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Rufus Wainwright, ‘Glass Handel’, ‘Nezet-Seguin and DiDonato,’ and more of Philly’s best classical performances of 2018

The Network for New Music tribute to Linda Reichert was another highlight, as was rising-star-conductor's Karina Canellakis' appearance with the Curtis Orchestra.

Countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo in a preview performance of Glass Handel at the Barnes Foundation.
Countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo in a preview performance of Glass Handel at the Barnes Foundation.Read moreDominic M. Mercier/Opera Philadelphia

Classical music in 2018 continued to be an escape from the outside world, while in some startling instances giving up its claim as a totally safe space.

Concertgoers at the Kimmel Center this fall were greeted with bag searches, a reminder of the tumult last spring around the Philadelphia Orchestra’s controversial Israel tour that produced concert disruptions by protesters here and in Europe.

Rufus Wainwright urged listeners at his Philly Pops appearance in January to vote in the midterm elections. Then, in March: “We are the greatest city, the greatest nation, nothing like us ever was,” declared Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, led by its composer, Michael Tilson Thomas, with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

But what does that sentiment mean today? Tilson Thomas, in his work based on Carl Sandburg’s text of a century ago, takes a dark view of what happens when we ignore the jingoistic warning signs of a civilization imperiled.

And yet, sometimes you just have to make yourself lost to the world. Escape has become a deliberate pursuit in some quarters. On one particularly tumultuous early October afternoon, the Dow Jones was down 417 points, Hurricane Michael was coming ashore in the Florida Panhandle with 150 m.p.h. winds, and the director of the F.B.I. was before a Senate panel defending the agency’s “limited” investigation into sexual assault allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh. WRTI-FM (90.1) was offering what seemed like reassurance-in-radio-waves: Arvo Pärt’s gently magical Spiegel im Spiegel and then the serene “Meditation” from Massenet’s Thaïs.

There are lots of ways of parsing a best-of list, and no doubt every listener in 2018 is listening for something different, as are my colleague David Patrick Stearns and myself. Perhaps not surprisingly, though, Opera Philadelphia’s O18 Festival managed to both acknowledge the outside world and offer safe harbor. In a three-night cabaret at TLA on South Street, hirsute drag queen Martha Graham Cracker and mezzo Stephanie Blythe, in the manly man persona of Blythely Oratonio, left the audience feeling embraced as they mused on matters musical, amorous, and miscellaneous.

Leave it to the drag queens to walk a fine line. Maybe we all just need the right piece of music, or a good pair of heels.

The Philly Pops and Rufus Wainwright. The Pops took a break from the nostalgia machine in January to join the here and now with singer Wainwright, who likely managed to make every listener in big Verizon Hall feel as though time and space had been remade especially for him, her, or them. In the hymnlike “The Maker Makes” with just Wainwright and his piano, I wrote, “the world disappeared, leaving the listener alone with a spare bit of poetry and the dusky voice.”

— Peter Dobrin

Fabio Luisi. At the moment, there’s no regular visitor to the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra with a more sophisticated sense of orchestral sound than Luisi. His astute pacing and color in a January program of Beethoven, Wagner, and Haydn molded the ensemble into its most evolved self. If music is still the abiding concern of the orchestra, its leadership should sign Luisi, Simon Rattle, and Vladimir Jurowski to multiyear commitments and titles of some sort to go with them.

— P.D.

Mitsuko Uchida. Manic, risky, urgent, wan, impetuous – our reigning high priestess of the classical keyboard visited the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society in February with an all-Schubert recital, and once again expanded our notion of what’s possible emotionally even within the well-prescribed boundaries of standard repertoire. Uchida remains a potent package of individualism.

— P.D.

Michael Tilson Thomas, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Measha Brueggergosmen. The Bernstein disciple started his Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind in 2003 and returned to and completed it in 2015 and 2016. Set to the Carl Sandburg poem, the piece is an “exploration of what actually happens at the party the night before civilization ends,” the composer wrote. Drawing on rock, funk, and the ka-ching! of a cash register, and utilizing Brueggergosmen’s incredible soprano, the piece has continued to resonate with me in the months since this March performance as a remarkably cutting commentary on the deceptively fragile thing that is civilization.

