part of a practiced Jewish folk band. The program was highlighted by Golijov's brilliant opus, "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind."

Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at or 412-263-1750.


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