South Florida was certainly alive with the sound of music during the 2007-2008 season. More than once the level of music making went beyond technical excellence to embrace that rare moment of other worldly transcendence. Beyond such unique experiences, the growth of artistic activity in Boca Raton and Delray Beach was an encouraging sign of a robust cultural environment. Here is a subjective overview of the high points (and the inevitable low ones) of the past season.

BEST ORCHESTRAL PERFORMANCE – London’s Philharmonia Orchestra has always occupied an august place in Great Britain’s post World War II musical history. With its plush strings and mellow brasses leading the way, this superb ensemble shown resplendently in the high tech acoustics of Miami’s Arsht Center under the masterful baton of Christoph von Dohnanyi. Now in his late seventies, Dohnanyi is in his musical prime. He offered sweepingly lyrical Mendelssohn and grandly kaleidoscopic Mahler – the epitome of great conducting.

Honorable Mention: The Russian National Orchestra, Moscow’s top virtuoso ensemble, offered velvety playing in a one night stand at the Arsht Center and a weeklong residency at Festival of the Arts Boca. Claus Peter Flor, a German dynamo, led a balletic, sweeping rendition of excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (an unusually generous selection, not just the most famous pieces) and a riveting, deeply moving account of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony at the Miami concert. Flor is a major league, underrated maestro.

At its annual Miami residency the stalwart Cleveland Orchestra showcased Music Director Franz Welser-Most in patrician Mozart (the Symphony No.28), beguiling Debussy (Iberia), and Stravinsky, both classically elegant (Pulcinella) and lushly romantic (The Firebird). The gifted Austrian conductor also offered a wonderfully irreverent, post-modernist suite from contemporary British composer Thomas Ades’ opera Powder Her Face.

BEST OPERATIC PERFORMANCE – Florida Grand Opera struck gold with a wildly extravagant production of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, featuring zany, over the top sets and costumes by Zandra Rhodes, one of London’s most trendy fashion designers. Stewart Robertson led a stylish, evocative performance of this enchanting score. This conductor always excels in the Gallic operatic repertoire. Maureen O’Flynn brought high end glamour and crystalline flights of coloratura to the lead soprano role while tenor William Burden’s dulcet pianissimos and bursts of lyricism vividly conveyed Nadir’s romantic fervor. 

Honorable Mention: Palm Beach Opera’s post Valentine’s Day production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore was a wonderful holiday present. Mario Corradi’s witty, candy store production even managed to include the English surtitles in the sight gags. Bruno Aprea’s zesty, idiomatic conducting set the pace for basso-buffo Matteo Peirone’s rapid fire patter. Olga Makarina was an enchanting soubrette, spinning roulades and ornaments with dizzying speed. Bruce Sledge’s lyric tenor, despite some initial strain and intonation problems, spun a mesmerizing Una furtiva lagrima. This L’Elisir was a sweet, irresistible confection.

BEST CONCERTO PERFORMANCE – Christian Tetzlaff, the intellectual aristocrat of the violin, offered a restrained, deeply probing performance of Gyorgy Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, one of the most distinctive scores of the 20th century’s final decade. With dazzling support from Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony, Tetzlaff managed to illuminate this astringent modernist score’s debt to J.S. Bach. Appropriately, he played a scintillating version of a movement from a Bach solo Partita as an encore.

Honorable Mention: The brilliantly gifted Christian Zacharais brought tremendous passion, lyricism and virtuosic fire to Schumann’s Piano Concerto with a flawless orchestral contribution from the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Tchaikovsky’s overplayed Piano Concerto No.1 received freshly minted treatment from the highly talented Pietro De Maria. The pianist’s gleaming coloration, fleet finger work and glowing romanticism brought new life to this warhorse (with skillful support from conductor William Noll despite a sub par orchestra) at the Miami International Piano Festival. 

