If the 2006-2007 South Florida music season had only brought the opening of Miami’s Carnival Center for the Performing Arts and the Cleveland Orchestra’s first Miami residency, it would go down in the record books as a landmark year. Yet the generally outstanding level of music making yielded many memorable performances. The confluence of a glamorous new venue and splendid artistry produced a season that will not easily be forgotten. Here is an overview of the high points (and the few low ones) of this exciting musical cavalcade plus some thoughts about the Carnival Center. 

BEST ORCHESTRAL PERFORMANCE – In a season of stellar orchestral outings, this was a very competitive category. In the final analysis, it was a three-way tie – The Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, and New World Symphony all offered superlative performances at the Carnival Center’s Knight Concert Hall. 

The Clevelanders’ mellifluous sonority and refined musical sensibilities produced memorable performances of Beethoven’s 9th and Mahler’s 1st Symphonies, conducted with sweeping eloquence and Vienesse warmth by music director Franz Welser-Most. More surprising was Welser-Most’s intense traversal of Leonard Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony (with the rich voiced mezzo Kelly O’Connor a potent vocal soloist) and sensuous readings of scores by Osvaldo Golijov and Alberto Ginastera. Cleveland still has the best collective group of first chair players on the American orchestral scene and remains the most classical of American orchestras.

The Chicago Symphony’s single evening spotlighted the undervalued David Zinman on the podium for a dazzling rendition of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. This orchestra’s lush, darkly burnished sound is unique. Strauss tone poems have long been a house specialty in Chicago. Under Zinman’s intense direction, an often diffuse work proceeded in one unbroken arc of rapturous beauty.

In the warmly reverberant acoustics of the Carnival Center, the New World Symphony sounded like a different ensemble. The harsh, constricted sound in Miami Beach’s Lincoln Theater, the orchestra’s home base, limits the color and impact of this excellent orchestral academy. At the Knight Concert Hall, the New World’s dynamic range and tonal richness beguiled the ear. Michael Tilson Thomas’ incandescent performances of major scores by Bartok, Shostakovich, and Sibelius reached the most elevated level. The death song of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, the agony of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, or the inexorable thrust of Sibelius’ 2nd Symphony have rarely emerged with such power and all consuming passion.

Honorable Mention: The Russian National Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony offered world class playing. As house ensemble for the ambitious Festival of the Arts Boca, the Moscow based orchestra confirmed its status as Russia’s best. Silken strings, characterful winds, and sonorous brass produced a big, exciting sound in 19th and 20th century repertoire.

Conceived in the aural image of the stellar Clevelanders, the Atlanta Symphony came close to matching them in sensuous musical vibrations. With the brilliantly gifted Robert Spano on the podium, the orchestra offered exquisite Mozart, luminous romantic Americana (Christopher Theofanidis’ Rainbow Body), and soaring Rachmaninoff. Clearly this ensemble has staked its claim as one of America’s best.

BEST OPERATIC PERFORMANCE – The world premiere of David Carlson’s setting of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina brought major attention to Miami and its new operatic venue. It also unveiled a vividly romantic musico-dramatic creation. Carlson’s neo-romantic opus is a mesmeric condensation of a sprawling novella. Florida Grand Opera pulled out all the stops with a stunning production. Kelley Kaduce - a terrific singing actress - excelled in the career making title role. Brandon Jovanovich, 2007 winner of the Richard Tucker role, revealed an ardent tenor in the pivotal role of Levin. Stewart Robertson conducted with urgent intensity. A brilliant debut for an important new score! 

The Concert Association of Florida’s concert version of Verdi’s Il Trovatore reveled in 24 karat operatic gold. A last minute substitute Leonora, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky brought back memories of Zinka Milanov and Maria Callas with creamy, passionate vocalism of the most extraordinary variety. With Salvatore Licitra’s ringing Italianate tenor, Lado Ataneli’s stentorian baritone, and the veteran conductor Eduardo Muller leading idiomatic Verdi, this was a “Golden Age” evening of operatic thrills and chills. 

Honorable Mention: Palm Beach Opera under Italian conductor Bruno Aprea continues to stage rousing productions of repertoire chestnuts. An updated, neo-Fellini staging of the verismo twins – Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci – yielded vociferous singing and theatrical fireworks; the gifted Jovanovich offering a ringing Turiddu (in Cavalleria) and Angela Maria Blasi a sensual, vocally refined Nedda (in Pagliacci).

