Top Ten Performances of 2016
Without a doubt, Washington National Opera’s first complete staging of Wagner’s epic tetralogy in May was the event of the year. The company’s music director, Philippe Auguin, gave a revolutionary reading of the scores. His confidence at the podium transferred to the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, who played their collective hearts out. Because of a singer injury, the run featured three excellent Brünnhildes: Christine Goerke, Catherine Foster, and (best of all) Nina Stemme. Tenor Daniel Brenna also proved to be a Siegfried to watch, and young singers like Jamie Barton, Lindsay Ammann, and Jacqueline Echols made marks of their own down the cast list. The only regret was the staging by WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello, which had its intriguing moments but overall foundered on its politically correct pieties.
Jordi Savall, the iconic Catalan gamba player, conductor, and humanitarian, gave a rare solo recital in March that seemed to bend time. On the theme “The Spirit of the Viol,” this concert revealed a body of music that went from varied and inventive to more homogenized as the instrument got older, following a trajectory backwards through time. Savall improvised in between the pieces and treated some of the music freely, giving the impression of something dead being brought back to life. An extraordinary achievement and an unforgettable afternoon created by one man and an instrument built in London in 1697.
It took almost a decade, but Vocal Arts DC brought Christian Gerhaher back for another evening of compelling Weltschmerz in December. The German baritone takes seriously his predilection for Gruftmusik, or “crypt-music,” works obsessed with death and gloom. It was a bracing antidote to the more banal seasonal music events this time of year. In a program consisting mostly of piano reductions of evocative orchestral scores, pianist Gerold Huber did far more than just accompany, serving as equal partner in limning the bleak world of Mahler’s songs.
Gianandrea Noseda will take over as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra at the end of this season. But it was not the Italian conductor’s appearance with the ensemble that took the cake this season. In November Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles offered a chance to hear what could have been if the music director search had gone another direction. An ingenious combination of Debussy’s Trois Nocturnes and Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem Mass offered up two works that the orchestra had not performed since 2000. Runnicles cleverly drew attention to influences of the former upon the latter, too, all while eliciting superb playing from the NSO musicians.
This elite orchestra had not visited Washington since 2003, and its latest tour began in April just after the news broke that the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra would be getting the new concert hall it deserves. Conductor Mariss Jansons, who had pledged a large sum of his own money to the fund to build a new hall, and the musicians made quite a victory lap with this performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Jansons took a somewhat reserved approach, and the orchestra, with a long tradition of playing this composer’s music, was rock solid. Violinist Leonidas Kavakos had a swashbuckling solo turn in the Korngold Violin Concerto.
The French soprano made her long-awaited Washington debut in February, on the Phillips Collection’s Sunday afternoon concert series. She and pianist Susan Manoff performed 19th-century songs, many of them drawn from their 2011 CD titled “Après un rêve.” In French songs by Fauré, Chausson, Debussy, and especially Poulenc, Piau sang with natural ease and wry subtlety. In a closing set of Britten folk song arrangements, both performers relaxed their formal approach, taking advantage of the charming intimacy of one of the city’s smaller venues.
To no one’s surprise Rachel Barton Pine made an elegant, indispensable new recording of the the “Sei solo,” as J.S. Bach put it on his manuscript copy of the six pieces for unaccompanied violin. Gidon Kremer has referred to the set as the “Bible of music,” and Barton Pine gave an unforgettable live performance of all six pieces on Easter Sunday at the National Gallery of Art. Not all performers can speak with such easy authority about the music they play, but during this concert Barton Pine offered many insights about each sonata and partita. This could have become tiresome, but in each case the violinist’s words and performance combined to give a new or more refined understanding of the music.
Katherine Needleman, the outstanding principal oboist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, advocated for the orchestra’s debut of Christopher Rouse’s oboe concerto in January. Premiered in 2005, it is a fascinating work bursting with unexpected sounds. Needleman, conductor Marin Alsop, and the orchestra collaborated on a performance that put this worthy piece in the best possible light.
Early keyboard specialist Andreas Staier gave a live rendition of the music found on his 2013 disc, “…pour passer la melancolie,” from harmonia mundi. Playing on a harpsichord built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf in 2005, modeled on a Nicolas Dumont instrument from 1707, Staier drew forth a remarkable range of sounds. Baroque treatises on the Doctrine of the Affections seemed relevant as the music steeped the room in palpable melancholy.
