Top Ten Performances of 2015

December 22, 2015 at 12:31 pm

By David Wright and Aaron Keebaugh

Photo: Marco Borggreve

Photo: Marco Borggreve

1. Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7

In his debut season as the BSO’s music director, Andris Nelsons gave his first performances in Symphony Hall of music by Bruckner and Mahler.  It’s hard to decide which of these composer debuts was more momentous, but the nod for first place goes to Bruckner, if only because of the long Bruckner drought at the BSO dating back to the previous music director’s tenure and the long interregnum before Nelsons’s arrival.

In remarks to the audience before the January performance, the conductor acknowledged the length of Bruckner’s symphonies, and got a laugh by pantomiming an audience member looking at his watch. Then he faced the orchestra, raised his arms, and held the audience spellbound for an hour-plus with a vibrant, committed performance that audibly opened a new door for this gifted orchestra to walk through. (DW)

Photo: Robert Torres

2. Joseph Calleja recital–Celebrity Series

Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja has been compared to such luminaries as Luciano Pavarotti and Beniamino Gigli. In his Boston debut, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston at Jordan Hall in April, it was easy to hear why. In his stellar performances of operatic favorites, Calleja sang with radiant warmth and a vibrant touch that found the power and sensitivity in arias and songs by Massenet, Offenbach, Cilea, Verdi, and Tchaikovsky. Even the five encores he presented, which included Edith Piaf’s “La vie en rose” sung from the aisles of the hall, remain fresh in the memory. (AK)

Photo: Marco Borggreve

Photo: Marco Borggreve

3. Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Mahler’s Symphony No. 6

Perhaps even more for the players than for the audience, the performance last March of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony recalled the night in Carnegie Hall in March 2011 when Nelsons made his unexpected BSO debut, substituting for an ailing James Levine in a performance of Mahler’s Ninth.

That performance went well enough to prompt speculation about what this young man could accomplish with a Mahler score if he and the orchestra knew each other better and there were more time to prepare. Last March, almost exactly four years later, Boston got its answer: a Sixth Symphony as knotty and episodic as ever, but held together and driven forward by Nelsons’s fierce commitment to this music, expressed in every bone and muscle of his lanky frame, and by the orchestra’s eager yet disciplined response. (DW)

Photo: Kathy Wittman

4. Odyssey Opera. Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love

Odyssey Opera has carved out a name for itself by offering works well off the beaten path for most companies. As part of a festival of British operas in May, Gil Rose and company offered a rare treat in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love. The swift and humorous opera featured fine singing and acting from Oren Gradus (Sir John Falstaff), Michael Chioldi (Ford), Samuel Levine (Fenton), and Megan Pachecano (Anne Page), performances that made this opera one of the year’s highlights. (AK) 

Ryan Turner. Photo: Toddi J. Norum

5. Emmanuel Music. “Bach Rearranged” 

The urge to arrange J.S. Bach’s music seems irresistible, starting with the master himself, who borrowed from his own works, turned his violin concertos into harpsichord concertos, etc.  In this October concert Emmanuel Music, Boston’s keeper of the Bach flame, digressed from its steady diet of cantatas to dip into the ocean of Bach arrangements, including a three-violin concerto “unarranged” from its later version for three harpsichords, wintry meditations by the aged Stravinsky on the Well-Tempered Clavier, and the upbeat jazz vocals of the Swingle Singers, all in vibrant, stylish performances led by Ryan Turner that made one marvel all over again at this inexhaustible composer. (DW)

Photo: Robert Torres

6. Emerson String Quartet. Lowell Liebermann’s String Quartet No. 5. Celebrity Series

Liebermann’s latest string quartet made a remarkable Boston debut in January with a stellar performance by the Emerson String Quartet, presented by the Celebrity Series. The single-movement work offers a journey of palpable emotional intensity that is apt, as Liebermann noted, for “what seems like a world gone mad.” It’s a piece with staying power, and one hopes that the quartet will become a classic of the twenty-first century. (AK)

Christine Goerke (right) and Gun-Brit Barkmin in Strauss's "Elektra," performed with Andris Nelsons and the BSO Thursday night. Photo: Liza Voll

Gun-Brit Barkmin (left) and Christine Goerke in Strauss’s “Elektra.” Photo: Liza Voll

7.  Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Strauss’s Elektra

In Richard Strauss’s most extravagant opera, which received two all-stops-out performances in October, the whole drama seems like an emanation from the fevered mind of its title character, who is onstage nearly throughout. As Elektra, soprano Christine Goerke carried the show and then some, enacting the wronged princess’s volcanic rage with bold physical presence and a rich, room-filling voice that could soar over Strauss’ massive orchestra in full cry. Gun-Brit Barkmin, last season’s Salome with this conductor and orchestra, topped a solid supporting cast as Elektra’s weak (but not vocally) sister Chrysothemis. Conductor Nelsons effectively realized Strauss’s atmospheric effects, mood-painting, and emotional moments from tiny shudders to blinding flashes, and the uninterrupted, 110-minute performance seemed to rivet the audience’s attention from the opening orchestral cry to the final fortissimo wallop and standing ovation. (DW)

Photo: Liz LInder

Photo: Liz Linder

8. Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Paul Moravec’s Blizzard Voices

Disastrous winters, such as the one experienced in New England this past year, live long in historical memory. Yet one of them, the Great Plains blizzard in 1888, spawned a work of haunting power and beauty. Paul Moravec’s 70-minute long oratorio Blizzard Voices, which made its Boston premiere in March, conveys the hellish events of the storm through darkly tonal music and colorful orchestral effects. Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, together with a solid cast of soloists and the singers of the New England Conservatory Concert Choir, captured the poignant sorrow and humanity of that tragic event. (AK)