BEST SOLO RECITAL – Konstantin Lifschitz’s traversal of all 24 preludes and fugues of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier (in marathon afternoon and evening concerts) was a veritable tour de force. Alternately dreamy and lithe, Lifschitz’s freshly scrubbed realization brought immense clarity to even the most densely crafted contrapuntal lines. The pianist’s gleaming tone and cyclorama of glowing hues brought new life to this towering masterpiece. A landmark event for the Miami International Piano Festival!

Honorable Mention: Once a promising young violinist, Vadim Gluzman has become a true bravura virtuoso and deeply insightful interpreter of a diverse repertoire. At a Sunday Afternoons of Music recital, Gluzman gave spellbinding performances of such varied works as Ysaye’s Obsession Sonata, Ravel’s Tzigane and scores by Bach and Beethoven. Gluzman’s Leopold Auer Stradivarius violin produces the most gorgeous, darkly burnished tone imaginable.

At the Miami International Piano Festival, Gulsin Onay unfurled formidable technique and a uniquely personal sense of phrase and rhythmic pulse in passionate scores by Chopin, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Onay’s Debussy was equally remarkable – all misty haze with a panoramic kaleidoscope of tonal coloration. In an age of homogenized pianistic metronomes, Onay was a true original.

BEST CHAMBER MUSIC PERFORMANCE – At Iris Van Eyck’s Chameleon series, the Amernet String Quartet joined violist Chauncey Patterson and Van Eyck (on cello) for a riveting, high voltage, impassioned reading of Brahms’ String Sextet No.1. With a winning performance of a late Mozart string trio for good measure, the Amernet players again displayed world class stature. Van Eyck’s fascinating programming juxtapositions fill an important niche in South Florida’s musical menu. 

Honorable Mention: The stellar Orion String Quartet joined four New World Symphony members for a high spirited, intensely felt performance of Mendelssohn’s remarkable Octet. Orion violinist Todd Phillips also led the New World Strings in a lithe, transparent performance of Grieg’s Holberg Suite that brushed away the cobwebs of over heated, frequent performances of this chamber orchestra staple. 

At the wonderful Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival, pianist Lisa Leonard really sizzled in a surging, invigorating performance of Brahms’ Piano Quintet in f minor. Leonard is a veritable pianistic dynamo. Her stellar technique, deeply penetrating musicality and volcanic power turned Brahms’ darkly ruminative score into an edge of the seat tour de force. With an excellent string contingent, Leonard uncovered new sonic layers in an awesome deconstruction of a chamber music masterpiece. Leonard’s artistry is of the most exalted variety! 

BEST CHORAL PERFORMANCE – Schubert’s valedictory Mass No.6 in E-flat Major combined the remarkable talents of Patrick Quigley’s chamber choir Seraphic Fire, members of the University of Miami Frost Chorale (under brilliant, departing choral director Jo-Michel Scheibe) and the New World Symphony under the galvanizing direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. Part of a three day Vienesse festival, the Schubert Mass was a profoundly moving experience. Tilson Thomas astutely balanced Schubert’s heaven storming monumentality and soaring lyricism, skillfully pinpointing the composer’s innovative orchestration and daring harmonic experimentation.

Honorable Mention: Marvis Martin’s ethereal soprano and Jo-Michel Scheibe’s invigorating choral and orchestral direction brought Francis Poulenc’s inspired Gloria to vivid life; the Master Chorale of South Florida singing with beautifully gauged dynamics and rousing incisiveness. John Rutter’s Gloria was a fine additional ornament to this holiday concert, the piece recalling the ceremonial film scores of Walton and Vaughan Williams. With full throated choral and orchestral proclamations, Scheibe turned this captivating score into sheer exultant jubilation.

BEST NEW WORLD SYMPHONY GUEST CONDUCTOR – As Principal Conductor of Glasgow’s Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stephane Deneve has created considerable excitement and it was easy to tell why from his New World Symphony guest appearance. This young French maestro revealed an innate command of orchestral textures, refining the exuberant Baroque symmetries (through an impressionistic gauze) of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and drawling voluptuous instrumental bursts of color in the French master’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite No.2. Best of all, Deneve revived Albert Roussel’s bracing Bacchus and Ariane Suite – a strikingly original 20th century gem, played with blazing virtuosity and élan. Deneve is a major podium talent.

