Top Ten Performances of 2019

Mon Dec 23, 2019 at 2:10 pm
Photo: Richard Rymland

1. PostClassical Ensemble, Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Washington National Cathedral

The sound of the gamelan, the traditional ensemble of mostly percussion instruments from Indonesia, profoundly moved Debussy and many other composers. This memorable concert featured music by Debussy, Messiaen, Poulenc, McPhee, Alves, and Harrison, alongside performances by gamelan ensembles of the Javanese and Balinese varieties. The echo-prone nave of National Cathedral resonated with wild colors.

Photo: Simon Fowler

2. Renaud Capuçon and Guillaume Bellom. Library of Congress

Based on this recital last winter, his first Washington appearance in a decade, violinist Renaud Capuçon has become a superlative musician. Paired with young pianist Guillaume Bellom, Capuçon gave inspired renditions of the violin sonatas by Debussy, Ravel, and Franck. In the last sonata, Capuçon played the Guarneri del Gesù violin from the Library’s collection, once played by Fritz Kreisler, and rarely have instrument and player sounded so made for each other.

Photo: Scott Suchman

3. Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin. Washington National Opera

The city’s leading opera company had a strong year, from promising new operas presented by its American Opera Initiative to a challenging but vocally powerful production of Verdi’s Otello to this revival of Robert Carsen’s staging of Eugene Onegin. It was the first time the company has mounted this Tchaikovsky opera in over thirty years. It was worth the wait for the sensational U.S. debut of soprano Anna Nechaeva in the role of Tatiana, first among a luxuriant casting.

4. National Symphony Orchestra, Ton Koopman. Kennedy Center Concert Hall

Ton Koopman, the astute Dutch early music conductor, has helped whip the National Symphony Orchestra’s baroque chops into shape with his periodic visits. In addition to rarely heard music by Rebel, Rameau, Haydn, and C.P.E. Bach, this program featured some spirited improvisations interpolated into Mozart’s Serenata notturna. It was an ingenious and entertaining solution to a curious problem in the composer’s notation of the third movement.

Photo: Gunnery Sgt. Rachel Ghadiali

5. U.S. Marine Band and Choral Arts Society of Washington. Music Center at Strathmore

The spit and polish musicians of the U.S. Marine Band joined the Choral Arts Society of Washington to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Walt Whitman. The program included a world premiere by the composer Dominick DiOrio, plus rarities by Randall Thompson and William Schuman. Rounding out the unusual repertory was a larger-than-life rendition of Berlioz’s infrequently performed Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale, honoring the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death.

Photo: Louis Forget

6. Alessandro Stradella, Susanna. Opera Lafayette and Heartbeat Opera

Sometimes old works can take on new resonance in our times. Such a nexus occurred in this rare revival of the baroque oratorio Susanna by Opera Lafayette. Its timely story of older men in positions of authority attempting to sexually coerce a young woman, was staged powerfully in collaboration with Heartbeat Opera.  Soprano Lucía Martín Cartón headlined a strong cast that interpreted the work with considerable musical beauty.

7. Wu Han, Gloria Chien, and Gilles Vonsattell. Wolf Trap

One of the great additions to the area’s classical scene has been the tenure of Wu Han as artistic adviser for the chamber music series at Wolf Trap. This concert of piano music for four hands capped her first season on the job, a program including many of the highlights of this underplayed repertory. The highlight was the heart-stopping final piece, a savage reading of Stravinsky’s explosive Rite of Spring by Gloria Chien and Wu Han herself.

8. Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford. Vocal Arts DC

Returning after their acclaimed debut with Vocal Arts DC in 2014, countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford gave a season highlight performance on the series. Lute songs by John Dowland rubbed shoulders with arrangements of arias by Purcell and Handel, as well as Dunford’s exceptional adaptations of a Bach cello suite. Rounding out this unusual concert was an encore of the heart-breaking “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton.

Photo: Michael Yu

9. Seth Parker Woods. Phillips Collection

The Chicago-based cellist Seth Parker Woods, in a striking concert at the Phillips Collection, did not make an impression through virtuosic performance of repertorial standards. His recital of mostly solo music featured composers whose works are regrettably overlooked, including George Walker, Nathalie Joachim, Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson, Tania León, and Alvin Singleton. It was a reminder that difficult choices can be the most rewarding.

