The Top 10 Performances of 2012

December 23, 2012 at 3:45 pm

By David Wright and Keith Powers

Stéphane Denève conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in February at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

1. Stéphane Denève and the Boston Symphony Orchestra: Ravel, Stravinsky, Shostakovich

This very assorted February program read like an audition to succeed James Levine as the BSO’s music director, which it no doubt was, but Denève’s intense concentration and rich imagination banished such mundane thoughts, at least while the music was playing. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was an evanescent dream; Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds (with a steel-fingered Peter Serkin) lifted listeners out of their seats with its potent rhythms; and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was by turns tense, disconsolate, and, in its closing portrait of Soviet totalitarianism on the march, utterly terrifying. For quality of music-making from first note to last, and its possible significance in Boston’s most closely-watched executive search, we’re ranking this performance first among the city’s musical events in 2012. (DW)


The Hagen Quartet.

2. Hagen Quartet: Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart

Incredibly, Boston had to wait 30 years for a visit by this three-siblings-and-a-friend ensemble from Salzburg. Presented by the Celebrity Series, the Hagens’ silky tonal blend and subtly layered dialogue—familiar from their many recordings but even more impressive onstage in February at Jordan Hall–epitomize the spirit of chamber music. Nothing exotic or flashy here–just the core classics (Beethoven’s “Serioso,” Haydn’s “Joke,” and Mozart’s “Prussian”), served with refinement and deep insight. (DW)


A Far Cry. Photo: Yoon S. Byun

3. A Far Cry: Cage, Schnittke, Haydn

With choreography, lighting cues, instruments and radios, even moving the furniture, this conductorless young orchestra-in-residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum did everything–and nothing, in a rare live performance of John Cage’s notorious 4’ 33”—to celebrate Cage’s centenary. Staged in the round in Calderwood Hall, the museum’s intimate “performance cube,” the December program featured two more Cage works from the early 1950s, Schnittke’s classical burlesque Moz-Art à la Haydn, and a wall-rattling performance of Haydn’s turbulent “Farewell” Symphony, proving there’s more than one way to be a musical radical. (DW)


Leila Josefowicz performig Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto with Salonen and the BSO at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

4. Leila Josefowicz and Esa-Pekka Salonen with the BSO: Salonen’s Violin Concerto

The Finnish-Angeleno conductor-composer made his overdue composer debut with the BSO in April in spectacular fashion, leading a brilliant performance of his California- and Latin-tinged Violin Concerto, an immensely attractive piece that appears headed for the standard repertory—if violinists anywhere near as fiery and fearless as Leila Josefowicz can be found to play it. (DW)


Irving Fine

5. Irving Fine commemoration at Brandeis University

Fifty years after the untimely death of Irving Fine at age 47, performers, composers (including two Pulitzer laureates), students, and members of the Fine family gathered at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. to remember the elegant composer, teacher, founder of Brandeis’s School of Creative Arts, and confidant of the likes of Bernstein, Copland, et al. Stories that evoked wonder and laughter, interspersed with performances of Fine’s Serious Song and Notturno for Strings and Harp, made this admired Boston-born musical figure a living presence once again. (DW)


Daniil Trifonov

6. Daniil Trifonov at Longy School’s Pickman Hall

A double debut: the much-talked-about, 21-year-old Russian virtuoso making his Boston bow in the first presentation ever by the Celebrity Series of Boston in Pickman Hall at the Longy School of Music of Bard College. The 280-seat hall, an architectural gem looking much younger than its 42 years, proved an excellent intimate venue. Trifonov showed what the fuss was about in a finger-busting first half of Scriabin, Medtner, and Stravinsky, followed by sensitive Debussy and an amazingly light and airy rendering of Chopin’s daunting Etudes, Op. 25. (DW)


Christina Day Martinson.

7. Boston Baroque: Biber’s Rosary Sonatas

Try playing a dozen different pieces on alternately tuned violins in one concert. Not only do your fingers go in different places, the music reads differently in the score each time. Boston Baroque concertmaster Christina Day Martinson did this so effortlessly that the gorgeous scordatura music was the spotlight, not the extraordinary effort, in this intimate February performance at First Church in Cambridge. (KP)


Christoph Eschenbach

8. Boston Symphony Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach: Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique

Making the familiar come alive with energy. That’s the conundrum with so much music-making, and here, with Christoph Eschenbach conducting one of the true orchestral staples in his BSO debut in March, a chestnut came alive with energy and precise articulation. (KP)


Bruce Brubaker

9. Pianist Bruce Brubaker playing music of Cage, Glass, Curran

Musical delight springs from warmth and emotional suggestiveness, but also from terror and darkness. Alvin Curran’s Hope Street Tunnel Blues, a dozen minutes of awful beauty, mixed in with musical celebrations for the birthdays of John Cage and Philip Glass, all interpreted intelligently by pianist Bruce Brubaker, made this June evening at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival remarkable. (KP)