Honorable Mention: If John Adams was not one of America’s significant contemporary composers, he would be a major conductor. As in previous visits, Adams commanded brilliant playing from the New World musicians. By sheer interpretive exhuberance, he made the highly uneven score (in orchestral guise) from his opera Dr. Atomic sound better than it is. 

BEST CONTEMPORARY SCORE – This category amounts to a tie. Iranian-American Bernard Ranjbaran’s Awakening is an intense meditation for string orchestra, passionately expressive of utterance. At once lyrical and agitated, this music remains with the listener long after its last notes have sounded. This intensely personal plea for peace is a major addition to the chamber orchestra repertoire, given a supple reading by the New World Symphony strings under the expert direction of the Julliard String Quartet’s Joel Smirnoff.

John Adams’ concerto for electric violin and orchestra The Dharma at Big Sur is the iconoclastic composer’s most ambitious score yet and, perhaps, his best to date. Scored for six string electric violin with untraditional, non-Western tuning and full orchestra with a large Asian-influenced percussion battery, this piece takes Adams far beyond his signature minimalism into an ambitious Pan Asian fusion of Eastern and Western musical grooves. With influences as diverse as Debussy, Lou Harrison, Aaron Copland and rock and World Music, the score abounds in rhapsodic flights of string writing, balanced by gong and percussive hints of the Javanese gamelan (an important influence of West Coast creative icon Harrison). The gutsy, searing virtuosity of jazz-rock-World Music fusion artist Tracy Silverman (on his unique six string instrument) dazzled the ear and the senses. With Adams providing brilliant leadership, the New World Symphony matched Silverman in sheer razzle dazzle. 

Honorable Mention: The innovative chamber orchestra Project Copernicus presented a newly orchestrated version of Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain by Angel Lam, a work originally conceived for Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Lam’s rhapsodic strophes combine mysticism and joy for a heady brew of modernist techniques and World Music influences. A protégé of Osvaldo Golijov, Lam shares that composer’s penchant for music that fuses populism and high classicism in an emotionally communicative manner.

MOST JOYOUS EVENT – Festival of the Arts Boca concluded with a festive evening featuring Renee Fleming, backed by the stellar Russian National Orchestra under the expert baton of the soprano’s longtime recital accompanist and frequent conductor Richard Bado. Fleming’s luxuriant, creamy, million dollar vocalism embraced such varied repertoire as arias from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani (new repertoire for this singer) and Catalani’s La Wally, John Kander’s setting of a letter from a Union soldier during the Civil War (courtesy of filmmaker Ken Burns) and show tunes by Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter. With deft support from Bado and the Moscow based ensemble, Fleming was in high vocal gear, turning the Count de Hoernle Amphitheater at Mizner Park into a musical party tent. 

Honorable Mention: Tenor Juan Diego Florez, one of the most extraordinary singers on the world’s operatic stages, unleashed waves of honeyed, dulcet tone and dazzling coloratura pyrotechnics in an evening of his trademark Rossini showpieces but also forays into Verdi and Donizetti repertoire. Florez even turned Augustin Lara’s Granada into 24 carat vocal gold. With gifted American conductor Christopher Franklin on the podium, Orchestra Miami offered supple support. 

BIGGEST SURPRISE – The tonal refinement and generally tight ensemble playing of the Boca Raton Symphonia were quite astonishing for an orchestra that is only three seasons old. Newly appointed Artistic Advisor Alexander Platt led an intense, subtly delineated performance of Haydn’s Symphony No.97 that recalled the heyday of James Judd and the Florida Philharmonic. Conductor Lara Jackson, a Marin Alsop protégé, made a strong impression in the wide ranging vistas of Darius Milhaud, Mozart and Schubert. Platt has planned an ambitious 2008-2009 season. Good musical vibrations should be expected from this collaboration. 

