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A Further Look Back at 2003 by Bruce Hodges.

Our editor’s request for a brief comment on the most memorable performance of the year had me recalling many others with great pleasure. So herewith is a complete list of the experiences that stood out, most of them for many reasons, including keeping me awake for hours after they had ended. (Some of them still do.) Aside from the top two, they are in no particular order. Links are provided where reviews exist.

1. Salvatore Sciarrino: Macbeth Johannes Debus, conductor, Oper Frankfurt, Ensemble Modern, Lincoln Center Festival, John Jay Theatre, New York City. This year, as far as contemporary operas go, it would be hard to top Poul Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale, but friends are still talking about this and shaking their heads in disbelief. Achim Freyer’s utterly startling staging made the most of a work that is pretty startling to begin with.

2. Sven-David Sandstrom: High MassPhilip Brunelle, conductor, VocalEssence, World Voices, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota. A scorching, profoundly moving piece that might be performed more often were it not so difficult. Brunelle should be commended not only for his breathtaking reading, but also for identifying the piece as notable in the first place.

3. Prokofiev: Semyon Kotko Valery Gergiev, conductor, Kirov Opera of the Mariinsky Theatre, Lincoln Center Festival, Metropolitan Opera House, New York City. Gergiev unearthed an underrated masterpiece, and with the help of the brilliant Semyon Pastukh, gave it a riveting production.

4. Mahler: Symphony No.2 Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California. These emotional performances made a divine beginning to the orchestra’s inaugural season in its new home, and offered a breathtaking display of the room’s incredible sonics.

5. Mahler: Symphony No.6 Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California. With Thomas at his spellbinding best and the Los Angeles orchestra in blazing form, these concerts will be remembered as some of the true blockbusters in a hall that must now be considered one of the best in the world.

6. Karita Mattila, soprano, with Martin Katz, piano. Carnegie Hall, New York City. Fresh from her vivid Jenufa at the Metropolitan Opera, Mattila wowed us with Duparc, Dvorak, Rachmaninoff and Sibelius (and that salmon-colored dress) during an evening that seemed just about perfect. Let’s not forget her hilarious encore, Golden Earrings (yes, Peggy Lee).

7. Janacek: Jenufa. Vladimir Jurowski, conductor, Metropolitan Opera, New York City. Despite tons of gorgeous music, this work is still off the radar for most listeners. Jurowski led a masterful, hypnotic vision with two contemporary stars, Karita Mattila and Deborah Polaski, leading the charge. Never mind the derisive comments on that boulder in Act II; the fact is, I’m still thinking about it.

8. Feldman: Triadic Memories Marilyn Nonken, piano, Miller Theatre, New York. An oasis of shimmering meditation in a busy fall season, Nonken’s delicate afternoon demanded that we pause, in a world in which it is increasingly hard to do so.

9. Ruders: The Handmaid's Tale Antony Walker, conductor, Minnesota Opera, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, St. Paul, Minnesota. Arguably the operatic event of the year, Poul Ruders’ brutal rendering of Atwood’s novel was given a swift and chilling production. Memorable singing and star turns by Elizabeth Bishop and Joyce Castle only added to the impact.

10. Balinese gamelan performance, Messiaen: Turangalila Symphony Christoph Eschenbach, conductor, Philadelphia Orchestra, Gamelan Semara Santi of Swarthmore College, Carnegie Hall, New York City. In one of the most intelligent bits of programming of the year, Eschenbach prefaced a modern masterpiece with a bracing display of Balinese music, and the result ignited like a rocket.

And ten more, just because it was that kind of year.

1. Salvatore Sciarrino: Chamber Music Joel Sachs, conductor, New Juilliard Ensemble, Paul Hall, Lincoln Center Festival, New York City. It might win the award for "Quietest Concert of the Year." A hushed coda to Oper Frankfurt’s astounding Macbeth, this beautifully gauged and performed sampling only confirmed that like many great composers, Sciarrino perceives sound in a way like no one else.

2. Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Ligeti: Violin Concerto, Beethoven: Symphony No.6 Simon Rattle, conductor, Berlin Philharmonic, Tasmin Little, violin, Carnegie Hall, New York City. In his first appearances in New York with the orchestra, Rattle updated two classics with many magnificently played insights. The stunning Ligeti, with its starring role for ocarinas, also turned some of us into Tasmin Little groupies.

4. Debussy: Pelleas et Melisande (in concert). Bernard Haitink, conductor, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York City. Haitink has some kind of supernatural rapport with Debussy, and with an all-star cast that included Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Simon Keenlyside, Gerald Finley, Nathalie Stutzmann, John Tomlinson and Alfred Walker, the sold-out evening was pretty overwhelming.

5. Mahler: Symphony No.8 James Conlon, conductor, Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Any night this work is on the menu is an event, and Conlon only raised the stakes by making it his Minnesota Orchestra debut. The thrilling result aside, you have to hand it to him: he’s got nerve.