Photo: Don Lassell

10. Ambroise Thomas, Hamlet. Washington Concert Opera

This rather striking French grand opera is still catching on in the United States. It came to life with exceptional beauty in this concert performance, where the imagination can provide the supernatural details. Jacques Imbrailo was a forceful yet subtle Hamlet, and Lisette Oropesa’s stunning coloratura exploits made for an affecting portrait of the madness of Ophelia. The rest of the cast was in the same class.

Best New Symphonic Work

Few composers get the chance to premiere a full-length new work featuring both full orchestra and chorus anymore. Lera Auerbach, one of the more intriguing voices writing today, did just that with her massive piece ARCTICA. Based on an Inuit text she wrote herself, it featured the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Chorus, and the composer as a spirit guide on the solo piano part.

Best New Opera

The new operas presented by Washington National Opera as part of its annual American Opera Initiative can be hit or miss. Kamala Sankaram’s Taking Up Serpents, the new hour-long work given its world premiere in January, was definitely one of the hits. Borrowing sounds of the rural south, like the twang of the guitar and the straight-toned braying of shape-note singing, she has woven them into a more traditional operatic fabric in an utterly original way.

Greatest One-Woman Show

Soprano Christine Goerke rocked the Kennedy Center Opera House at this year’s Washington National Opera Gala. She was outstanding in “Dich, teure Halle” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser and “O don fatale” from Verdi’s Don Carlo. In an astounding finish, she unleashed an apocalyptic Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung, the closest Washington is likely ever to get to Goerke’s complete Brünnhilde.

Smartest Programming

The 21st Century Consort got an unpleasant surprise last year when a management change at the Smithsonian American Art Museum evicted them from their usual venue. The group has rebounded with a season presented mostly at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. Their concert this past weekend earns them the coveted Sugar Plum Award for the year’s best Christmas concert: a clever mixture of Dylan Thomas’s words with music mostly by living composers.

Memorable Send-Offs

Washingtonian bid farewell to Michael Tilson Thomas in his last area performance with the San Francisco Symphony this year. (The esteemed conductor came back to town this month to accept the Kennedy Center Honors.) Conductor Stephen Cleobury made a final tour with King’s College Choir, stopping at Washington National Cathedral last spring. (Sadly, Cleobury passed away last month.) In lamentable news for local music journalism, Anne Midgette stepped down as classical music critic at the Washington Post in November.

Season Lows

Too much of the year was taken up with the lockout of the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, lasting from June into September. The ensemble lost its entire summer season and a few concerts in the fall before agreeing to a one-year contract. All involved are happy to have the music back, but the musicians and management must be able to agree on the same set of facts about their financial future for the solution to be anything other than temporary.

A special dubious achievement award for aural and cardiac trauma goes to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater’s sound system. It produced a heart-stopping feedback event during the beautiful Vocal Arts DC recital by soprano Brenda Rae.

Lux aeterna luceat eis

In 2019 we bid farewell to baritone Sanford Sylvan, composers Dominick Argento and André Previn, opera directors Franco Zeffirelli and Jonathan Miller, opera commentator Fr. M. Owen Lee, composer Christopher Rouse, pianist Paul Badura-Skoda, music critic Martin Bernheimer, pianist Jörg Demus, soprano Jessye Norman, tenor Marcello Giordani, pianist and muse Márta Kurtág, and conductors Stephen Cleobury, Raymond Leppard, and Mariss Jansons.

Among distinguished figures with a connection to our city, Washingtonians mourned journalist Cokie Roberts, a fixture on the local airwaves; author Toni Morrison, who attended and taught at Howard University; Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens; and architect I.M. Pei, who designed the East Building of the National Gallery of Art.

One Response to “Top Ten Performances of 2019”

  1. Posted Dec 26, 2019 at 9:33 am by Milton Grossman

    I would agree with many of these choices. I would like to suggest, however, one more category, in which your readers could participate: Best Performance That Nobody Reviewed. I have a nominee — the “Wild Up” performances of Julius Eastman”s “Joy Boy” and “Femenine” at the National Gallery.

    I know that there is an awful lot of music going on in Washington on the average Sunday afternoon, but this really deserved some attention.

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