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Best Classical Concerts of 2000

Friday, December 29, 2000

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

While spring of 2000 had a more typical mix of good and sub-par concerts locally, this past fall was fantastic -- seldom was heard a discouraging word in these pages during the fall run. But as for the very best concerts, they sprouted up equally throughout the two half-seasons.

Also, the cream of the concert crop was diverse last year, particularly in light of the fact that an excellent symphony makes its home here. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra could scarcely do no wrong this fall. Orchestras tend to dial in a performance here or there, but even when faced with a guest conductor it doesn't like, the PSO gives good showings.

One interesting pattern did develop -- seven of our top 10 concerts are essentially imported acts -- artists brought in by presenting societies. The others are two PSO events and one Chatham Baroque concert. I'd love to see more local groups -- ensembles -- on this list in the future. A few came close, the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Project's concert of Poulenc's one-act opera "La Voix Humaine" for one, and several PSO concerts.

But, frankly, what's on this list and what barely missed it aren't all that far apart. Lists are just lists, and as such, they need be taken with a grain of salt. One thing's for sure, however: The following were excellent events, two of which were reviewed by Rebecca Redshaw and Robert Croan.

1. Renee Fleming Recital, Y Music Society
Carnegie Music Hall, Oct. 26.

Soprano Fleming turned the large hall into an intimate parlor room for this recital, and the audience was treated to the best the singer can offer. Fleming has a golden voice that would've entranced the audience with just that, but she went beyond it with sensitive and intelligent singing. Her persona struck out to each and every member of the audience. The diverse program -- Handel, Faure, Dvorak, Previn, Rachmaninov, Massenet and Gounod -- gave Pittsburgh a view of the world's greatest soprano in all her splendor.

2. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons conducting Mahler's Symphony No. 3
Heinz Hall, Nov. 10-11

Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and the Children's Festival Choir participated in this stunning interpretation of Mahler's mammoth opus. Usually the audience response to any concert is mixed. But this concert was different -- everyone I talked to was touched by the powerful music, led so gracefully by Jansons with an ear for its intimate nature. The arrival of the finale caused tears to well in many eyes, a tribute to Jansons as much as Mahler. The concert was an exemplary illustration of the best that classical music has to offer the world: high art performed at a high level, pulling out emotions as it pulls out the stops.

3. Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, Kurt Weill's "Der Jasager" and Japanese Noh drama "Taniko"
Hazlett Theater, April 10.

In my review I said, "This was almost instantly a Top 10 musical event of the year," after I saw this double bill, and I am happy to say I can stick by that. This was a wonderful opportunity to appreciate music through context, as Weill's lesser known work is actually based on "Taniko." Plus, Pittsburghers got the rare opportunity to see real Noh drama, by the esteemed Japanese ensemble Nohgazu-za. The double production had been organized by the Japan Society of New York for concerts there and Artistic Director Jonathan Eaton had it stop in Pittsburgh for a night. "Der Jasager's" scenery was bold and colorful, and singers Mimi Lerner and David Malis were spectacular.

4. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Emanuel Ax with Jansons
Heinz Hall, Oct. 27-29

Both of the famed pianist's weekend appearances with the PSO in 2000 (the other was in March) were revelations. Ax doesn't walk the fine line between playing artfully and pleasing the public so much as he dissolves it. His Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 was brilliant in October and his creative Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 showed the influence of his previous work with period pianos.

5. Theatre of Voices, Renaissance and Baroque Society
(Sacred Heart Church, Jan. 22)

Conductor/singer Paul Hillier brought his virtuoso ensemble here with a diverse program of John Cage, Arvo Part, John Tavener, Guillaume Dufay, John Dunstable and chant, with the idea of combining "medieval and Renaissance music with similar-sounding works by contemporary composers," as I said in a review. It was splendid, accurate and glowing singing of the first rank. One thing that Pittsburgh lacks is much Renaissance vocal music, and this expertly performed concert was a welcomed change.

6. Vivica Genaux Recital with Chatham Baroque
Synod Hall, Sept. 22.

Locally based mezzo-soprano Genaux brought her Carnegie Hall recital from spring of 2000 to Oakland with the group that accompanied her in New York, Chatham Baroque. This is a woman who is growing in leaps and bounds artistically from already a high perch. Genaux's interesting program focused on obscure baroque arias, and she brought them alive with the greatest of ease and charm. The fact that she has made a commitment to singing outside of the canon made it even more enjoyable to hear her sing so skillfully.

7. Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society, Tokyo String Quartet
Carnegie Music Hall, Feb. 21.

I'm sneaking in another two-for here by mentioning both appearances of the sonorous Tokyo String Quartet during this past year. In February, it gave a gorgeous rendition of an oft-overlooked piece, Webern's "Langsamer Satz." In October, Schubert's "Quartettsatz," and Beethoven's Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 127, were well thought-out and ravishing, performed on the Tokyo's set of four Stradivarius instruments.

8. Miro String Quartet, Tuesday Musical Club Frick Art and Historical Center, Oct. 15.

The Miro String Quartet proved that instrumental technique combined with musical wisdom is possible even when the group is young in years. The musicians successfully tackled established repertoire, as well as newly commissioned works to equal satisfaction.

(Rebecca Redshaw)

9. Anner Bylsma and Malcolm Bilson, Renaissance and Baroque Society
Synod Hall, March 4.

Speaking of lists, if Bylsma isn't in your top 10 cellists of the 20th century, you better have a good explanation. The early music maven who revolutionized the instrument paired up with pianoforte-playing Bilson for enchanting performances of Beethoven's cello sonatas in F major, C major and A major and his 12 Variations on "Ein Madchen oder Weibchen" from Mozart's "Magic Flute." Using different fingerings and bowings on the cello and the quieter pianoforte, it was fascinating to hear different aspects of the familiar music come out.

10. Marilyn Horne Recital, Opera Theater of Pittsburgh
Carnegie Music Hall, Jan. 25.

Shortly after her 66th birthday, the great American mezzo-soprano showed that she remains one of the top vocalists of the 20th century, delivering beloved songs with punch and poignancy -- even if her proteges who occupied the first half of the evening did not show the potential of becoming Marilyn Hornes of the future.

(Robert Croan)

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