Christopher Burchett, David Cushing, and John Bellemer in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Peter Maxwell Davies’ “The Lighthouse.” Photo: Erik Jacobs

10. Boston Lyric Opera: Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse

With the demise of the edgy Opera Boston, the BLO could simply traipse through Aida and Barber of Seville to fill the needs of Boston’s underserved opera lovers. But in addition to the standard repertory, the BLO’s annual exploration of rarely heard works in unusual venues has become a welcome tradition in its own right. This sparkling February performance of Davies’ mysterious opera at the JFK Library at UMass/Boston, was beautifully conceived by director Tim Albery. (KP)


Honorable Mentions

Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s “Strange Bedfellows” concert. There are some very fine concertos for viola and for horn, and even a few for mandolin. But electric guitar? Theremin? Each of those instruments had its moment in the spotlight, and the high quality and imagination of the scores drove away all thoughts of camp or mere novelty. Well, almost all. Oooh-weee-oooh! (DW)

Handel and Haydn Society in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion
The light, fleet aesthetic of Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society brought us a St. Matthew Passion that emphasized the “good” in Good Friday. While the story’s violence and irony inevitably came through, it was the warmer emotions of piety, love and gratitude that prevailed in this fresh interpretation of the Lenten classic. (DW)

Vladimir Jurowski and the BSO
In a year rife with memorable performances at Symphony Hall, Vladimir Jurowski led the Boston Symphony in a riveting, take-no-prisoners performance of Shostakovich’s manic and unhinged Fourth Symphony, which was overwhelming in its violent power and seismic impact. If Stéphane Denève is the current favorite of many to be the BSO’s next music director, Jurowski’s spectacular BSO debut in October makes him a dark horse to watch. (Lawrence A. Johnson)

Early music soprano Sandrine Piau’s evening of mélodie and lied at Jordan Hall in April was a Celebrity Series coming out party, served notice that singers can change perceptions. An October appearance of Piau with the BSO, singing multiple parts in Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, reaffirmed the idea. (KP)

The multiple performances of the music of Thomas Adès, including his Arcadiana by the Calder Quartet (Rockport Chamber Music Festival in June) and his piano concerto In Seven Days, with soloist Kirill Gerstein and the composer conducting the BSO in November; violinists Gil Shaham (Britten concerto in November) and Joshua Bell (Bernstein’s Serenade in October) with the BSO, reminding that there’s a reason great players make it to the top; Boston Early Music Festival’s tasteful semi-staging of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, another insightful production from director Gilbert Blin; the Takacs Quartet, with pianist Marc-André Hamelin, playing the Shostakovich Piano Quintet at Jordan Hall in November. (KP)

Most Gratifying Delayed Gratification

The 33-year-old Latvian maestro Andriss Nelsons, much talked about for his recent recordings and for substituting for James Levine with the BSO in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in March 2011, canceled his official BSO debut in favor of another debut: the impending birth of his first child. In his place, BSO assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger struggled with a Haydn symphony, rallied with a trumpet concerto by Mark-Anthony Turnage, then led a performance of Strauss’s sprawling Also sprach Zarathustra that was so assured and revelatory that it nearly made this year’s Top 10. If BSO subscribers had to wait to hear Nelsons, at least they did so in style. (DW)

Most Frustrating Cancellation

Many candidates for this one, in a season where not only was the BSO’s music director on the disabled list, but illness or other factors (see above) kept poking holes in the orchestra’s podium lineup. And the award goes to…Riccardo Chailly, the venerable maestro who was to have made his Boston debut with two programs, one of them consisting entirely of Mendelssohn’s problematical Lobgesang for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, a musical jackalope that starts like a symphony and ends like an oratorio. Bramwell Tovey bravely took the piece on in Chailly’s place, and mined some nice music from it, but one couldn’t help wondering what flash of insight had inspired Chailly to make this oddity his Boston calling card. (DW)

The Gloria Steinem Award for Musical Consciousness-Raising

Sexy marketing for a good cause is the watchword these days for musical organizations and nonprofits in general, but for combining flash with good value few have matched the Handel and Haydn Society’s campaign to get listeners in the door with one high-profile masterpiece, then expose them to the marvelous variety of 18th-century music. For example, listeners who may have bought tickets mainly to hear Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons were treated not only to a fine performance of that concerto cycle, featuring the orchestra’s new concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, but also to a generous helping of works by Handel, Corelli, and Johann Christian Bach in performances that brought those three very different composers vividly to life. (DW)

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One Response to “The Top 10 Performances of 2012”

  1. Posted Dec 28, 2012 at 11:01 am by Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt

    The uncanny resemblance of M. Deneve to the young Levine will have no effect on his audition, I’m sure.

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