Friday, December 31, 2010

The year's best

Tradition (or, as Arturo Toscanini would have it, bad habit) decrees that critics wrap up each year with a list of best performances. And who am I to defy tradition (or bad habit, for that matter)?

Among performances that I heard – an important qualifier: I didn’t hear them all – over the past year in Richmond, these
(in chronological, not qualitative, order) were the most memorable:

* The Shanghai Quartet with pianist Yuja Wang, Feb. 15 at the University of Richmond. Our town has had good fortune in following Wang, who turns 24 in February, on her rapid ascent. On this visit (her third since 2007), the pianist joined the Shanghai in fluent, large-scale readings of piano quintets by Dvořák and Franck.

* The Biava Quartet, Feb. 26 at the Ellen Glasgow House. In a rare "house concert," staged by James Wilson’s Richmond Festival of Music in the parlor of this 19th-century residence, the Biava carried its audience deep into the innards of works by Haydn, Brahms and Ginastera. Nothing like a chamber to bring out the best in chamber music.

* The Richmond Symphony, Steven Smith conducting, in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Feb. 27-28 at the Carpenter Theatre. Among the very best performances of the year, and probably the most resonant, as they made the sale in Smith’s bid to become the orchestra’s fifth music director. The conductor has since shown himself gifted in a lot of Russian repertory, but this reading of Shostakovich had special weight and soul.

* The Virginia Opera, Joseph Walsh conducting, in Mozart’s "Don Giovanni," March 5 and 7 at the Carpenter Theatre. A triumphant homecoming for baritone Matthew Worth (University of Richmond, class of 2000) as the lecherous star of Mozart’s darkest opera.

* Pianist Jeremy Denk,

March 21 at the University of Richmond. Denk made a pretty convincing case for a highly pianistic treatment of Bach’s "Goldberg Variations," but an even better – and more surprising – case for playing Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 1 with high-romantic grand-piano tone production and rhetorical flourish. You don't get many reminders that Ives was a contemporary of Rachmaninoff and Busoni.

* The Jupiter Quartet, March 28 at Virginia Commonwealth University. These performances of Beethoven, Dvořák and Bartók showed the Jupiter to be one of the most high-powered yet stylistically attentive among the younger generation of American string quartets.

* The Richmond Symphony, Steven Smith conducting, with violinist Gil Shaham, April 24 at the Carpenter Theatre. Shaham sparkled, as expected, in showpieces of Pablo de Sarasate; but the musical peak of this program came as Smith led the symphony in stylish, vividly colorful readings of Ravel and Debussy.

* The Virginia Opera, Peter Mark conducting, in The Gershwins’ "Porgy and Bess," April 30 and May 1-2 at the Carpenter Theatre. Some found this scenically austere, highly choreographed production a startling departure from the usual, romanticized treatment; but its gritty evocations of street life and the Gullah culture of coastal South Carolina gave the show extra impact and a ring of authenticity.

* Tenor Tracey Welborn and oboist Gustav Highstein, Aug. 8 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church. In this opening concert of the Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude 2010 series, Welborn and Highstein performed Ralph Vaughan Williams’ "Ten Blake Songs" (1957) with extraordinary sensitivity to both the verses of William Blake and the composer’s pastoral-impressionist style, here reduced to its essence.

* eighth blackbird, with mezzo-soprano Katherine Calcamuggio, Sept. 15 at the University of Richmond. This program, called "Powerful," was highlighted by a performance of "Mr. Tambourine Man," John Corigliano’s decidedly un-Dylanesque but highly evocative song cycle on lyrics of Bob Dylan. The ’birds also reprised Frederic Rzewski’s "Coming Together," a stark memoir of the 1971 riot at New York’s Attica Prison, and reveled in the shimmering colors of John Luther Adams’ "The Light Within."

* Pianists Alexander Paley and Pei-Wen Chen, Sept. 24 at First English Lutheran Church. Paley’s fall festival in Richmond is a showcase of rarely heard music for solo and four-hands piano, and this year’s opening program featured four rewarding discoveries: The four-hands version of Tchaikovsky’s "Capriccio Italien" and the composer’s Suite No. 2 in C major, and the solo "Sonata tragica" and "Sonata reminisczena" of Nikolai Medtner.

* The Richmond Symphony, Steven Smith conducting, with pianist Dmitri Shteinberg, Oct. 16-17 at the Carpenter Theatre. The VCU-based Shteinberg usefully applied Chopinesque tone and phrasing to Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, making real music of a piece that’s all too often an exercise in noise and speed, while Smith and the orchestra brought out the energy and color of Stravinsky’s "Firebird" Suite.

* The Richmond Symphony, Steven Smith conducting, Nov. 5 at The Steward School, Nov. 7 at Randolph-Macon College. This was Smith's smartest and most stylistically diverse selection of music to date, a program that ranged from the classical (Haydn’s Symphony No. 82, known as "The Bear") to the post-modern (Michael Torke’s "Lucent Variations"), with Brahms and Copland in between, effectively showcasing the variety and scope of the chamber-orchestra repertory.

* Violinist Robert McDuffie and The Venice Baroque Orchestra, Nov. 15 at the University of Richmond. This "Seasons Project" program presented Vivaldi’s "The Four Seasons" alongside Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2 ("The American Four Seasons"). The colorful and moody concerto proved to be Glass in cinematic mode, which sits better with those who can’t stand Glass in relentlessly minimalist mode; the Vivaldi chestnut was flavorfully roasted in a performance of high energy and vivid atmospheric effects.