Honorable Mention: Aleksandar Madzar proved a real sleeper at the Miami International Piano Festival. With big boned technique to burn, Madzar tackled Beethoven’s fiendishly complex Diabelli Variations. Combining intellectual acuity and sensitivity to the inner pulse of Beethoven’s subtext, Madzar delivered a magnificent, deeply probing interpretation of this keyboard landmark. Indeed his performance brought vintage comparisons with the recorded version by Artur Schnabel, perhaps the greatest Beethoven interpreter of the 20th century. This was remarkable pianism by any measure! Madzar also offered sensuous, elegantly crafted Debussy and Ravel as well as barn burning Chopin. Madzar is the authentic article – a master of the instrument and a thoughtful, sensitive artist! 

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS – Florida Grand Opera’s new production of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte made simplicity a virtue with an intimate, cleanly designed mise-en-scene. Stylish conducting by Stewart Robertson, refined playing by the Florida Classical Orchestra and vibrant performances by a gifted young cast lit up the stage. (Soprano Ana Maria Martinez in the fiendish role of Fiordiligi was a standout.) Palm Beach Opera’s season opening Turandot was a real barn burner. Bruno Aprea’s passionate conducting; an opulent production and the vociferous singing of a fine cast did full justice to Puccini’s valedictory masterpiece.

After more than four decades on the world’s concert stages, Andre Watts remains a formidable virtuoso. He brought power pounding brilliance but also innate musicality and insight to Grieg’s Piano Concerto, an enlightening revisionist take on an over played warhorse. Besides providing Watts with fine accompaniment, Andrew Litton and his surprisingly world class Bergen Philharmonic brought chamber music intimacy and ravishing tonal coloration to excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. 

Yefim Bronfman managed to infuse new life into Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3. Eschewing pianistic bombast, Bronfman brought sensitivity and radiant tonal hues to this showpiece with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony offering subtle collaboration. Kemal Gekic offered a fire breathing rendition of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1 that provided excitement aplenty; yet he brought incredible sensitivity, soaring musical line and romantic ardor to the slow movement. With conductor William Noll leading passionate Brahms, this was a performance to treasure. 

Cuban firebrand Jorge Luis Prats displayed dazzling firepower, assured technique and patrician musicianship in a welcome revival of Shostakovich’s charming Piano Concerto No.2, expertly supported by James Brooks-Bruzzese and the excellent Symphony of the Americas. Tchaikovsky Competition winner Denis Matsuev gave a blazing traversal of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3, displaying flawless technique and idiomatic flair. Despite less than stellar support from Mark Gorenson and the State Symphony of Russia, Matsuev provided visceral excitement. 

Tilson Thomas’ three day Vienesse festival showcased the New World players in music of Schubert and Alban Berg. Berg’s haunting Lyric Suite and apocalyptic Three Pieces for Orchestra received searing, impassioned readings. Schubert’s 8th and 9th Symphonies emerged freshly minted with interpretations that pinpointed inner voices and thematic threads that sound fuzzy in more mundane renditions. Best of all, four first chair members of the Vienna Philharmonic (including concertmaster Rainer Honeck), who served as guest coaches for the festival, joined the orchestra for a delightfully schmaltzy and witty version of Haydn’s spirited Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat Major. With the performance of Schubert’s Mass No.6 mentioned above as a wonderful bonus, this was a model of what a festival event should be; not to mention the fascinating, intelligently annotated program book. 

American composer Paul Chihara contributed a new slow movement (based on themes from the solo piano work Kinderszenen) to make Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale into a full fledged, four movement symphony. Chihara’s lyrically expansive, eloquent writing fit the piece like a glove. Moreover, the premiere performance by the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra had more vitality and romantic intensity than many a conductor led rendition.

The Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival continues to revive worthy scores. Albert’s Roussel’s harmonically astringent Trio for Flute, Viola and Cello and Bohuslav Martinu’s vivacious Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano proved especially noteworthy. These chamber music gems deserve more frequent performance. Flutist Karen Fuller Dixon’s dazzling acrobatics and pure toned expressivity were enticing. Pianist Lisa Leonard’s dynamic musicality always stands out at these delightfully intimate concerts. 