6. Rimsky-Korsakov: The Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia Valery Gergiev, conductor, The Kirov Opera, Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center Festival, New York City. Another rarity unearthed by Gergiev and given an incandescent production. No sleight to favorites like say, La Traviata, but would there really be any harm in seeing this oh, once every fifty years?

7. Dallapiccola and Nono: Choral works Leon Botstein, conductor, American Symphony Orchestra, Concert Chorale of New York, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City. Forbidding names to some, these two composers were easy to like in this lucid, compelling afternoon, made more so with Botstein’s scholarly but unpretentious presentation.

8. Brahms: Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms, Augusta Read Thomas: Chanting to Paradise, Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 ("Reformation"). Christoph Eschenbach, conductor, The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Philadelphia Singers Chorale, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia. In an outstandingly played, not to mention generous concert, Thomas’ marvelous new piece held its own among veterans, and the line-up only confirmed Eschenbach’s superlative programming instincts.

9. Rzewski: De Profundis, North American Ballads. Lisa Moore, piano, Joe’s Pub, New York City. The intimate club atmosphere proved to be the perfect venue for an equally intimate evening, with Moore turning gender expectations on edge with her astonishing rendition of De Profundis. For those who couldn’t be there, fortunately she also released her equally memorable recording.

10. Shostakovich: Songs from Jewish Folk Poetry, Symphony No.7 ("Leningrad") Valery Gergiev, conductor, Kirov Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York City. In the highlight of the Kirov’s fall set here, the energy of Gergiev and this terrific group pretty much blew everyone out of the hall. Not an unpleasant sensation, mind you.

Bruce Hodges

A look back at 2003 by Peter Woolf


Peter Woolf is a former editor of Seen & Heard and currently edits Musical Pointers. Here he offers a typically esoteric look back at some of the concerts, festivals and operas which were reviewed less widely during 2003.

Musical Pointers was launched in 2002, and features musicians, events and recordings which are less likely to be covered by the leading paper publications. In part, its aim is to point to the future with an emphasis on younger performers, student productions and recording companies, with a bias towards contemporary music and the exciting contemporary developments in early music. Its emphasis is less on established concert venues and admirably meets its founder’s mission statement of looking at developments in classical music that are invariably overlooked elsewhere.

Marc Bridle

Editor, Seen & Heard

Avoiding, all too easily, this year's offerings at the mainstream venues and chief opera houses, which were well covered elsewhere, my most memorable live events in 2003 cluster around unusual opera and near-opera productions (students regularly outshining their elders), early music and a few special 20th Century programmes. Of the latter, I choose three enterprising piano events which deserved far larger audiences; Ian Pace's marathon recitals (premieres of Rihm's Klaverstucke and Dillon's Book of Elements, both complete) and Rzewski plays Rzewski to launch the London Jazz Festival.  There were several wide-ranging and rewarding festivals in London, with fascinating juxtapositions at "Spitalfields in exile". A good opera season at Holland Park reminded us that London's own "country house opera" compares well with more fashionable others; Opera Holland Park's

Fidelio was a really great production which demands revival and filming for DVD. Revivals of the African Yiimimangaliso (The Mysteries) and Ibali looTsotsi (The Beggar's Opera) were triumphant at Wilton's Music Hall, as too was Cavalli's Orion by venetianOpera - Wilton's is an operatic venue which should not be passed over. Handel oratorios gained new leases of theatrical life at Oxford (WNO's Jephtha) and, most notably of all, at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (a great, innovative Susanna).  Britten's Albert Herring at Zurich showed how students at a Swiss opera school could bring new life to a very British favourite. Early music is in the ascendant with too many choices  to cover; of many delights at Wigmore Hall I single out the Hugo Wolf Centenary Festival, Alison Balsom for a surprise recital, and for early music novelties Matthew Wadsworth and Olga Tverskaya with Sonnerie.  The Greenwich International Festival is an annual must, and Trinity College of Music's expansion, move to Greenwich and linkage with Blackheath Halls and Laban have combined to make South East London a formidable destination, easily reached from the centre of the capital.  At Blackheath Halls some perfectly conceived and achieved concerts were given by Endymion Ensemble, The Clerks' Group, Elena Riu, Elysian Quartet and Arpege, to name but a few, and their Prokofiev's complete chamber music weekend was an important contribution to his 2003 anniversary year.  I hope that clicking on the links to some of them may prove interesting in itself, and point readers the way to encourage exploration further afield in search of the riches of live music (most of the reviews have also links to CDs too). "Music is the best school for life and at the same time a means of escape from the world" (Parallels & Paradoxes, Barenboim & Said). Good listening and reading, and serendipitous discoveries during 2004. 

Peter Grahame Woolf

Emeritus editor, Seen & Heard and Founder/Editor of Musical Pointers

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