The 2003-2004 music season in South Florida was one of momentous upheaval. The demise of several organizations (The Florida Philharmonic and the Miami Chamber Symphony) and the withdrawal from the area of others (Close Encounters With Music) resulted in a diminished number of performances and less opportunities for local musicians. On the other hand several groups expanded their artistic horizons (the New World Symphony and the Miami International Piano Festival) with new series and venues. There was much splendid music making and a few totally forgettable evenings. Here is a review of the individuals and performances that commanded attention - for both positive and negative reasons. 

MOST MEMORABLE ORCHESTRAL PERFORMANCE - The New World Symphony under England's Mark Wigglesworth in an unforgettable Shostakovich Eighth Symphony - a performance that captured all of the terror, agony, and poignancy of this wartime score. Honorable Mention: Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony by the Cincinnati Symphony under the brilliant Paavo Jarvi - a lush, high voltage rendition of a 20th century classic.

BEST VISITING ORCHESTRA - The Cincinnati Symphony is one of America's best orchestras. With Jarvi at the helm, the ensemble was in top form. Honorable Mentions: the dynamic Russian National Orchestra (definitely Russia's best) under Alexander Vedernikov and the Philharmonia of the Nations - a dazzling group of young musicians (under the excellent baton of Justus Frantz) who imbued Dvorak's Symphony No.8 with the spirit of Bohemia (and brought back memories of the great Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik). 

MOST DISAPPOINTING ORCHESTRAL PERFORMANCE - The Vienna Symphony, conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev, played a leaden, dispirited version of the Schubert's Third Symphony.

BEST CONCERTO COLLABORATION - A hard choice to be sure, but the combination of violinist Akiko Suwani and the Czech Philharmonic under Russia's Andrey Boreyko produced a rendition of Dvorak's Violin Concerto to the manner borne - glistening, vigorous, and richly romantic. Honorable Mention: Pianist Helene Grimaud (with Vedernikov and the Russian National Orchestra) in a riveting exhumation of Bartok's Third Piano Concerto - an illuminating vision of a complex, problematical score. 

MOST DISAPPOINTING CONCERTO PERFORMANCE - Pianist Navah Pearlman's painful, technically deficient version of Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto with pedestrian support from the Moscow State Radio Symphony. Also Tian Ying's performance of Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto made for a less than stellar opening to Festival Miami - besides a torrent of missed notes, the second movement was barely recognizable (but kudos to conductor Thomas Sleeper for following his soloist's eccentricities). 

BEST SOLO RECITAL - Pietro De Maria's incandescent all Chopin program at the Miami International Piano Festival - "golden age" pianism. Honorable Mention: Richard Goode's deeply probing Schubert and Schumann for Sunday Afternoons of Music. 

MOST MEMORABLE INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE - Sergei Babayan's sensitive, brilliant realization of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" was a musical revelation. Honorable Mention: Konstantin Lifschitz gave a magisterial reading of Beethoven's fierce "Hammerklavier" Sonata - pianism in the Grand Manner. 

MOST SURPRISING CHAMBER MUSIC PERFORMANCE - Chameleon Musicians played with tremendous enthusiasm and glowing tone in a program of varied works by female composers (in celebration of Women's History Month). Here was unjustly neglected music performed with Úlan - particularly outstanding: a sinewy work for solo flute by Orlando based composer Stella Sung. 

BEST CHAMBER MUSIC PERFORMANCE - The Artemis Quartet's bracing account of Arnold Schoenberg's sprawling String Quartet No.1 (for Friends of Chamber Music). Honorable Mention: Pianist Ilya Itin, violinist Vesna Gruppman, and cellist Mark Kosower in Brahms's Piano Trio No.1 - a performance of warmth, elegance, and bold virtuosity. 

MOST DISAPPOINTING CHAMBER MUSIC PERFORMANCE - The venerable Guarneri Quartet could not encompass the orchestral range and sonority of Sibelius's String Quartet No.1 (a score that New World Symphony musicians embraced in a riveting performance). 

BEST VOCAL PERFORMANCE - Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian revealed a voice of the legendary variety in a recital for Sunday Afternoons of Music. Her dazzling coloratura in Baroque arias and amber toned, haunting delivery of rare Kurt Weill songs was memorable. Honorable Mention: Mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich as a dusky toned, vibrant Adalgisa in the Concert Association's concert version of Bellini's "Norma."