Composer Shirish Korde

9. Boston Musica Viva. Shirish Korde’s Kala Chakra

“Toe-tapping” and “contemporary chamber music” don’t often appear in the same sentence.  Actually, it would take a pretty educated toe to tap along with the complex Indian tabla beats that were just one component of Kala Chakra, the nine-movement “celebration of rhythm” by Shirish Korde, given its world premiere in April by Boston Musica Viva. Overall, however, the new work, which also featured a soprano and a player of the sheng (a Chinese mouth organ) who also sang, proved so rhythmically infectious that, if the Longy School’s tiny Pickman Hall had any aisles to speak of, one could imagine the patrons dancing in them.  Tunes of Czech and Kazakh origin also leavened this United Nations of a piece.  All that plus lively short works by Donatoni, Currier, and Chou Wen-Chung made for a globe-spanning, invigorating evening of new and nearly-new music. (DW)

roomful_teeth

10. Roomful of Teeth–Celebrity Series “Stave Sessions”

The Celebrity Series of Boston launched its “Stave Sessions” last season in an attempt to attract younger audiences through programs that blur the lines between classical and popular music. The standout of those concerts was the one given by Roomful of Teeth in March at the Berklee College of Music’s new residence hall. With a mix of yodeling, belting, and Tuvan-style throat singing, the singers of this experimental ensemble gave mesmerizing accounts of Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize winning Partita for 8 Voices, Merrill Garbus’ Ansa Ya, and Judd Greenstein’s Montmartre, among others. (AK)

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Best World Premiere

Composer Mischa Salkind-Pearl and librettist Frederick Choi gave the work of Japanese writer Natsuko Higuchi new life in Troubled Water, a penetrating psychological opera premiered by the enterprising company Guerilla Opera in September. (AK)

Best New Presenting Venture

Celebrity Series’s new venture devoted to everything young, cool and emerging–not just in performers but (it was fervently hoped) in audiences—might have turned out hokey and pandering, like some other such efforts. But “Stave Sessions,” last March’s week-long mini-festival staged with mood lighting, table seating and a bar in the Berklee College of Music’s dining hall, managed to shed some of the church-like atmosphere of the concert hall without taking anything away from the music. Young and old listeners alike dug the genre-bending vocal styling of the group A Roomful of Teeth, say, or the kaleidoscopic sound creations of Third Coast Percussion, as the good old Celebrity Series revamped its wardrobe and stepped out into a world of serious fun. (DW)

Most Regrettably Appropriate Concert Program

Last February, despite crippled transit and snow-obliterated parking in Jamaica Plain’s narrow residential streets, a capacity crowd stuffed St. John’s Church to hear A Far Cry’s “Aurora Borealis,” a program of works inspired by . . . winter.  The conductorless ensemble rewarded the hardy music fans with playing of exceptional precision and enthusiasm as they gave vibrant life to scores by Lidholm, Grieg, Swedish folk fiddlers (arranged by Erik Higgins, the double-bassist with the group who curated this concert and took the blame for the weather), and two honorary Scandinavians, Steve Reich and Benjamin Britten. (DW)

Most Spectacular and Flamboyant Debut.

Cameron Carpenter continues to redefine the organ as an instrument of enrichment and entertainment, and his debut performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood this past summer, featuring Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, offered plenty of both. But most impressive was his encore recital, which featured his jaw-dropping virtuosity in his own transcriptions of works by Gershwin, Wagner, and Sousa. (AK)

Best Concert with No Instruments

In January, the Cantata Singers gave fans of Sergei Rachmaninoff another reason to love his music. In All-Night Vigil, a setting of hymns and responses from the Eastern Orthodox liturgy for chorus a capella, the famed exponent of piano pyrotechnics and small-r romantic melodies proved to be also a profound and moving explorer of Russian music’s ecclesiastical roots.  Under David Hoose’s firm and focused direction, the unaccompanied singers securely navigated the work’s fifteen movements with only a few discreet pitch checks along the way, a feat of concentration to match the performance’s high artistic standard. (DW)

Best Newish British Opera

It seems as though nothing can ever be banned in Boston again after Odyssey Opera’s production of Powder Her Face, the scandalous opera with which the 24-year-old Thomas Adés burst on the British music scene in 1995. The opera’s plot, which revolved around (and sometimes landed right on) a particular sex act, and whose, er, climax involved pornographic photos visible to the audience, clearly has not lost its power to shock.  Through vocal virtuosity and sheer physical agility (in the quick costume and makeup changes), a cast of four singers playing 17 roles made this savage satire of lustful British aristocrats snap and crackle. (DW) 

Best Newish American Opera

This production of In the Penal Colony by the Boston Lyric Opera’s experimental Annex outlet, presented only an angular blank wall bisecting the cavernous Cyclorama, yet gave a stark yet moving reading of Phillip Glass’s dark, throbbing adaptation of the Kafka short story.  With just three roles, two sung and one mimed, and a string quintet for accompaniment, the performance evoked Kafka’s oppressive vision, not just of a century of mechanized cruelty, but of the helplessness of the individual amid the spiritual crisis of a post-Freudian, God-is-dead world. (DW)

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One Response to “Top Ten Performances of 2015”

  1. Posted Jan 01, 2016 at 12:02 pm by john wlodkowski

    Enjoyed immensely the number and variety of concerts reviewed and underscoring the star attractions. This is a treat for those of us up here in Maine.