Best Classical Concert of 2008: PSO with Honeck
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Manfred Honeck dominated the local classical music news this past year as he began his tenure as Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director. But he also triumphed artistically, too.
Honeck accounts for three of the top five spots on our classical top 10 concerts of 2008. What was particularly impressive about Honeck is that he didn't pander in the least -- in fact, he offered rather unusual interpretations of several works in the name of presenting the highest artistic standard. While we are all sure to disagree with a performance or two down the road, it's great to have a maestro back on board who will take us places beyond our own knowledge about music. I don't want to go to Heinz Hall just to hear what I like -- I want to be transported.
Honorable mention goes to violinist Gil Shaham's brilliant Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the PSO; mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was compelling as Dalila in the Pittsburgh Opera's "Samson & Dalila"; and the Jupiter String Quartet and Shanghai Quartet impressed, presented by the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society.
1. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck, Ohlsson (Heinz Hall, Nov. 20): This is Bruckner? Honeck conducted Bruckner's Symphony No. 4, "Romantic," with brisker tempos, onomatopoeic touches and dramatic phrasing, presenting it in a much more visceral way than the typical slower-and-sacred manner. With an inspired PSO on top of its game, the result was a brilliant reading. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson joined the group for a charged Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4.
2. Pittsburgh Opera, "Aida" (Benedum Center, April 1): This performance of Verdi's classic opera made national news when the Pittsburgh Opera's music director, Antony Walker, sang Radames from the pit in the final act while the ill tenor acted the role on stage. The rest of the production was stellar, too.
3. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Honeck, Bell (Sept. 26, Heinz Hall): Honeck's electric, organic and provoking interpretation of Mahler's First Symphony was a breath of fresh air. Star violinist Joshua Bell played Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, and John Adams' propulsive and popular "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" opened the concert.
4. Tallis Scholars (Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside, Oct. 20): The Renaissance & Baroque Society's 40th anniversary season brought back this venerable period choir, performing sacred music of the Spanish Renaissance in which the singers sounded "like a magnificent organ."
5. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Honeck, Rusinek (Heinz Hall, May 10): The chemistry between Honeck and the PSO was already apparent in this last visit as a guest conductor. Verdi's Overture to "La Forza del Destino" was dramatic, Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben" energetic and the premiere of Alan Fletcher's melodic Clarinet Concerto again showed us why we are lucky to have ultra-talented PSO clarinetist Michael Rusinek in the fold.
6. Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble (City Theatre, July 28): Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble's "Just Out of Reach" imagined what might happen if the gods offered Narcissus (sung by Robert Frankenberry), Tantalus (Matthew Romantini) and Sisyphus (Kevin Noe) the option of suicide. Co-written by Noe and Kieren MacMillan, it was compelling, arty musical theater, with hearty doses of humor and pathos.
7. Pittsburgh Opera, "Grapes of Wrath" (Benedum Center, Nov. 15-23): Ricky Ian Gordon's "Grapes of Wrath" captured the essence of Steinbeck's painful look at Depression-era America with a compelling lyric theater approach and some moving musical moments. Kudos to the Pittsburgh Opera for having the guts to stage it.
8. Denyse Graves (Carnegie Music Hall, March 16): Pittsburgh Chapter of the Links brought one of opera's most glamorous ladies to Pittsburgh. In a rare song recital, the alluring mezzo moved listeners with penetrating renditions of classic Schubert lieder, then sizzled with sultry impersonations of operatic heroines Dalila and Carmen. (Robert Croan)
9. Chatham Baroque (Laughlin Music Center, March 18): In 2008, Chatham Baroque saw the last concert of its baroque violinist Julie Andrijeski and the first of her successor, Andrew Fouts (in October). The former, with a program of early Scottish and Irish music, "found the three enjoying moments of communication only long-term partners have on stage." But the future of the early-music trio is bright with the virtuosity and stage presence of Fouts.
10. Daniel Phillips & Charles Abramovic (CMU Kresge Recital Hall, June 3): Pittsburgh natives Daniel Phillips (violin) and Charles Abramovic (piano) returned to pay homage to the Pittsburgh Concert Society. In addition to impressive soloing (Phillips' playing of Bach's D-minor Partita, in particular) they came together for Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata, "shaping the dramatic structure quite well," wrote our critic Burkhardt Reiter.
First Published January 1, 2009 12:00 am