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Seen & Heard reviewers from the UK and the United States nominate their best live performances of 2003.


As we look forward to a new musical year, Seen & Heard’s reviewers offer their best concert or opera experiences of 2003. Links are given for those reviews which were covered on these pages, but as is often the case not necessarily a reviewer’s best concert of the year need be one they reviewed.


In many ways, 2003 was a disappointing year for live music in London with many London orchestras offering unimaginative programming, Covent Garden offering little in the way of innovative productions and ENO homeless (and productionless), but in temporary situ at the Barbican. Opera began with Donald Runnicles’ complete Tristan & Isolde taken act-by-act over several months and was noteworthy for an incandescent Isolde in Christine Brewer. The same conductor’s Elektra at the Proms, a triumph for conductor and orchestra alike, was formidable. In the concert hall, Mikhael Pletnev’s Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto will remain an unforgettable experience as will Gilbert Kaplan’s Mahler Second. But easily the finest performance of the year was Part 1 of Berlioz’ The Trojans at the Proms – Sir Colin Davis’ last ever London performance of the complete opera. Not only did it revise my opinion of both composer and opera it was also music making on an inspired level, breathtakingly delivered, with the kind of artistry one is all too inclined to feel is often lacking in our new century.

Marc Bridle


The best concert is actually quite tricky. The Ligeti Concertos concert, Birtwistle’s Theseus Games premiere, Pires (in November), Prokofiev’s War & Peace at the only Prom worth going to this year, and Uchida (on March 14th, not the recent Beethoven) all spring to mind. However, I would like to propose a slightly controversial choice, Sadie Harrison's Light Garden Trilogy performed in an obscure church on September 30th. She always had talent but has now found her own voice and the symbiotic interaction of traditional and original elements was masterly (or should that be mistressly?). The Metier recording confirms that initial impressions were not erroneous.

Colin Clarke


For anyone immersed in Lieder, the performances of the year simply have to be the Goerne / Brendel Schubert Winterreise and Shwanengesang at the Wigmore. Amidst all the c*** about singers who are 'quite simply the greatest Lieder singer in the world' mainly because they cry / they push the lines about / they exaggerate theatrically/ they're thin/ they're cute (sometimes all in one) here is a singer who reminds you that it is not the performer who should be moved to tears, but the audience, and that emotion and involvement come from inside: here is a pianist who despite a lifetime of solo greatness still has the nobility of mind to become the equal of a man half his age - and they are united in performances of such searing authority, such tremendous power, such visceral involvement and such freshness of approach that you cannot do otherwise than go back to the music with renewed love and deepened understanding.

Melanie Eskenazi


Given all the dire assessments of the state of classical music, somehow there still seems to be a lot of sensational music around. Most recently, how could one decide between Michael Tilson Thomas’ brilliant Mahler Sixth, vividly projected in the spectacular new Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, following on the heels of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s equally overwhelming Mahler Second, just a month earlier? In New York, Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Opera gave us Prokofiev’s coruscating Semyon Kotko as the centerpiece of their summer stay at Lincoln Center, and in February, coming just a few weeks after her memorable Jenufa at the Metropolitan Opera, Karita Mattila triumphed in a Carnegie Hall recital, including a Sibelius set with the delicate "A Dragonfly." So I’m afraid I have to cheat and choose two. In May in Minneapolis, Philip Brunelle and his expert VocalEssence ensemble tackled Sven-David Sandström’s extraordinary High Mass, a vast, ecstatic, wrenching tapestry filled with shrieking tessituras. If this superb performance helps give this work a wider audience, so much the better. And my mind still reels from Salvatore Sciarrino’s astounding opera Macbeth, staged by Oper Frankfurt with the Ensemble Modern at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival. A complete rethinking of the story, Sciarrino’s ghostly assemblage of tiny gestures was given a hauntingly mysterious production, featuring an outstanding, game cast who were ready to literally walk up and down walls -- a disorienting experience that was like no other this year.

Bruce Hodges


Since the "most moving or musical experience" is what our editor asked for, I am inclined to cheat and offer two selections. In the "most moving" category, the experience of the year has to have been the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, conducted by James Levine, which my wife and I saw (and heard) in March from two of the Met’s unbelievably reasonably priced $25 seats up in the gods. What a work it is!–an infinitely greater masterpiece of 19th-century music-theatre, in my opinion, than all the Rings in the world. Most moving of all was Andromache’s lament, in which Alexandra Deshorties was supported by a poignantly expressive clarinet solo by Ricardo Morales–making it all the more exciting, for a Philadelphia resident, when the Philadelphia Orchestra subsequently announced his appointment as its new principal clarinet. "Most musical?" Well, for all the fascinating new things the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director Christoph Eschenbach has given us in his first season, his masterly interpretation of Mozart’s last symphony takes pride of place, by virtue alike of superbly refined and vivid orchestral playing and of conducting that placed equal stress on expression and overall structure and responded with unfailing perception to the harmonic pulse of the music. This is the kind of insight and sensitivity demanded by a classic of such stature, by contrast with many a 19th- or 20th-century warhorse that can get by just through virtuosity.

Bernard Jacobson


To select an overall ‘winner’ from the marvellous assortment of music I have reviewed in 2003 is an invidious task. Amongst some excellent and inspiring Proms, particularly memorable was John Adams conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the European premiere of his deeply moving Transmigration of Souls which he composed in response to the ‘9/11’ event. The London premiere of Kalevi Aho’s Symphony No.9 for Trombone and Orchestra (1993-4) featured brilliant virtuoso playing by trombonist Christian Lindberg, with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under the incisive direction of Osmo Vänskä. Jazz musician Bobby McFerrin galvanised the Vienna Philharmonic in an electrifying evening of favourites by Prokofiev, Vivaldi, Dukas and Ravel. At a QEH concert, Joanna MacGregor boogied her way round the platform conducting her arrangement of eight fugues from J.S Bach’s unfinished Art of the Fugue, superbly combining the Britten Sinfonia and jazz musicians Andy Sheppard on saxophone and Shrikanth Sriram on tabla. Veteran Paavo Berglund conducted a miraculous account of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the RFH. But best of the year was Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus in an outstandingly successful combination of Bruckner's unfinished Ninth Symphony and Te Deum.

Alex Russell


My most powerful musical experience of 2003 was Wagner's Der Fliegender Hollander heard in Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco June 13. Michael Tilson Thomas, a conductor with great theatrical flair, seldom has the time to conduct in an opera house. In the past he has done well by Bernstein ("Candide," "On the Town"), but this was something else again. Tilson Thomas conspired with bass-baritone Mark Delavan and soprano Jane Eaglen, both in thrilling voice, and an orchestra hanging on every gesture to deliver Wagnerian music theater of the highest order. The semi-staged production needed nothing more than the simple black costumes and enough performing space to let the singers roam. It's all in the music, anyway. Delavan's final scene flattened me like the gathering storm it is. I have never been so overwhelmed by a Dutchman -- the opera or the character -- in the opera house.

Harvey Steiman




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