The Boston Phoenix
December 25, 1997 - January 1, 1998

[1997 in Review]

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Classical gasses

1997 in Review

by Lloyd Schwartz

1. Front page. The most widely publicized classical-music events were (1) the stomach-turning concert tour of Shine pianist David Helfgott, which pitted movie fans and Helfgott well-wishers against critics almost unanimous in their exposure of the emperor's bare bottom (millions of people got a first-hand view with Helfgott's pitiful performance on the Oscar telecast), and (2) Seiji Ozawa's mishandled (though arguably necessary) reorganization of the esteemed Tanglewood Music Center, which is pitting some of the world's most distinguished and serious musicians against Ozawa, the BSO administration, and one another. The bitterness escalated with the resignations of Gilbert Kalish and Leon Fleisher. The new plan features more participation in the teaching process by BSO players, some high-profile guest conductors (few of my personal favorites), and a new residency by the insufferable Guarneri String Quartet (hardly an equal exchange for Fleisher in my book). Is this a decision about art or networking? Were Fleisher and Kalish right to warn about "commercialism"? There are also promises about "experimentation."

Let's dwell instead on the artistic accomplishments of the events that follow below.

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Jose Van Dam 2. Lieder live! The funeral for the lieder recital will have to wait. What with the heartbreaking/heart-easing concert by José van Dam (in the Celebrity Series), two indelible Schubert Winterreisen (by Sanford Sylvan and Jane Struss), a birthday celebration at the Longy School for retired pediatrician and beloved arts patron Josie Murray (it included Struss's urgently heroic Brahms and Karol Bennett's fervent Schumann), Nancy Armstrong's wryly enchanted warbling of Scott Wheeler's Edna St. Vincent Millay settings, and Emmanuel Music's ongoing seven-year Schubert retrospective, this dying art actually seems healthier than ever.

3. Opera singing. Not a great year for fully staged opera (the best was probably Marc Blitzstein's Regina with a cast and orchestra of BU students), but there was some glorious solo singing by superstar Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel (in his Boston debut, opening night at the BSO, giving himself full-heartedly to six different -- quite different -- Mozart and Wagner characters); superstar Italian mezzo Cecilia Bartoli (Celebrity Series); American soprano Deborah Voigt (in a generous benefit concert for the Boston Lyric Opera, with whom she sang before her Met debut); Boston soprano Dominique Labelle as a stunning Lucia (in the Lyric's literally tilted version of Donizetti's warhorse); countertenor supreme Jeffrey Gall as Handel's Joseph (Cecilia Society, see below); soprano Kendra Colton in the title role of Mozart's Il re pastore (one of the Lyric's all-time silliest and most boring productions); and the stirring Christine Goerke (Donna Elvira) and the uninhibited Nathan Berg (Leporello) in Boston Baroque's lively concert Don Giovanni.

4. Handling Handel. Boston's ongoing Handel festival continued with two superlative oratorios, the justly famous Solomon, with the grand forces of Emmanuel Music under the sympathetic guidance of master Handelian Craig Smith, and the vastly underrated Joseph and His Brethren, with the Boston Cecilia led with inspired vigor by Donald Teeters, and Jeffrey Gall singing at his unapproachable best.

5. Super conductors. David Hoose is a great Haydn conductor, and this year he led exhilarating, joyful performances of Haydn's Creation, with the Cantata Singers, and his own operatic farce The World of the Moon, at BU. Benjamin Zander is a great Mahler conductor, and his best performance this year might well have been the Fifth Symphony he did with the New England Conservatory's Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (at Jordan Hall and in Brazil, where I heard it -- happily -- six more times). Seiji Ozawa is an expert Ravel conductor, and he ended the 1997 BSO season with a sensational, swinging La valse. And former soprano Susan Davenny Wyner was warmly welcomed to these conducting ranks. Her Schubert/Mozart/Yehudi Wyner (composer/husband) concert at Jordan Hall was easily one of the year's best.

