Best-of-the-year lists in classical music have a built-in fallacy: Nobody can take in all the local concerts, important recordings or DVDs that arrived in the last 12 months. Anyone who tries would probably end up so burned out that, come December, prioritization might be impossible. So let's be honest: This year's encapsulation is about what came my way this year. And it's been an excellent year, particularly for new music. I hope it's not the fool's paradise that preceded the economic decline of the arts.
The Gustavo Dudamel phenomenon
: This 27-year-old conductor's global emergence from a Venezuela youth orchestra has been in full swing, but Philadelphia had a firsthand glimpse only last month in a tour stop with the Israel Philharmonic. My conclusion: He's not a miracle man - few unseasoned conductors can pull off the final movement of Brahms'
Symphony No. 4
, and he was no exception - but so much else that he does exhibits great instincts, plus a sense of excitement and fun.
George Crumb's "Voices From the Morning of the Earth
" was premiered in October by Orchestra 2001, and is perhaps the best of his six collections of idiosyncratic, deeply original settings of classic American songs. Here, Crumb transformed "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Blowin' in the Wind" and others with ghostly, whispered vocal contributions and percussion effects and allusions to war and apocalypse. Might this piece define our times just as Crumb's decades-old string quartet,
, embodied the horrors of the Vietnam War?
Toby Twining's score
to Sarah Ruhl's play
last spring at the Wilma Theater was as otherworldly as the myth itself. The composer has long honed a highly personal style of vocal music somewhere between Gregorian chant and doo-wop. In
, Orpheus sings his way into the underworld with prerecorded vocal tracks that create 40-voice harmonies in a web of sound simultaneously enveloping, ingratiating and excruciatingly intense. The score was subsequently performed at New York's Bang on a Can Festival and reportedly has been recorded for commercial release.
Kile Smith's "Vespers"
was premiered in January by the Crossing chorus and the Renaissance instrumental group Piffaro and was a breakthrough for all. Vespers are an open-ended form that Smith filled with Lutheran hymns, harmonized with the bleating sounds of the Renaissance instruments and full-blooded choral writing that had some allegiance to modern Anglican culture but represented an individual, thoroughly attractive synthesis. Recorded in the summer, it will be out early next year.
, a 31-year-old British composer, continued his transformation of choral music with two discs on the Harmonia Mundi label. The better one,
Threshold of Night
, featuring multilayered settings of texts by Edgar Allan Poe and Pablo Neruda, displayed a mercurial sense of invention, astounding depth of feeling, and great compositional virtuosity. And yes, there's justice: The disc is among the Grammy nominees for best classical album.
Leonard Bernstein's 90th- birthday year
threatened to go on
West Side Story
overload, but lots of other worthwhile, lesser-known works were explored, like the
Symphony No. 3 ("Kaddish")
with new narration by Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar in April with the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as the gloriously raucous
Concerto for Orchestra
in last month's Israel Philharmonic concert.
Among notable local debuts, I'm torn between conductor
. Tovey was a guest during the Philadelphia Orchestra's Mann Center season in July. After seeing so many conductors trying to be populist on those sweaty nights, it was great to watch this dapper gentleman address the audience with an irreverent Noel Coward wit (and impeccable timing), in addition to solid music-making.
Banse's April recital, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, covered several centuries and nationalities of German art song, all with a cultivated projection of the text and a greater emotional life than the legendary Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. It was also the last concert heard by Philadelphia tenor/teacher/radio personality Wayne Connor, who died weeks later. What a send-off.
Jennifer Higdon's "Percussion Concerto
" just came out on the London Philharmonic Orchestra's label (
) and suggests you haven't really heard music by the Philadelphia-based composer until it's been conducted by Leonard Slatkin, Robert Spano or, in the case of this disc, Marin Alsop. Percussion soloist Colin Curry exhibits a more considered coloristic range than at the 2005 Philadelphia premiere, but the most important difference is how the percussion meshes with the score's overall harmonic richness, which means the music's forward-moving energy is evenly matched by contrapuntal vitality.
Nobody's been breathlessly awaiting a DVD of Rossini's seldom-heard
"La Pietra del Paragone,"
but this new Naïve-label DVD is a breakthrough in opera production. The frothy comedy was videoed at Paris' Chatelet Theatre with live singers against a blue-screen backdrop that, thanks to video cameras, allows them to be superimposed over an infinite range of scenic backgrounds on overhead video screens, from suburban cocktail parties to gas burners on a stove. It's silly - Jerry Lewis silly - but also full of visual intoxication. The adept cast is led by the exciting Jean-Christophe Spinosi.
The Metropolitan Opera's high-def movie-theater simulcasts suddenly have starry company: Emerging Pictures is offering
simulcasts from the great opera festivals
of Europe (Salzburg, Glyndebourne), not necessarily live but with large screen and great sound at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and the Ambler Theater. I caught the Salzburg
and last Sunday's live transmission of
from La Scala at Bryn Mawr, and both were such emotionally hot experiences - thanks partly to fine performances - that I caught myself applauding after arias and acts. Also, both were breakthroughs for local tenors: Stuart Neill was pressed into last-minute service for
, and Stephen Costello was a fine Cassio in