MOST DISAPPOINTING VOCAL PERFORMANCE - Salvatore Licitra as Pollione in "Norma" displayed a robust, serviceable tenor voice, but not the vocal gold of a Pavarotti or Domingo (as his hype led one to believe). 

MOST INTERESTING CONTEMPORARY MUSIC - Oliver Knussen's sensuous, neo-romantic Violin Concerto was a real winner, particularly when played with passion and verve by William Preucil (under the composer's baton). The late Lou Harrison's Concerto for Violin and American Gamelan Orchestra was a fascinating, neo-Baroque synthesis of East and West. This melodically inspired work could not have had more passionately committed advocates than Chee-Yun and Michael Tilson Thomas. 

MOST JOYOUS EVENT - "African Sanctus" by David Fanshawe was given a stirring rendition under the brilliant direction of Jo Michael Scheibe at Festival Miami. Fanshawe's fusion of East and West, Christianity and Islam, and World Music and classicism produced a wonderful multi-cultural celebration. Honorable Mentions: Kemal Gekic and Misha Dacic in an exuberant exploration of duo-piano repertoire at the excellent new Steinway Hall. Festival Miami presented a glowing 80th birthday tribute to American composer Ned Rorem (a master of Gallic tinged lyricism) with eloquent performances by the Bergonzi String Quartet and fellow UM artists.

MOST MOVING EVENT - A tribute to former Miami Herald music critic James Roos brought artists together from around the world for an evening of heartfelt music making. How fortunate that Roos was able to attend and enjoy this memorable evening! (Roos passed away on May 13th.)

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER - The University of Miami's Paul Posnak proved himself a fervent exponent of rarely heard 19th and 20th century romantic music. Posnak gave a virtuosic account of the fiendishly difficult piano line in Vittorio Giannini's gleaming Piano Quintet (with the Amernet Quartet), a stirring performance of Dohnanyi's beautiful Piano Quintet (with the revitalized Fine Arts Quartet), and a scintillating rendition of Ravel's engaging Septet (with the Amernet foursome, trumpeter Jeffrey Kaye, and double bassist Janet Clippard). 

MOST UNSUNG HERO - The New World Symphony's principal guest conductor Alasdair Neale was a tower of strength in a wide ranging repertoire. From a searing version of Richard Strauss's "Metamorphosen" to buoyant Mendelssohn and stirring Elgar, Neale made music with passion, taste, and discernment. Honorable Mention: While the Israel Philharmonic's concert was enthusiastically received, far too little attention was given to their conductor Yoel Levi. Levi's witty Prokofiev and surging Sibelius were what great conducting is about! 

BIGGEST TURNAROUND - After a shaky start WKAT Classical 1360 hired veteran broadcaster Ken Martin as program director. Martin has succeeded in turning the station around from a crossover (barely classical) outlet into a respectable radio venue for serious music. 

IMPORTANT NEW VENUES - Steinway Concert Hall in Coral Gables is an intimate, acoustically lively space that is perfect for solo recitals. The hall's lively ambience helps to display artists at their best. Honorable Mention: The Ballroom at the Josephine Leiser Opera Center in Fort Lauderdale proved to be a wonderful salon for chamber music with resonant acoustics and real immediacy between players and audience. Aventura's Northern Trust Bank Auditorium became a warmly reverberant space for intimate chamber concerts.

BIGGEST MUSICAL LOSSES - The demise of both the Florida Philharmonic and the Miami Chamber Symphony leaves South Florida without a major professional orchestra. The departure of the Miami String Quartet (to become resident ensemble at Ohio's Kent State University) was a major loss. The resignation of FIU School of Music's founding director Frederick Kaufman leaves the future of that conservatory in doubt. 

BIGGEST REASONS FOR OPTIMISM - The Performing Arts Center of Greater Miami is visibly rising in downtown Miami - a promise of stellar events to come. The debut of Jo Michael Scheibe's Master Chorale of Greater Miami (an extension of the old Florida Philharmonic Chorus) promises continued performances of choral masterworks and perhaps the genesis of a new orchestra. The expansion of the Miami International Piano Festival with new series in Coral Gables and Aventura as well as its first residency in Europe (in Lecce, Italy) promises more pianistic discoveries.

Musically the 2003-2004 season was the best and worst of times. Thanks to the many superb artists who graced South Florida's stages, there was much to remember and treasure! 

By Lawrence Budmen

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