Top Ten Performances of 2018

December 23, 2018 at 11:33 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh and Jonathan Blumhofer

Photo: Robert Torres

Photo: Robert Torres

1. Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Celebrity Series.

As the most adventurous orchestra in the United States, the Los Angeles Philharmonic plays with a rare combination of power and beauty. Gustavo Dudamel and the ensemble proved that to Boston audiences earlier this year when the conductor led richly textured and revelatory performances of music by Shostakovich, Salonen, and Varèse for the Celebrity Series.

Salonen’s Pollux, a short curtain raiser, based upon a grunge rhythm had verve and vitality; Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, under Dudamel’s guide, was sweeping. But the highlight of this performance was Varèse’s Ameriques, its jagged musical shapes coming into sharp focus in this best of the year’s performances.  (AK)

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee performed a recital Saturday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series.

2. Lawrence Brownlee. Celebrity Series.

On paper, the Celebrity Series recital that paired bass-baritone Eric Owens with tenor Lawrence Brownlee promised to be among the year’s most memorable performances. But when Owens had to cancel due to illness, Brownlee was left to form a recital of his own with pianist Myra Huang.

And the tenor, known for his radiant voice, managed to dazzle in a reworked solo recital. With a program that paired Schumann’s Dichterliebe with select Italian and French operatic arias, Brownlee delivered singing of robust power and grace in equal measure. The standout was the “Pour mon âme” section from Donizetti’s “A mes amis,” that Mount Everest of arias from La Fille du Regiment, where Brownlee unleashed the punishing string of nine high Cs with such dexterity and strength that it brought to the audience to its feet. (AK)

Photo: Robert Torres

Photo: Robert Torres

3. Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14.

Andris Nelsons’ exploration of Shostakovich’s symphonies was once again among the season’s most rewarding performances. When he led the symphony—essentially, a set of songs about death for soprano, bass, strings, and percussion —with the Boston Symphony Orchestra this past February, Shostakovich’s music took on earthy darkness and intense drama. Yet the sensitive singing of Kristine Opolais and Alexander Tsymbalyuk projected glimmers of light and life into the composer’s view of the abyss. (AK)

Stefan Jackiw and Jeremy Denk performed Charles Ives' complete violin sonatas Friday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Photo: Robert Torres

4. Stefan Jackiw and Jeremy Denk in Ives’ complete violin sonatas. Celebrity Series.

Charles Ives’ Violin Sonatas, with their quotations of hymns and barn dances, cast an eye towards a bygone era when church meetings and social dances kept the New England communities of the composer’s youth bound together like family. In a rare treatment of the four works in a Celebrity Series recital last January, violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Jeremy Denk explored the Proustian nostalgia wrapped within Ives’ thorny music. The vocal quintet Hudson Shad was on hand to sing the original songs and hymns Ives’ quoted to make the sounds of that lost America sound fresh and familiar. (AK)

Emanuel Ax performed Sunday at Symphony Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

Photo: Robert Torres

5. Emanuel Ax. Celebrity Series.

Emanuel Ax is known just as much for his pianistic lyricism as for his assured technique, and his Celebrity Series recital this past October, which featured him in largely Romantic repertoire, showed why he remains one of brightest stars on the scene today. His version of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke was by turns exuberant and poignant. His playing of Brahms’ Rhapsodies, Chopin Mazurkas, and Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales had wide shades of color and terpsichorean flair. Yet it was his finale, Chopin’s Grand Polonaise Brillante, that lingers most in the memory for its alluring combination of melodic nuance and blazing virtuosity.   (AK)

Scott Ballantine and xxx in Laura Kaminsky's "As One" at Boston Opera Collaborative. Photo: Dan Busler

Photo: Dan Busler

6. Laura Kaminsky’s As One. Boston Opera Collaborative.

Laura Kaminsky’s As One made its Boston premiere last January by the enterprising Boston Opera Collaborative. Through bluesy strains and minimalistic pulses, Kaminsky’s music captured both the nervous anticipation and inner turmoil of Hannah, a transgender woman. Sung with equal parts conviction and compassion for such a timely subject, singers Scott Ballantine and Rebecca Krouner took listeners into Hannah’s world, where she experienced fear, discrimination, solitude, and eventually peace as she became her true self. (AK)

Andris Nelsons will increase his Tanglewood Festival commitment to ten weeks next summer.

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

Mahler’s symphonies have become a specialty for Andris Nelsons, and his traversal of these epic works over the past few seasons have in their own ways revealed the spiritual essence the composer threaded into his music. That was the sense at Symphony Hall in January when the conductor led Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, a symphony that revels in natural mysticism. Details in this performance were plentiful, with principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs’ posthorn solo flowing like a Swiss air. The women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by James Burton, captured the humanity of Mahler’s world-embracing score, and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham gave a dark and melting performance of “O Mensch” to draw out its sense of deep, abiding joy. 