6. Keyboard memories. Who wouldn't have good feelings about a year that boasted spectacular recitals by Maurizio Pollini, Dubravka Tomsic (in Worcester), and Russell Sherman, plus young Esther Budiardjo -- a student of Sherman and Wha Kyung Byun (Sherman's wife) -- in the Celebrity Series's estimable Emerging Artists Series.

Borromeo String Quartet 7. In chambers. Our two best string quartets played splendidly this year. My favorite Lydian SQ performance was Schubert's early, delicious E-flat Quartet, which was both touching and laugh-out-loud hilarious. And the Borromeo SQ outdid even itself in Schoenberg's First Quartet, a 50-minute extravaganza that had both conviction and passionate intensity as it zoomed between pinnacle and abyss before finally finding its own place of balance and rest.

8. Chorus of praise. Yeah, yeah. The Cantata Singers are wonderful. The Cecilia chorus is wonderful. The Emmanuel chorus is wonderful. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus is wonderful. So what else is new? The answer is Coro Allegro, and not so new at that. This seven-year-old co-ed offshoot of the Boston Gay Men's Chorus is a serious and accomplished outfit that, under director David Hodgkins, has been doing some of the city's most interesting choral repertoire -- and superbly.

9. What's new? Congratulations to the BSO for its two new commissions: Leon Kirchner's grand new cantata Of things exactly as they are (which under Ozawa seemed occasionally grandiloquent; it might work better with a conductor and singers who have a more idiomatic feeling for American poetry) and Henri Dutilleux's colorful but, under Ozawa, slightly sentimental The shadows of time. The BSO also brought gave Boston its first hearings (at last) of Gunther Schuller's moving and personal 1994 Pulitzer-winning Of Reminiscences and Reflections and thrilling concertos by György Ligeti (violin, with Christian Tetzlaff) and Sofia Gubaidulina (viola, with Yuri Bashmet). Mark Morris gave us Lou Harrison's new 40-minute masterpiece, Rhymes with Silver, with the superb young cellist Matt Heimovitz. The Cantata Singers gave us Marjorie Merryman's brooding Jonah. Collage brought back John Harbison's chamber orchestration of the last two "books" of what is arguably his greatest vocal work, Mottetti di Montale, in an eloquent performance by Janice Felty. And Emmanuel Music gave us a kaleidoscopic evening of Luigi Dallapiccola, whose insinuating, martini-dry music doesn't get played nearly enough.

Virgil Thomson 10. Booked up. The most enjoyable book on music this year was Anthony Tommasini's Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle, an enthralling biography that spans -- and contends with -- the major cultural movements of the century. Tommasini, a Thomson disciple, gives us a deeply sympathetic yet unsparing narrative that creates an unforgettable character portrait of a brilliant, self-centered, generous, opinionated, far-seeing, narrow-minded curmudgeon who was both an important composer and a still-significant music critic.

The book opens with the excruciating story about Thomson's ruthlessly jealous refusal to allow the wheelchair-bound leading soprano of the original 1934 production of his neglected masterpiece, Four Saints in Three Acts, to attend the opening night of its long-awaited 1986 revival (he thought she'd upstage him). The story of Thomson's collaboration with Gertrude Stein on Four Saints is one of the most convincing and dramatic depictions of the literal give-and-take of the forces of genius and ego. And the story of Thomson's initiation into journalism at the Herald Tribune by the venerated, Pulitzer-winning editor Geoffrey Parsons should be required reading by every would-be writer and editor.

Composer on the Aisle is also a poignant history of gay American life from the Edwardian closet to AIDS (Thomson was once arrested at a male brothel and never got over the humiliation). Not perfect (Tommasini wants to tell us too much about too many incidental figures, especially toward the end, when the 90-year-old Thomson's life significantly narrows), the book nevertheless overflows with incident, comic and touching. And unlike most biographies, it sees the creation of art -- both music and writing -- not as incidental to the juicy gossip (though there's plenty of that) but as the central issue.

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