Best of 2013: Classical

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With six months as classical music critic under my belt, I have already heard several concerts worthy of Pittsburgh's Top 10. But this isn't the Best of July-December 2013. The first six months of 2013, too, were musically rich, from Chatham Baroque's musical tribute to Thomas Jefferson to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's collaboration with 2,500 singers. It goes to show that classical gifts come in many sizes. This list was compiled with contributions from former Post-Gazette critic Andrew Druckenbrod and senior editor Robert Croan.

1. Pittsburgh Opera, "Aida" (Benedum Center, Oct. 12): Thanks to its epic nature, Verdi's opera was chosen as the opening production of Pittsburgh Opera's 75th anniversary season, and the company pulled out all the stops in celebration. The Opera de Montreal production directed by Crystal Manich skimped on none of the details, from a Noah's Ark-like collection of animals marching during the "Triumphal Scene" to bold, eye-catching sets. None of that, however, overshadowed the singing. The production featured the local premieres of soprano Latonia Moore as Aida and tenor Carl Tanner as Radames, whose rich, gorgeous voices served as the backbone of the production. Both in solo work and during the love duet, the pair shone. As Amonasro, baritone Lester Lynch featured a big, gravelly voice. Across the board the cast was strong.

2. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (Heinz Hall, Jan. 18): Mr. Noseda opened himself up with the performance of "La Notte di Platon (Plato's Night)," by Victor de Sabata, who was one of the conductors who came to the aid of the PSO after Fritz Reiner departed for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1948. The introduction of a work by the conductor who was known at the time as a competent composer was a matter of deep respect and pride on the part of Mr. Noseda. The result was a work that deserves a place in the canon, as he smoothly guided the orchestra through this plot and crafted the final calm and meditative music into a moment of transcendence.

3. Denyce Graves with Laura Ward (Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Sept. 24): Only a small number of opera singers are equally adept in recitals, but the glamorous Ms. Graves, who has performed with almost every major opera house here and abroad, scaled down her big voice and grand personality to the dimensions of this medium-sized but very resonant church for its Music in a Great Space series. Projecting clear, impeccable diction in four languages, she seemed to be directing her words and feelings to each audience member individually. With pianist Laura Ward an excellent accompanist and genuine equal in the music making, the dusky-voiced mezzo-soprano's repertory ranged from Handel arias and Falla folksong arrangements to opera, American popular songs and spirituals.

4. Chatham Baroque (Synod Hall, Feb. 9): The local trio specializing in performance on historically accurate instruments presented an ingenious way of elucidating this: performing music that Thomas Jefferson held in his library at Monticello. While he didn't compose any of the music, he likely played much of it. The program was fascinating and its execution exquisite. The Chatham Baroque three were joined by harpsichordist Andrew Appel and soprano Laura Heimes for works by Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, Purcell and more. Although the representation here showed a predilection for Baroque music that was a bit conservative for the time, it showed Jefferson had excellent taste, partially acquired during his time in France as the U.S. minister.

5. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Daniil Trifonov (Heinz Hall, Nov. 1): Every so often -- actually not very often -- an artist comes along who just knocks your socks off. That phrase is what came to mind when Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov played Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2. The piece is fiendishly difficult, arguably the most difficult piano concerto in the standard repertory. This is a work that has to be experienced live to be fully appreciated. It sounds too easy on records, and the 22-year-old Mr. Trifonov filled the bill in every way. With spiderlike fingers, long hair flowing every which way and an intense expression at times reminiscent of a mad scientist, Mr. Trifonov flew through the hurdles with an air of sorcery appropriate to Halloween weekend.

6. Pittsburgh Opera, "La Cenerentola" (Benedum Center, April 29): The Pittsburgh Opera's production of Rossini's dramma giocoso was irresistible, and not just because famed mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux had the title role (actually the character's name is Angelina). The production from Minnesota Opera and directed here by Kristine McIntyre had an old-fashioned droll quality to it. She allowed the traditional bits that make this one of the most enjoyable operas to come through. That was highlighted by the ridiculous vanity of the Don Magnifico (Paolo Pecchioli) and his clumsy daughters Clorinda (Meredith Lustig) and Tisbe (Samantha Korbey) -- Rossini's versions of the stepmother and stepsisters.

7. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Noah Bendix-Balgley, Nikolaj Znaider (Heinz Hall, Oct. 25): The loosely Scottish-themed concert featured Mendelssohn's "Hebrides Overture" and Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy" performed by Mr. Bendix-Balgley, the PSO concertmaster, along with Schumann's Symphony No. 4 (because, why not?). This concert was special because all three pieces hit the mark. In the Bruch, Mr. Bendix-Balgley dazzled in a performance that showed off technical and artistic mastery. Returning to conduct the PSO, Mr. Znaider carved out a musical landscape in the Mendelssohn, and drew out remarkably taut playing from the orchestra in the Schumann.

8. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck (Heinz Hall, June 7): Mr. Honeck seemed to channel both Mahler and Shostakovich in his deft handling of the latter composer's Symphony No. 5, especially during the second movement's abrupt switches between a jaunty folk dance and a soldiers' march. But it was the third movement -- in which Shostakovich gave voice to his departed friends with various solo instruments -- that the conductor's skill led to music both poignant and profound. Plaintive solos hung delicately above sobbing strings, with the cellos and then the harps offering thoughts. Mr. Honeck then pushed the PSO into a furious finale, emphasizing the brutal banality of the end's repetitive bow strokes with appropriate weight.

9. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck and local choirs (Petersen Events Center, April 20): Sometimes, too many cooks spoil the broth, but other times they just make it better. That was the case when 2,500 singers joined the PSO for a concert in its Music for the Spirit Series. From the sweet simplicity of the choral work that opened the concert, "Sing As One," composed by Pittsburgh native Jonny Priano, and the gentle joy of the hymn "This Is My Song," set to the music of Sibelius' "Finlandia," it was clear the PSO was not paying lip service to the concept of thousands of singers combining for a concert. The aggregate choir was darn good -- accurate and cohesive, and singing with purpose. The result was visceral at times. So many voices focused so well struck the gut as much as the ear. But, the music was just as often intensely quiet, especially that sung and performed between readings by religious leaders from Pittsburgh.

10. Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble (City Theatre, July 12): The percussion- and piano-only opening concert of PNME's summer-only season featured two self-imposed boundaries. One was instrumental, as the concert featured only percussion and piano in works by David Lang, George Crumb and John Adams; the second was thematic, with PNME playing a night-themed program. From the varied emotional and musical palette the ensemble offered, it was hard to tell they were limiting themselves. After briefly resigning, artistic director Kevin Noe announced he would return to PNME in summer 2014. The ensemble will be glad to have him back.

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