No guessing is needed on the No. 1 classical music event of the year: the June appointment of Yannick Nézet-Séguin to the music directorship of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Some of his performances were more artistically successful than others: At his October concert here, Haydn's Symphony No. 100 was strangely leaden, though Mahler's Symphony No. 5 was deep, showing that greatness is indeed possible.
Beyond his musicality, he knows how to ask orchestras for what he wants, and get it. You've heard of horse whisperers? Nézet-Séguin seems to be an orchestra whisperer. Amid his Berlin Philharmonic debut, he revealed his technique: "Any orchestra, consciously or not, is waiting to be asked twice," he said. "I say, 'This is not what we rehearsed. . . .' "
Now in the thick of some of the greatest financial challenges in its history, the Philadelphia Orchestra needs closeness with its community; Nézet-Séguin, 35, has the personality that can make the orchestra seem supremely inviting. Interesting, too, that nobody batted an eye - except maybe an admiring one - when Nézet-Séguin's short, dark, and handsome partner of many years, Pierre Tourville, was introduced in front of City Hall by the mayor in June.
Now, if somebody will get him to stop wearing those gold neck chains . . . .
Other highlights of 2010:
Eric Owens. It was his year. The Philadelphia bass-baritone sang with sonorous command as Alberich in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Das Rheingold this fall, and was acclaimed by Alex Ross of the New Yorker as giving a landmark interpretation of the role. I think his greater achievement was in the New York Philharmonic's May performances of the surreal Ligeti opera Le Grand Macabre, in which he played the role of Death, singing atonal music as if it were Brahms and projecting his special brand of imperious absurdity.
JACK Quartet. Two concerts here, one in the spring at the Kimmel Center, the other a few weeks ago at Crane Arts, were among the most stimulating new-music concerts of my experience. The earlier had Matthias Pintscher's Study IV for Treatise on the Veil, in which the quartet managed to create a musical arc in a piece with as much silence as sound. The Crane concert featured Helmut Lachenmann's String Quartet No. 2, a piece consisting almost entirely of abstract sounds in a series of tiny movements - revealing the music's own singular sense.
Choral Arts Society. This group took on Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610 in collaboration with Piffaro last Sunday, and though the cut-down choir of 40 singers was still too big for some passages of this multifaceted work, Matthew Glandorf's brisk, authoritative tempos in what can seem like an extremely episodic work felt like a rocket shedding a series of stages.
Rossen Milanov. Music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Milanov conducted a Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in October with house-on-fire temperatures while maintaining a cool sense of structural clarity. It was the best of all interpretive worlds (and his Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 with Camden's Symphony in C the following week was almost as good). With the Princeton Festival and Opera New Jersey producing increasingly excellent opera at the McCarter Theatre complex, Princeton is turning into a serious cultural destination.
Richard Danielpour. He was one of America's most promising composers when the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded his Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma in the mid-1990s. He went on to write pieces that ranged from pretty good to not-so-good, and then in February, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, delivered the superb song cycle A Woman's Life with words by Maya Angelou and vocal lines written for the slimmed-down Angela Brown. What changed? The composer stood back and let the words pull their emotional weight, and elegantly framed them with appropriate musical atmosphere.
Frederic Chopin had his 200th birthday this year, and though there were some good live performances, the biggest anniversary event was a four-CD set titled A Century of Romantic Chopin, featuring 65 pianists recorded from 1895 to the present, issued on the Marston label (as in Swarthmore-based Ward Marston). Lots of it was new to me, including Chopin radio broadcasts from Arthur Rubinstein to Béla Bartók. Those with appetites stimulated for more historic Chopin should hear Nadia Reisenberg's two-disc A Chopin Treasury on Bridge. And you thought Rubinstein was definitive?
The Temple Performing Arts Center. Formerly the Baptist Temple, this venerable, 120-year-old Temple University structure had been in disrepair for decades. It reopened in April and turned out to be exactly the kind of mid-sized hall that Philadelphia needs. The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia is now repeating its Center City programs there. And its rental rates are accommodating to those who are outpriced by the Kimmel Center. The question is how willing audiences are to make the trip there.
Michael Hersch. Hersch has a standard spot on best-of-the-year lists. Let it never be said that his ultra-expressionistic pieces went unappreciated in their own time. This year's April premiere (by Network for New Music) was A Forest of Attics, inspired by poet Bruno Schulz, who was shot in one of Poland's Jewish ghettos in 1942. The format wasn't unusual - lots of micromovements - but the content was more explosive than ever.
Eriks Esenvalds. The young Latvian was the year's new-composer discovery. His 2005 choral work, Legend of the Walled-in Woman, appeared in the January program by the Crossing, revealing extraordinary imagination and powers of description, plus an ability to use a chamber-sized choir to create a complete, specific world of sound and drama. Esenvalds will have his first internationally released CD early next year as well as a world premiere by the Crossing in early summer.
Those are the highs. Now for a few lows.
Ivo Pogorelich has been much in evidence since his Rachmaninoff concerto performance was booed by Philadelphia Orchestra audiences in the late 1990s. But when Martha Argerich canceled her Tokyo dates on the orchestra's Far East tour in April, Pogorelich arrived in her place and played the most protracted, abrasively pounding Chopin imaginable. Was it a bad dream? No. I recently caught a European radio broadcast in which he pulled the same anti-stunts.
The Golden Age, the newest Terrence McNally play, arrived early this year at the Philadelphia Theatre Company with a potentially delicious story about backstage angst during the premiere of Bellini's opera I Puritani, and was a public relations disaster for a worthy opera that might have gained new converts. Way too long, the play felt like much ado about little. The problem: The less-than-ready script went into production in a trial run for a subsequent McNally festival at the Kennedy Center. Lesson: Don't rush the master. And just because it's Philadelphia doesn't mean you can get away with doing so.