The Boston Phoenix December 28, 2000 - January 4, 2001

[Music Reviews]

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Classical gases

Classical -- year in review

by Lloyd Schwartz

Elliott Carter Main event. "The future isn't what it used to be," composer Elliott Carter quipped to a benefit audience for the Boston Musica Viva at a superb concert of his music a few weeks before his 92nd birthday, which fell on December 11. At least as far as Carter is concerned, we have a long past to be grateful for. Not to mention a recent past. He's been working like a dynamo, and his latest pieces are among his most exciting and youthful. His first opera, What Next?, had its first American performances in Chicago and New York this millennial year, and one of the great events of 2000 was this past summer's Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, at which Carter was composer in residence. The BSO played its first performance in 36 years of Carter's seminal Variations for Orchestra, under the illuminating baton of Robert Spano. And there were a number of American premieres played by the Tanglewood fellows, especially a dazzling and moving new chamber-orchestra piece called the ASKO Concerto that was led by Stefan Asbury.

Happy landmarks. The Tanglewood festival also included, in the form of outstanding "student" performances, tributes to such legendary figures as Pierre Boulez (75 this year), Luciano Berio (75), Gunther Schuller (75), and George Perle (85). The most thrilling concerts I heard this year were at Carnegie Hall, where for one astounding weekend Boulez -- as part of a 75th birthday tour -- led the London Symphony Orchestra in great (and I don't use the word loosely) performances of modernist classics (an unforgettable Petrushka) and works by a variety of young international contemporaries.

Happy birthday to pianist Russell Sherman, who celebrated his 70th with three Boston programs, beginning with a spectacular sold-out Beethoven concert for the FleetBoston Celebrity Series at Jordan Hall. Alternating between interior inquiry and apotheosis, Sherman remains Boston's most searching artist, continuing in a quest for truth that has always set him apart from other musicians. After three large-scale sonatas that culminated in an apocalyptic Opus 111 (Beethoven's last sonata), the encore was the comic -- then tragic -- Rage for a Lost Penny, in one of Sherman's most surprising and complex performances.

Composer Yehudi Wyner also turned 70 this year, and he celebrated by giving his audience presents: a memorable concert at Harvard's Paine Hall that included a superb performance of his powerful Horn Trio; an extraordinary big new work, an oboe quartet, magnificently played in oboist Peggy Pearson's Winsor Music series at Lexington's Follen Church; and, since he's a splendid pianist, accompanying the wonderful soprano Dominique Labelle in a recent recital at the Longy School.

The 75th birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, conductor, author, teacher, horn player, record producer, and musical conscience Gunther Schuller was celebrated as numerous groups all over town included his music in their programs.

And, of course, the real landmark birthday is Symphony Hall's. Happy 100th!

the year in review

art - classical - cultural explosions - dance - film
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protest - theater - tv

Sad occasions. As we celebrate the living, we mourn the passing of some beloved legendary figures. Luise Vosgerchian, scintillating pianist, profound musical thinker, endearing conversationalist, and all-around mensch, was the former Harvard Music Department chair and mentor to such gifted young performers as Yo-Yo Ma and Lynn Chang. And Paul Dogereau, a legendary pianist himself (he was a student of Ravel), was a demanding coach and the generous spirit who founded the Peabody-Mason Music Foundation, which for 35 years treated us to free concerts by some of the world's most celebrated performers.

Singing praises/praising singers. Thanks to the FleetBoston Celebrity Series, which brought us a rare Symphony Hall appearance by Luciano Pavarotti in a brief but particularly satisfying recital and also superstar mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, who enlivened Symphony Hall with an evening of 17th- and 18th-century music highlighted by coloratura singing of staggering bravura and even lovelier singing of heart-easing lyrical warmth. Yet neither of these got to me as much as the return of mezzo-soprano Jan Curtis, who opened her mouth to sing -- gorgeously -- five songs (including a devastating "My Funny Valentine") for the first time on a public stage since aphasia silenced her after the stroke she suffered six years ago.

Howdy, pardner. This year brought several extraordinary collaborations. Mezzo-soprano Mitsuko Shirai and her long-time accompanist/partner, Hartmut Höll, returned to the intimacy of the small auditorium at Harvard's Houghton Library with a moving, personal, almost autobiographical anthology of 20th-century songs from many countries and in many languages -- though the language that predominated was the one the heart spoke. And Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander and mezzo-soprano Jane Struss, whose Mahler performances together over the past three decades have been touchstones for musical depth and emotional honesty, were together again this year in an intimate, indrawn rendition of Mahler's five songs to poems by Friedrich Rückert. Struss, Zander, and the orchestra (with wondrous Peggy Pearson shining in the first-oboe chair -- as she did in Zander's very first Mahler with Struss in 1979) joined to make this loose grouping a unified and cohesive work.