Seraphic Fire revived the chamber version of Brahms’ German Requiem. Utilizing a small choir and four hand piano accompaniment, Patrick Quigley’s performance was a revelation. An outstanding choral director, Quigley evoked the pathos, terror and hope that are the subtext of Brahms’ greatest choral work. Without large scale forces, clarity and intimacy brought greater depth to this beautiful score. One of Quigley’s most remarkable performances to date, this Brahms Requiem made a compelling case that smaller forces are superior. 

Conductor Alexander Platt offered a worthy revival of Benjamin Britten’s song cycle A Charm of Lullabies with the Boca Raton Symphonia. Moody and disturbing, this is Britten’s most Mahleresque creation. Colin Matthews’ luminous orchestration captured the fractured, jazzy figurations that envelop this haunting work. Mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley, a Britten specialist, was alive to the mood swings and vocal leaps in this superb work. 

Tenor Philippe Castagner’s dulcet soft tones and powerful vocal dramatics commanded the spotlight in Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge. With fine instrumental accompaniment by a contingent from the New World Symphony, Castagner evoked pastoral nostalgia, romantic yearning and the ominous toll of bells for the dead in this dark, moody vocal cycle. 

Despite dispiriting conducting from Elaine Rinaldi, Orchestra Miami’s Ricordi Gala did not lack exciting vocalism. Former Miamian Eglise Gutierrez set the house ablaze with razzle dazzle coloratura leaps in arias from Rossini’s Semiramide and Verdi’s Rigoletto. Indra Thomas’ dusky timbre and flawless upper register signaled a Verdi soprano in the grand tradition. Baritone Mark Rucker produced dipped in lava vocal warmth and passion in a series of arias and duets. Add the stentorian tenor singing of tenor Eduardo Villa (a particularly vociferous Nessun Dorma) and the evening definitely did not lack vocal glamour.

Legendary choral conductor Helmuth Rilling concluded Festival Miami with a sublime traversal of Haydn’s great oratorio The Creation. Rilling’s genial, vivacious reading captured both the charm and Beethovenesque thunderbolts of Haydn’s magnum opus. Wielding the university choral and orchestral forces into a cohesive, responsive ensemble, Rilling achieved results that transcended the student level and, indeed, reached the heights of sublimity. Among an excellent solo contingent, the miraculous Helen Donath stood out for her still nearly flawless vocal technique and expressive musicality and artistry. 

THE LOW POINTS OF THE SEASON – Palm Beach Opera’s gimmicky production of Verdi’s La Traviata attempted to substitute large mirrors for sets, only minimizing the singers and the drama. A soprano with more vibrato than voice and a tenor who strained painfully in the upper register did not improve matters.

What Canadian pianist Walter Delahunt was doing teaming up for duos with the great Martha Argerich was a giant, unanswered question. Delahunt’s coarse, graceless playing and primitive technique were miles away from Argerich’s refined artistry. At the same Chopin Foundation event, violinist Ida Haendel’s worn technique and shaky intonation were foisted on violin showpieces by Enescu and Franck. 

Pianist Alon Goldstein’s recital was often painful; his technique hardly above the student level. Goldstein’s cold, expressionless playing was often a trial to the ear.

Conductor Michael Stern, less than impressive in previous South Florida outings with the defunct Florida Philharmonic, returned to lead the great Cleveland Orchestra in heavy handed Mozart and plodding Beethoven. Stern’s uninspired, workmanlike leadership failed to engender inspired music making, even from one of the world’s best ensembles.

THE FUTURE – As renowned architect Frank Gehry’s new performance space for the New World Symphony rises in Miami Beach, a sense of new musical adventure seems to abound. With a wonderful new classical music station (Classical South Florida – 89.7 on the fm dial in Miami and 101.9 in West Palm Beach), great music has returned to the airwaves – one of the totally unexpected surprises of the past season. Despite continuing economic uncertainty, South Florida’s music scene promises much for the future.


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