Washington listeners are treated each summer to a range of potential rising opera stars in the productions at Wolf Trap. The company also makes interesting repertoire choices, including operas less likely to be staged by other companies. One noteworthy success was this year’s production of Britten’s chamber opera, starring talented mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges in the title role. Director Louisa Muller also came up with a memorable way to link the main story with the male and female chorus who relate the story.
It was a year of many great vocal recitals. Two of them made the list above, but we could also have included several others, including Mark Padmore at the Library of Congress, Michelle DeYoung presented by Vocal Arts DC, Lawrence Brownlee at the Kennedy Center, and Leah Crocetto presented by Washington National Opera.
Most Promising New Music
Congratulations to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year with a series of commissioned works. Not all were winners, but two stood out as particularly strong. Christopher Rouse’s Processional, imagined as a funeral cortege for notable Baltimore resident Edgar Allan Poe, was a short but memorable passacaglia on a repeating bass line constructed from the letters of Poe’s name. Young composer TJ Cole also got deserved attention with her piece Double Play, which wove together the call of the Baltimore oriole and other sonic influences.
Robert Levin, accompanying violinist Hilary Hahn, gave the local premiere of a piece by Hans Peter Türk, Träume from 2012. Written in memory of the composer’s late wife, it attempts to set to music the dreams his wife recorded in the final weeks of her struggle with cancer and drew on Levin’s talents as an improviser.
At a concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Suspicious Cheese Lords, that choral group performed three new pieces written for it. The standout was a setting of the Benedictus canticle by young American composer Adam Taylor, who since became a member of the Lords. Lembit Beecher explored soft and subtle sounds in his piece Small Infinities, commissioned for the gut strings of the Diderot Quartet.
Low Points in New Music
The talented performer and arranger Wynton Marsalis wrote a very long Violin Concerto, which the National Symphony Orchestra played this fall. The piece is burgeoning with ideas, none of which go anywhere over the course of forty minutes. Under the category of Rethink that Program Note is the set of Partitas by Antón García Abril, composed for and premiered by Hilary Hahn. “H-I-L-A-R-Y is for heart, immensity, love, art, reflexive, you” read the composer’s program notes. Musically the six works were hampered by a drab sameness.
Winning the dubious award for Worst Concert Series is the KC Jukebox performances led by Mason Bates at the Kennedy Center. Incoming KC President Deborah F. Rutter’s idea, for the city’s leading performing arts venue to have a composer-in-residence, was welcome. Yet Bates has not capitalized on the opportunity, presenting a series of concerts of contemporary music with gimmicks, mood lighting, and cocktails.
Sugar Plum Award (Best Holiday Concert)
The Folger Shakespeare Library and Folger Consort revived their winning production of The Second Shepherds’ Play, a late medieval mystery play with an assortment of English early music. It scratches all of the right itches: historical music rather than chestnuts, humor as well as a serious story line, and good old-fashioned stagecraft.
Best Dance Performance
At the start of the year, American Ballet Theater brought Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstruction of The Sleeping Beauty to the Kennedy Center. Marius Petipa made this legendary choreography, a repertory chestnut with a knockout score by Tchaikovsky, when the Romanovs were still in control of Russia. During the Communist period, Soviet authorities removed all glorification of aristocracy and royalty in the ballet. For the 75th anniversary of ABT, Ratmansky restored the work to a version closer to its original. Sadly Louis XIV did not make an appearance in the Act III, but it was a delight to see.
Lux Perpetua Luceat Eis
In 2016 we said farewell to conductor and composer Pierre Boulez (January 6), composer Steven Stucky (February 14), early music giant Nikolaus Harnoncourt (March 5), composer Peter Maxwell Davies (March 14), conductor and local musical celebrity J. Reilly Lewis (June 9), Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (July 27), soprano Daniela Dessi (August 20), tenor Johan Botha (September 8), British conductor Neville Marriner (October 7), pianist and conductor Zoltán Kocsis (November 6), pioneering experimental composer Pauline Oliveros (November 24), and legendary countertenor Russell Oberlin (November 26).