Then there was the Borromeo String Quartet, with a new second-violinist (William Fedkenheuer) and a new violist (Mai Motobuchi) joining first-violinist Nicholas Kitchen and cellist Yeesun Kim, and sounding more than ever like itself. The reconfigured group ended the year with the beginning of a major new series -- Mozart and Bartók -- at the Gardner Museum. Its piercingly beautiful, buoyant Mozart Dissonant Quartet was a model of profound musicianship in the guise of elegance; its Bartók First was a model of concentrated intensity and wit.

Orchestrated events. My favorite orchestra program of the year was one I couldn't review because it conflicted with the annual visit of the thrilling Cleveland Orchestra and its soon-to-retire conductor, Christoph von Dohnányi, in another wonderful program (Beethoven, Berio, Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony). But conductor Gil Rose of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project let me sit in on a dress rehearsal of their concert of movie music, which included material that ought to be scheduled more often by serious ensembles, especially Bernard Herrmann's ravishing and haunting scores for Vertigo and Psycho. Hearing a recording of the actual performance confirmed my rehearsal impression of the high quality of this adventurous group.

- Opera-tives. The most exciting opera performance of the year was another event that I heard but didn't review: the Chorus pro Musica's concert version of Verdi's Otello -- a great opera we haven't seen in Boston since the days of Sarah Caldwell and Metropolitan Opera tours. Jeffrey Rink led a hair-raising performance, with the chorus at the top of its form; young Brooklyn-born Metropolitan Opera tenor Allan Glassman (at his most heroic) and Boston baritone Robert Honeysucker (at his most insinuating) gave magnificent, world-class performances as Otello and Iago, and soprano Maria Ferrante was an affecting Desdemona.

And though the Boston Academy of Music's production of Samuel Barber's Vanessa was admirable in every way, its most memorable production this year was more music theater than opera: a major revival of a work that had its world premiere in Boston, the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin/Moss Hart landmark "musical play," Lady in the Dark. This daring pre-war (1940), pre-Sondheim story of love and psychoanalysis has one of Weill's best American scores (it was Boston's outstanding contribution to the Weill centennial). And American mezzo-soprano Delores Ziegler, who has spent most of her career in European opera houses, proved a great leading lady in the best Broadway tradition -- making the part her own by not imitating its inimitable original star, Gertrude Lawrence. There were only three performances. I hope BAM considers reviving it in a later season.

Early bird. The outstanding early-music event of 2000 was Boston Baroque's staged concert performance of Monteverdi's masterpiece, L'incoronazione di Poppea. Martin Perlman has spent the last 20 years perfecting his realization of a score in which no individual instruments are listed. An excellent cast, including gender-bending mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek and soprano Judith Lovat as the amoral lovers Nero and Poppea, countertenor Bejun Mehta, soprano Sharon Baker, and young coloratura mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy, plus some very smart staging by Laurence Senelick, enlivened the proceedings.

Black & white in color. Birthday boy Russell Sherman aside, the best keyboard artistry I heard this year was a stunning performance by pianist Stephen Drury of all three of Charles Ives's piano sonatas at the Concord Free Library. And, of course, there was the always welcome Slovenian pianist Dubravka Tomsic in one of her most beautiful and varied Symphony Hall concerts (Bach-Busoni, Liszt, and Prokofiev), for the FleetBoston Celebrity Series -- her dazzling moments (and there are many) are only part of a bigger, a much bigger picture.

New wine. The rest of the world has come to know what Bostonians have long admired -- the music of John Harbison. His opera The Great Gatsby was controversial in New York (Times critic Bernard Holland couldn't stop attacking it). But a slightly revised production in Chicago, with reconceived staging, drew raves, and ticket scalpers had a field day.

In Boston, the Cantata Singers under David Hoose, who commissioned Harbison's Pulitzer-winning The Flight into Egypt, presented the first Boston performance of Harbison's powerful new choral piece, Four Psalms, which was commissioned by the Israeli Consulate of Chicago and first performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the 50th anniversary of Israeli statehood. And Collage New Music, under David Hoose, presented the world premiere of Harbison's now completed orchestral version of one of his major earlier works, his 20-year-old song cycle for voice and piano, Mottetti di Montale, the first two "books" of which were sung magnificently by Janice Felty, the mezzo-soprano who gave its original premiere with piano, and the second two by the promising young mezzo Margaret Lattimore. Not a bad start for the new millennium.

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