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Best Classical of 2001: Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr

Friday, December 28, 2001

By Andrew Druckenbrod Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

It's patently strange to think back on a whole year of performances when the year seems to have begun on Sept. 11, but as I look over our coverage of the classical music scene of 2001, many outstanding performances leap out. Cutting them down to 10 is a reductionism task I abhor, but kudos should go where it is deserved. * This year's list is just as diverse as last year's. You simply can't call any sector of the local classical scene a slouch, from early music to opera to everything in between.

However, the 2001 Top 10 does differ in one major way from last year. Whereas 2000 had only three regional groups as opposed to visiting ones, 2001 doubled that number. This is encouraging since local groups should be shooting for the stars and holding themselves to the same standards as touring groups. It also reveals a new creativity in programming and conception that will be essential in the battle to keep classical music in touch with today's world -- and keep it solvent.

1. Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr, Renaissance & Baroque Society
Synod Hall, Oct. 27

The best musicians operate on multiple levels. With a lively performance of both known and obscure composers, period violinist Manze simultaneously pleased both the casual concert-goer and the hardcore fan of early music. It was amazing how he and harpsichordist Egarr kept us on the edge of our seats with violin sonatas by Corelli, Handel, Bonporti and Bach as if they were playing something more familiar. Deft turns went hand in hand with poignant phrasing. Also, more than any performer I have seen, Manze took risk after risk in playing and improvising. It lent the concert a sharpness that connected past to present.

2. Michael Rusinek, Pinchas Zukerman, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Heinz Hall, Feb. 2-4

This Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert deserves a slot because of one piece alone: Copland's Clarinet Concerto, played by principal clarinetist Rusinek. His performance, as well as the PSO's, was simply breathtaking, both emotionally and cerebrally. In my review of the concert I wrote that, "Michael Rusinek is one of those special artists who transforms an ensemble's sound by his playing." So you can imagine what he did as a soloist. There are others in the group, especially the wind section, that are capable of this, but Rusinek's sound has an otherworldly quality to it. The moving Copland work especially accentuated these traits and conductor Zukerman admirably gave Rusinek room to create a touching soundscape.

3. Petersen Quartet, Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society
Carnegie Music Hall, Nov. 12

The Petersen Quartet has gone through major personnel changes and I didn't think it would be so polished and so satisfying. It was quite simply the best "new-to-me" quartet I have heard in years. The thing I liked the most in the group's concert of Haydn's Quartet, Op. 76, No. 4, Schulhoff's Five Pieces for String Quartet and Ravel's Quartet in F Major was the tremendous energy it displayed while never deviating from a path of good musical sense. Precision, musicality and aggression combined to great results, proving you don't need a big name to have big talent.

4. "Turandot," Pittsburgh Opera
April 28, May 1, 4, 6

Status quo sang an exit aria at the Pittsburgh Opera with this production. The first production picked by new artistic director Christopher Hahn, it reflected his bold aesthetics more than the conservative look of the past two decades. This "Turandot" flowed over the stage in epic, often cinematic waves. Its energy was infectious to the singers, as well, especially tenor Dario Volonte (Calaf) and soprano Audrey Stottler (Turandot). The color and vivaciousness pulled the company into the present day, with hopes that it will remain in touch with the times for years to come.

5. Pomerium, Alexander Blachly, Music in a Great Space
Shadyside Presbyterian Church, March 25

As Post-Gazette Dance and Music Critic Jane Vranish wrote, "Perhaps the biggest lesson here is that in the right musical hands -- in [conductor] Blachly's hands -- the musical design of the Renaissance remains timeless." Having also attended this concert, I agree. I also was mesmerized by the inevitability of each phrase in this program of Renaissance vocal music (Passion and Resurrection motets) sung by Pomerium. I particularly loved the tuning Blachly got from his mixed ensemble -- a subtle but important aspect of music from before the tonal age.

6. David Del Tredici and John Kelly
Andy Warhol Museum, May 12

Staged on the second floor of the Andy Warhol Museum as part of its "Off the Wall" series, composer David Del Tredici and countertenor John Kelly enveloped the audience with contemporary art songs on life and love. Though the songs stemmed from the gay experience, the themes were universal. Kelly acted out the program as well as sang it -- with a haunting mixture of head and chest voice that cut to the core. Pulitzer-prize winner Del Tredici, whom some have written off as a has-been, showed uncommon sensitivity and creativity in songs that constantly tapped at the heart's door.

7. Evgeny Kissin, Mariss Jansons, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Heinz Hall, Sept. 14-16

For sheer drama alone this PSO season opener has to make the list. Mariss Jansons, delayed for four days in Canada due to the September crisis, arrived at Heinz Hall only two hours before curtain-rise. The PSO delayed its start time to get him much needed rehearsal with the orchestra and pianist Kissin, and then he led them to a heartfelt performance. Kissin, though selfishly concerned about how he would sound, played well and the PSO came through in the clutch to support its music director, fans and country.

8. "Acis and Galatea," Pittsburgh Camerata, Chatham Baroque and Renaissance & Baroque Society
Synod Hall, Oct. 6

Considering the future importance of collaborations locally as a good method of providing higher quality and affordable programs, this concert needed to be a hit. And it was. Three of the most successful local organizations joined together with soloists, including Ellen Hargis, to produce Handel's pastoral oratorio, "Acis and Galatea." "It was an overwhelmingly gratifying eve-ning," said our free-lance music critic David DeAngelo. We can only hope for much more of this type of coming together.

9. James Gorton, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Nuance
Jewish Community Center, May 22

This PSO Nuance concert truly lived up to its raison d'etre, that of hearing nonprincipals show how good they are in a chamber setting. Oboist Gorton is a co-principal, but you rarely get to hear him strut his stuff as he was able to in C.P.E. Bach's Oboe Concerto in D Minor.

It was accurate playing with a purpose. Gorton displayed just the right tone for the work -- not too large or small. The chamber-sized ensemble of PSO musicians matched him well.

10. "The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel," Tuesday Musical Club
Masonic Temple Oakland, June 15

Though the level of performance wasn't as high as others on this list, there was no more important concert in Pittsburgh in 2001 than this opera produced by the Tuesday Musical Club.

With a local company creating an opera on a local subject, it raised interest in the art form in a way that no staging of the most perfect "Tosca" or "Don Giovanni" ever can.

You don't have to be a socialist to see that art that connects with people is a good idea, and composer Jeremy Beck created an accessible and at times powerful score.

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