The top 10 Pittsburgh classical music performances of 2014
December 18, 2014 12:00 AM
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This year featured plenty of classical music news.
Over at Heinz Hall, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was working toward a concert tour to Iran, plans that have since been put on hold. Concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley won an audition to become first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic. Former music director Lorin Maazel, who spent much of his youth in Pittsburgh, died in July. And the PSO has undergone a series of personnel changes, most notably the impending retirement of president and CEO Jim Wilkinson.
More recently came word that the PSO had received a Grammy nomination for its recent Dvorak/Janacek disc and that music director Manfred Honeck was invited by Pope Francis to conduct at the Vatican on Christmas Eve.
Shifting musical gears, after a celebratory 75th anniversary season, Pittsburgh Opera replaced one main stage production this fall with a gala concert -- a one-time budgetary decision, the company said. Last winter, it started the Second Stage Project, with contemporary chamber operas produced annually in its own headquarters.
And the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society got a new name -- Chamber Music Pittsburgh -- and a new executive director, Kristen Linfante.
Fortunately, the headlines didn't get in the way of some tremendous performances:
1. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck (Heinz Hall, Sept. 19): Opening night at the symphony was "fantastique," so to speak, and I had Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique" stuck in my head for weeks -- maybe months -- following the PSO's tremendous performance opening night. The musicians and Mr. Honeck were on cruise control for this confident rendition that was energetic and energizing (that nasty witches round dance!). The concert also featured composer-of-the-year Mason Bates' "Rusty Air in Carolina," pianist Valentina Lisitsa on Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" and Bach's "Air on the G String," performed in honor of Lorin Maazel.
2. Renee Fleming with pianist Gerald Martin Moore, Pittsburgh Opera (Carnegie Music Hall, Feb. 18): In celebration of its 75th anniversary, Pittsburgh Opera presented a recital by one of the world's great singers. Ms. Fleming's performance came just weeks after she performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl. In contrast with that big platform, this piano recital was small, intimate and all ours. Ms. Fleming, a Western Pennsylvania native, tackled pieces (by Mozart, Canteloube, Richard Strauss, Dvorak, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and others) in six languages -- seven including encores -- matching deeply felt interpretation with impeccable technique.
3. Pittsburgh Opera, "Otello" (Benedum Center, Nov. 8): After nearly 25 years since last producing Verdi's "Otello," Pittsburgh Opera gave this opera the main stage treatment it deserves. The opera wasn't the only thing making a friendly return to the local stage. Soprano Danielle Pastin, a former resident artist with the company, made a tremendous role debut as Desdemona, capturing her character's innocence with a golden, liquid tone. Tenor Carl Tanner (also seen in last year's "Aida" and this fall's gala concert) overcame lingering bronchitis for a compelling performance in the demanding title role, and Anthony Michaels-Moore added fine acting and an attractive, russet voice as Iago.
4. Pacifica Quartet with violist David Harding, presented by Chamber Music Pittsburgh (Carnegie Music Hall, Nov. 10): Post-Gazette senior editor Robert Croan described this string quartet's performance on the Chamber Music Pittsburgh series as "one of the best chamber music concerts I've ever attended -- three pieces, each a major work in a different style, performed as close to perfection as we are likely to hear them." Ravel's String Quartet, Ligeti's "Metamorphoses nocturnes" and Mozart's String Quintet in G minor (with Mr. Harding, a Carnegie Mellon University faculty violist) were characterized by immaculate precision, on-the-mark intonation, incisive rhythms and a sense of give-and-take between the participants that made every piece seem like a conversation among protagonists.
5. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Mozart Festival, Mr. Honeck (April 26 and May 2, Heinz Hall): Mozart doesn't lack for performance opportunities, but the PSO's innovative festival shed new light on the composer. Over the course of two classical subscription weekends (and a chamber music concert I missed) was a celebration that was intellectually stimulating and downright fun. For the Piano Concerto No. 20, Robert Levin offered embellishments and cadenzas from scratch, demonstrating a performance practice common in Mozart's time and sadly lacking in ours; later, the Mozart scholar improvised extensively on themes submitted by the audience. In the second weekend, sacred works and operas were woven together with readings by the evening's skilled host, Don Marinelli, an actor dressed as various characters from Mozart's life.
6. Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival (May 19, Rodef Shalom): This one-night-only production included musical settings of journal entries by Anne Frank and poetry by Hannah Szenes, who was killed after refusing to disclose information about a rescue mission of Hungarian Jews. Those texts and moving images were projected on a screen behind the musicians. Add to that a first-rate roster of players -- including several PSO members, singers from the Pittsburgh School for the Choral Arts, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Shammash and cellist/festival founder Aron Zelkowicz -- and you've got a recipe for a performance that was as virtuosic as it was moving.
7. Pittsburgh Festival of New Music, presented by Alia Musica (May 22-25, various locations): Full disclosure: Along with dozens of other percussionists, I played in a performance of John Luther Adams' "Inuksuit" at West Park, the culminating event of this ambitious festival produced for the first time by Alia Musica. But here's the thing -- that 70-minute atmospheric work, written for nine to 99 players on drums, pipes and conch shells, blends the line between audience and performer, between sounds produced by nature versus sounds produced by humans. It's fair to say anyone who experienced the work became a part of it. The festival also featured a tremendous recital by composer-pianist Frederic Rzewski at the New Hazlett Theater, a strolling performance by New York collective Varispeed of Robert Ashley's made-for-TV opera "Perfect Lives," and more.
8. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Christoph Konig (Jan. 18, Heinz Hall): Saturday night is not generally the time when most rational, pleasure-seeking people are looking to hear a lecture. But in the middle of this PSO concert, Heinz Hall became a lecture hall, and a very good one at that. The subject of the discussion was Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathusta," whose opening is well-known, somewhat at the expense of the rest of the work. Armed with a piano and PSO musicians, conductor Mr. Konig illustrated how Strauss matches musical ideas with nonmusical ones.
9. "Dark Sisters," Pittsburgh Opera (Jan. 25, CAPA Theater): Pittsburgh Opera deserves much credit for staging three contemporary operas out of six total productions last season, one each at the Benedum, CAPA and the Opera headquarters in the Strip District. The Mama Bear-sized production, Nico Muhly's "Dark Sisters," felt just right, with an original production by the company that convinced across the board, including visually arresting sets and affecting singing by the company's talented resident artists. The 2011 opera follows the plight of women living in a polygamist sect and the friction created by their occasional confrontations with modernity -- and each other.
10. Igudesman & Joo, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Honeck (Nov. 28 and 30, Heinz Hall): Thanksgiving commitments outside of Pittsburgh forced me to miss this music-comedy duo's local debut, yet the positive feedback I received, along with my jealousy at having to miss the concert, seemed to deem it worthy of inclusion. The violinist Aleksey Igudesman and pianist Hyung-ki Joo are known for shenanigans that make fun with (as opposed to make fun of) classical music, such as playing Rachmaninoff with too-small hands or mashing up Mozart and James Bond. They wrote a piece for Mr. Honeck, "An Austrian in America," and invited musicians to participate. One friend told me, "They have been funnier here than on YouTube, and the symphony looks like they're having so much fun playing along with their antics."
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