Kara Shay Thomson. Photo: Kathy Wittman

Photo:Kathy Wittman

8. Odyssey Opera: Gounod’s La reine de Saba. 

Gounod’s La reine de Saba has long fallen out of the repertoire, but Gil Rose and Odyssey Opera’s resurrection of the work this past September—the world premiere of the original version—found all the supple melody and elegance of the French composer’s writing. The standout in this performance was soprano Kara Shay Thomson, who sang resplendently as the titular Queen of Sheba. Dominick Chenes’ bright, smooth-toned tenor made the character of Adoniram into a heroic figure who never shied away from his love for the Queen or duty to King Solomon. Rose’s fluent direction of the score let Gounod’s music flower so beautifully that one wonders why this opera is not better known. (AK)


9. Julia Bullock recital. Celebrity Series.

Music by Nina Simone, Billie Holliday, and Josephine Baker on a classical vocal recital? Yes, please – at least when Julia Bullock’s singing. The charismatic soprano made her Celebrity Series debut in May with a program split between canonic songs by Schubert, Barber, and Faure, and a concluding set that celebrated the contributions of women to the American song tradition. It was a splendid affair: impeccably sung, emotionally charged, and intellectually satisfying – easily one of the year’s most thoughtful and timely offerings. (JB)

Pianists Daniil Trifonov and Sergei Babayan performed Saturday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

Photo: Robert Torres

10. Daniil Trifonov and Sergei Babayan duo recital. Celebrity Series.

The Trifonov-Babayan recital at Jordan Hall in March promised to be very good: the former is among the most sensational keyboard artists of his generation while his teacher, Babayan, is second-to-none in his own right. And the event lived up to the hype, especially in its concluding survey of Rachmaninoff’s pair of two-piano Suites. (JB)

Honorable Mentions

The Dover Quartet, who is a relative newcomer to the chamber music scene, performs with the polish of ensembles that have been together for decades. In the group’s Celebrity Series debut earlier this month, the dynamic foursome gave thoughtful and delicate readings of the final string quartets of Tchaikovsky and Dvorák. Yet their performance of Mason Bates’ From Amber Frozen, with its nod to avant-garde trends and electronic dance music, showed that the ensemble is just as at home with the bold harmonies and extended techniques of new and recent repertoire. (AK)

Now 92, Herbert Blomstedt’s becoming something of a regular presence with the BSO, both at Tanglewood and Symphony Hall. His most recent appearance with the orchestra this summer in Lenox paired blazing, direct performances of Classical-era fare by Mozart and Haydn with Leonard Bernstein’s potent flute-and-orchestra nocturne, Halil.  (JB)

Most unusual premiere

This September, White Snake Projects offered the world premiere of Dan Visconti’s PermaDeath, an opera that explores the idea of life enhanced by digital technology. Billed as the first video-game opera, PermaDeath told the story of a disabled young gamer who finds second life through her online avatar Apollo. As she duals with other players in a gaming tournament, she gets drawn into the mix to the point where it costs her her life. 

Visconti’s music, with its tasteful blend of folk styles, blues, and mid-twentieth-century avant-garde techniques, couldn’t always make up for a clumsy libretto. But the opera makes a strong case for the life-affirming effects of technology through a story that resembles the best elements of Ready Player One and The Hunger Games. (AK)

Best new orchestral score

When the son of jazz guitarist John Scofield died unexpectedly a few years ago, friend and frequent collaborator Mark-Anthony Turnage poured his grief into music. But the resulting Remembering: In Memoriam Evan Scofield, which Andris Nelsons led in its world premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra this past November, is more than a lament. Its arresting combination of jazzy rhythms, soaring melody, and biting dissonances seem to shake a fist the face of tragedy and death, a fitting memorial for a man who appeared to live life to the fullest. (AK)

Most impressive podium debut

When news broke about Charles Dutoit’s sexual misconduct earlier this year, the Boston Symphony Orchestra broke all ties with the conductor, a former regular guest in Symphony Hall. Filling his spot earlier this year was French conductor Jacques Lacombe, who made a fine impression in his BSO debut. On the podium, Lacombe struck a graceful presence, and he led the orchestra in a version of Ravel’s complete Daphnis et Chloé that was focused upon sensuous lines and vivid color. (AK)

Best birthday celebration

Music by women rarely graces the programs of Boston’s leading ensembles. But Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project remedied that deficiency by exploring the music of Joan Tower, who celebrated her eightieth birthday this past year. 

Tower’s music is crafted with a nod to tradition, and her scores have the flavor of Bartók and Copland. Rose deftly unveiled the live-wire intensity of works such as Chamber Dance, Red Maple, and Made in America to make the event stand out as one of the most remarkable of the year. (AK)

Best new opera

The life of Arnold Schoenberg is all too operatic, and Tod Machover’s riveting new opera Schoenberg in Hollywood, which Boston Lyric Opera premiered this past November, found both the humorous and pensive sides to a composer known for his seriousness and severity. By conveying events from the composer’s life in pre-Nazi Austria to his move to Southern California through the prism of Hollywood film clichés, Machover’s opera told a stirring and often humorous tale without resorting to cheap gags. Omar Ebrahim, as Schoenberg, relayed the tragedies of the composer’s life through singing that was both charming and delightfully eerie. (AK)

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