Best Classical Performances of 2009
Manfred Honeck and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians captured Mahler's Symphony No. 2 at Heinz Hall in June.
Mark Delavan, left, played the title role, with Veronica Villarroel as Alice Ford in the Pittsburgh Opera production of Verdi's "Falstaff."
Share with others:
He's done it again, but we should get used to Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra dominating the top local classical concerts for years to come. Actually, let me be clear: What follows is just a list of the best of what I have heard this year, but I can't get to everything and you are always welcome to go to my blog, Classical Musings, at post-gazette.com/music to advocate for some others.
Some concerts I did hear but didn't make my list include the up-and-coming Biava Quartet performing Shostakovich's and David Stock's eighth quartets in February on the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society season. It also was great to hear the River City Brass Band perform with gusto in April in the aftermath of its rough contract negotiations. In May, mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux lit it up in an excellent staging of Rossini's "Italian Girl in Algiers," with the young tenor Lindoro, Dean Kokanos singing the role of Lindoro while an ailing William Burden acted it on stage. In June, the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival offered an intriguing concert of music by American Jewish composers. The excellent Chatham Baroque continues to grow with its new member, violinist Andrew Fouts.
This past year also saw that end of the PSO's chamber orchestra series at Carnegie Music Hall, and the finale led by concertmaster Andres Cardenes showcased the elements that made it such a joy to hear over the years: rare chamber music, chamber-orchestra versions of music we hear with the full orchestra at Heinz Hall, new music and a closer view of the musical camaraderie of the PSO musicians.
1. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, Manfred Honeck, Mahler's Symphony No. 2 (Heinz Hall, June 12):
Music director Manfred Honeck has a predilection for Mahler that goes beyond the score, and his vision includes returning some of the style and substance of Mahler's works of the time they were written. This concert brought this approach to Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection," staking out "uncommon dramatic territory for the symphony," I wrote, such as having the strings play the second movement peasant waltz like a zither. Yet, it is the musicians who made this performance the touching affair that it was, including trumpeter George Vosburgh, trombone player Peter Sullivan, English horn player Harold Smoliar, soprano Katy Shackleton Williams and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong.
2. Pittsburgh Opera, "Falstaff" (Benedum Center, October 24):
Baritone Mark Delavan not only inhabited the role Sir John in the Pittsburgh Opera's production of Verdi's opera "Falstaff," he created his own version of the pudgy knight that took it father. His physical comedy, facial expressions and vocal extras combined with a brilliant command of the score led to a winning presence vocally and visually. His stage-mates Master Ford (Stephen Powell), Bardolfo (Doug Jones) and Pistola (Kevin Glavin) keep the comic relief afloat throughout the entire opera. Alice Ford (Veronica Villarroel) and Meg Page (Katherine Drago) led the women in the cast, directed by Paula Williams and conducted by Antony Walker.
3. Alarm Will Sound, "1969" (New Hazlett Theater, March 19)
If contemporary music produced more concerts like this, it would have a lot less problem connecting with audiences. Instead of just throwing out new music so that only the inner circle might get it, the ensemble Alarm Will Sound created a combination multimedia theater piece and concert that imagined the artistic and political lives of John Lennon and Karlheinz Stockhausen (played by actors), as well as Leonard Bernstein, Luciano Berio and others of the late '60s. It made the sometimes difficult music come alive -- highlighted by the amazing live "performance" of the Beatles' sound-collage, "Revolution 9."
4. Pittsburgh Symphony, John Adams (Heinz Hall, Jan. 17):
It would have been a highlight enough to hear famed composer John Adams, the 2008-09 PSO composer-of-the-year, conduct several of his works, including his new "Dr. Atomic Symphony." But as with the best composers, his music overshadowed him, topped by Adam's 9/11 memorial, "On the Transmigration of Souls." The quiet tapestry of this sophisticated piece, "pushes no healing on the listener," I wrote in a review. "Instead, it ... creates space for the audience to think."
5. Pittsburgh Symphony, Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, Honeck, Mozart's Requiem (Heinz Hall, Dec. 4):
Honeck's vision for Mozart's Requiem stripped the unfinished work of its completions by later scholars and pupils and placed it in a context of works and writings that both shed light on Mozart's thoughts on death and brought it closer to our time. But at the center was a gorgeous performance of the hauntingly beautiful work by the Mendelssohn Choir and PSO.
6. Pittsburgh Symphony, Honeck, Jorge Federico Osorio (Heinz Hall, Feb. 27):
Mexican pianist Jorge Federico Osorio stepped in for a few ailing pianists and gave one of those, "where have you been all my life?" performances in Piano Concerto No. 1. "The Mexican pianist unveiled a luxurious tone capable of immeasurable variation," I wrote. "Honeck's interpretation of Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 was wonderfully Bohemian and full of "sophisticated phrasing and nostalgic touches."
7. Pacifica Quartet (Carnegie Music, April 26-27):
Never was a group so poorly named as the Pacifica Quartet, which plays anything but tranquilly and mildly. It was intensity and fire that characterized its performance as part of the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society's multi-concert "Mendelssohn Project." Its performance of quartets Op. Nos. 12, 13 and 80 was compelling, but when the Miro Quartet joined the Pacifica for Mendelssohn's masterful Octet, artistry increased exponentially.
8. Cameron Carpenter (St. Bernard Catholic Church, Sept. 27):
Mind-blowing technique combined with a charismatic personality and burning desire to advocate for the pipe organ makes young organist Carpenter the most exciting talent to emerge in decades. From greeting patrons at the door (!) to addressing major issues facing the organ community, he showed he was able to advocate for the organ to audiences both expert and not, whether at the console or not. His Bach was less to my liking, but his fantastical playing of works such as Franz Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz No. 1" and Louis Verne's "Naiades" were something to behold in this concert presented by the Organ Artists Series.
9. King's Noyse (Synod Hall, Jan. 31):
Who knew that performance practice could fit so naturally with the blues? Presented by Renaissance & Baroque Society, this violin consort, led in turns by violinists David Douglass and Robert Mealy, moved to a modern repertoire of Gershwin, Bernstein and Thelonious Monk. Mealy's solo in Gershwin's Prelude No. 2 showed these performers had much to say and their period instruments fit the message well. Add to this expressive soprano Ellen Hargis, gently coaxing along "Summertime," "'Round Midnight" and other songs, and lute master Paul O'Dette's delicately interpreting the Beatles' "Michelle."
10. Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, City Theatre (July 25):
Finances held back PNME from a big production this past summer, so all director Kevin Noe and the group did was "fall back" on impressive and engaging performances of new music as music, including premieres of Amy Williams' "Cineshape 3" and Stacy Garrop's "The Book of American Poetry (Abridged)."
First Published December 17, 2009 12:00 am