— P.D.

Takács Quartet. This is the venerable quartet with leadership coming from, of all places, the viola. In their March appearance for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, violist Geraldine Walther showed that artistic authority stems not from your assigned role in life, but from a combination of charisma and integrity. She will no doubt be the voice to listen for in March when the group returns, this time with new second violinist Harumi Rhodes.

— P.D.

Network for New Music tribute to Linda Reichert. The occasion was a fond farewell for the Network artistic director, stepping down after 34 years. But this concert in April was also a report from the many compositional schools at play today, from the springy tension in Augusta Read Thomas' Acrobats to the searching quality of John Harbison’s Nocturne. Rarely has a single concert produced such stylistic diversity so concisely expressed.

— P.D.

Karina Canellakis with the Curtis Orchestra. The shadows of this April concert’s significance have lengthened with time. Conducting fellow Carlos Ágreda led the Lyric for Strings, with composer George Walker in attendance, just a few months before Walker’s death. And Karina Canellakis pointed toward the future with the rest of the program, specifically her future as a rising star in the conducting world, with a Strauss Four Last Songs that uncovered a great variety of orchestral colors. Canellakis returns to Curtis in March to lead the Curtis opera department in Don Giovanni.

— P.D.

Julia Bullock. In her May Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital with pianist John Arida, the soprano pivoted personalities to fit the material — from Schubert and Barber to Nina Simone. Bullock has terrific stage presence and a seemingly endless range, so we hope she returns soon with another passion project.

— P.D.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, Hélène Grimaud, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The orchestra’s tour of Europe and Israel was full of intense performances partly because of the constant threat of anti-Israel protesters along the way. But at the May 31 concert, Vienna’s Musikverein acoustic seemed to swathe the orchestra in a protective glow with pianist Grimaud and music director Nézet-Séguin in the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 as though paying back the Vienna composer for all that he has given to the world over the decades.

— David Patrick Stearns

O18 Glass Handel. Opera Philadelphia has become a kind of research and development lab for classical music, and this production, at the Barnes in September as part of the O18 Festival, featured innovation left and right. In alternating between the music of Philip Glass and George Frideric Handel, the expressive countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was hardly the first musician to point out how much the ancient and modern have to say to each other. But the format for presenting it was an intriguing exercise in all the ways an audience can be drawn in.

If the Raf Simons costumes didn’t get to you, then maybe the Justin Peck choreography would. Not a dance fan? Then you could watch artist George Condo sketching from behind an enormous light box in real time or a James Ivory/Pix Talarico video. How to take it all in became the challenge, which Opera Philadelphia solved, at least somewhat, by periodically thrusting moving equipment beneath listeners' chairs and rolling them to the next location.

— P.D.

Lyric Fest. The group’s all-Bernstein October program at the Kimmel Center would seem to have come a bit late to the composer’s 100th birthday party, but the combination of song performances (including baritone Randall Scarlata) and readings from daughter Jamie Bernstein seemed to come closer to the Bernstein personality — with its vast range of fun and seriousness — than so many events over the last year.

— D.P.S.

The Crossing. First heard years ago in one of the humbler corners of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, composer Gregory Spears seems to be emerging into the first rank of American composers, most recently with his opera Fellow Travelers, but even more recently with his 30-minute choral work The Tower and the Garden, premiered at an October concert by the Crossing. His harmonies are growing ever more lush, but the point is the emotional gravity they contain.

— D.P.S.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, Joyce DiDonato, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. No stranger to Philadelphia, star mezzo-soprano DiDonato sang Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, with Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra in a November performance at the Kimmel Center that made you wonder why the piece isn’t heard far more often. It seems made for the Philadelphia strings and DiDonato’s vulnerability. All of that plus Mason Bates’ effervescent Anthology of Fantastic Zoology.

— D.P.S.