December 19 - 26, 1 9 9 6
[Arts 1996]
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Classical gases

[Seiji Ozawa]

Best concert

For the first time since I started doing year-end Top 10 lists, Seiji Ozawa and the BSO top the 10, with a program consisting of the overture to one children's opera (Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel) and an entire children's opera (Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges) surrounding a work of spiritual and artistic maturity (Mahler's five Rückert-Lieder, with the great Belgian bass-baritone José van Dam singing with conviction, passion, and profundity). In the Ravel, Ozawa paid unusually close attention to specific details, and the opera turned into a work that was actually less about childhood than about maturity -- about how becoming a civilized human being means being able to imagine and then feel what the things and people around us (including inanimate objects, "nature," and even imaginary beings) are feeling. Ozawa, the orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Susan Graham as the naughty child who acquires sympathy and sagacity, and a superb cast that included van Dam in two small but unforgettable roles captured the opera's deep wisdom without losing its magical innocence. Of course, the question remains (in fact, intensifies): why can't Ozawa do more on this level of imagination?

Most welcome guest

The BSO's most consistently inspired guest conductor has been Sir Simon Rattle. This year's Mahler 10th Symphony, Beethoven Violin Concerto (with glorious Ida Haendel), Bartók Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (outclassing Ozawa on his own musical turf), Brahms First Piano Concerto in an extraordinary collaboration with the elegant (but astounding) Krystian Zimerman), and symphonies by Bruckner and Haydn might have topped the Top 10 in any other year.

Best choral event

Craig Smith's Emmanuel Music -- the Boston group most dedicated to Bach -- waited for its 25th anniversary to do the greatest of all choral works, Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Smith's flexible and heartfelt conducting, the amazing orchestral ensemble (with notable solo playing by concertmaster Danielle Madden and oboist Peggy Pearson), the magnificent chorus, and especially thrilling performances by young Stephen Salters, Frank Kelley, and the glowing Sanford Sylvan as Jesus made it all worth the wait.

Best opera production

Stephen Wadsworth's bourgeois-tization of Handel's heroic Xerxes (Boston Lyric Opera) may not have been the most profound realization of the score, but Lorraine Hunt's singing and Craig Smith's conducting certainly were, and countertenor David Daniels made another outstanding impression. In production values, this handsome borrowed production also rose above the checkered record of our only continuing opera company.

Youthful phenomena

The BankBoston Celebrity Series, which gave us such magnificent events as last spring's piano recital by Dubravka Tomsic, doesn't have to take the risk of presenting major concerts by the not-yet-famous. So its Emerging Artists Series deserves our applause and support all the more. Although this year's serious, ambitious, and phenomenally accomplished pianists (Max Levinson and Sergei Schepkin) were more deeply satisfying than this year's vocalist (baritone Christophòren Nomura), the entire series is a source of comfort about the future of musicmaking.

Congratulations also to Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic (who gave us Yo-Yo Ma before the BSO did) for presenting another magnificent young pianist (yet another student of Russell Sherman), 22-year-old Jong Hwa Park, in a stunning yet poetic performance of the "impossible" Bartók Second Piano Concerto.

The wisdom of age

Robert Henry, the 73-year-old American pianist living in Hamburg (at the Harvard-Epworth Church); 69-year-old Italian virtuoso pianist Sergio Fiorentino (at the Breakers in Newport); 70-year-old tenor Karl Dan Sorensen heartbreaking and heart-easing in Bach with the Cantata Singers; 77-year-old Leon Kirchner conducting 30-year-old former Emerging Artist HaeSun Paik in a powerful, fully-realized Mozart D-minor Concerto at the Gardner Museum (preceding a year of precarious health from which he is now recuperating); and, at the BSO, the septuagenarian violinist Ida Haendel playing Beethoven and the great Leon Fleisher (68) in his first two-handed piano performances at Symphony Hall in 40 years (playing Mozart under the inspired hand of Robert Spano) -- all these were role models for every young turk aspiring to great musicianship.

Best idea

The BSO worked out a series of citywide tributes to the first African-American concert star, the sublime tenor Roland Hayes, who was born on the Georgia plantation where his mother had been a slave, and who died at 90 in 1977 after a pathbreaking career. I didn't much care for the central event, a BSO concert, though George Walker's commissioned premiere, Lilacs, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

[David Hoose]

Best new work

David Hoose and the Cantata Singers, who commissioned John Harbison's Pulitzer-winning Flight into Egypt (the Pulitzer committee isn't always wrong), presented the Boston premiere of Harbison's magnificent Emerson, a complex choral setting of two prose texts by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Such unprepossessing material nevertheless was given moving and eloquent voice by both composer and performers, who -- wisely and welcomely -- scheduled the piece twice on the same program. It won't be the last we hear of this new masterpiece.

Biggest disappointment

Mark Morris's production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, with the Handel & Haydn Society, should have been the year's great event, but neither Morris's stage direction nor Christopher Hogwood's conducting (nor much of the singing) was up to Morris's all-too-minimal choreography, most of which in turn was not among his most exciting work. Oh well, every genius has a right to produce a noble failure -- once.

Most fun

What a relief that after last year's opening night fiasco at renovated Jordan Hall the Sanders Theatre restoration concert should turn out to be not only acoustically reassuring but a lot of fun. Six splendid keyboard artists (Stephen Drury, Randall Hodgkinson, Christopher Taylor, Robert Levin, Igor Kipnis, and the irresistible Luise Vosgerchian) played a wide spectrum of serious but celebratory work. And 16 students roused the hall with Czerny's exuberant eight-piano arrangement of Rossini's Semiramide Overture.

Later in the season, Collage music director David Hoose led a small group of Boston's most phenomenal instrumentalists in a hilarious and dazzling performance of William Walton's Façade, with Benjamin Zander and Susan Larson the glittering reciters of Edith Sitwell's not-as-nonsensical-as-you-might-at-first-think masterpiece.

-- Lloyd Schwartz

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