An intensely lyrical Madama Butterfly (in a stylized staging) brought a gorgeously vocalized Cio-Cio San from Julie Makerov and a virile, exciting Pinkerton from James Valenti. Aprea has turned the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra into a supple, first rate ensemble. His fiery, bracing conducting turns familiar repertoire into freshly minted gold. 

Florida Grand Opera opened the Carnival Center’s solemn but acoustically splendid Ziff Opera House with a grandiose mounting of Verdi’s Aida. In the title role Angela Brown offered burnished vocal hues of the legendary variety. Arnold Rawls was a lyrical Radames who could vault Celeste Aida to the rafters. Greg Baker’s deeply burnished bass-baritone offered an Amonasro of kingly stature indeed. An old fashioned, gaudy production provided ample festive entertainment value.

BEST SOLO RECITAL – Evgeny Kissin is our modern day Vladimir Horowitz. His coolly cerebral Schubert, blazing Beethoven, and volatile Chopin were essayed with flawless technique and fiery temperament. Six encores brought delightful keyboard vignettes that emerged freshly minted. Everything Kissin played reverberated with individuality. Once a wunderkind, this Russian dynamo is an authentic original - a great artist. His recital was a powerhouse conclusion for the Concert Association’s first season at the acoustically distinguished Knight Concert Hall.

Honorable Mention: The husband and wife duo of cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han are true stars of the chamber music world. They are also artists of rare sensitivity and insight. In a stellar recital for Sunday Afternoons of Music, the Finckel-Han duo produced the most elegant, mellifluous sounds, each recalling their distinguished teachers. (Finckel studied with Rostropovich; Wu Han with Rudolf Serkin.) In a sizzling rendition of Prokofiev’s enigmatic Cello Sonata, the duo equaled the expressivity and velocity of the score’s original performers – Rostropovich and Richter.

Russian firebrand Alexander Gavrylyuk, top prize winner of the Artur Rubinstein International Competition, returned to the Miami International Piano Festival with a pianistic tour de force that swept all before it. Rachmaninoff’s fiendish Etudes-Tableaux were dispatched with remarkable clarity and ardent fervor. The pyrotechnics of Medtner’s too often neglected music were like rich cream atop dark, tightly strung emotional turbulence. Gavrylyuk’s Chopin glistened and sang with operatic like bel canto purity. This incredible young artist is on the verge of major international stardom.

BEST CHAMBER MUSIC PERFORMANCE – The Amernet String Quartet and Friends offered a rousing evening of music making that mixed musical conviviality and artistry. Joined by violin legends Shmuel Ashkenazi and Zvi Zeitlin, violist Roberto Diaz and cellist Marc Johnson were guest artists in such felicitous rarities as Mendelssohn’s Viola Quintet and Glazunov’s Cello Quintet. (When is the last time Glazunov’s chamber music has been heard? Judging by the rigorous classicism of this score, more of this composer’s intimate works deserve a hearing.) The artistic integrity, impassioned musicianship, and superb ensemble playing produced an evening to remember.

Honorable Mention: The Barromeo String Quartet, a brilliant young foursome, joined members of the New World Symphony for an eloquent version of Brahms’ Sextet No.2, a score that prefigures the contrapuntal complexity of Max Reger. The group produced that uniquely dark well of tone that is quintessentially Brahmsian. The musicians’ surging lyricism and white hot intensity of utterance cut to score’s inner fire, bringing it aglow in a manner both heavens storming and spiritual. 

MOST VALUABLE ARTIST/ BEST CHORAL PERFORMANCE – The ever remarkable Jo-Michel Scheibe seemed to be everywhere during the season. His Master Chorale sounded superb for the Cleveland Orchestra’s sublimely glowing performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (masterfully paced by Franz Welser Most) – the choral standout of the season. Scheibe’s chorus was vigorous and euphoric in the big choral scenes of Verdi’s Il Trovatore (in the Concert Association’s performance, expertly led by Eduardo Muller). At Festival Miami, Scheibe led Donald McCullough’s Holocaust Cantata, a multi-media production based on the writings of Holocaust victims – a supremely moving event. The news that Scheibe will be leaving South Florida for a faculty position at the University of Southern California will leave a huge cultural void in the community. Scheibe is a choral director of the most extraordinary attainments. 

BEST NEW WORLD SYMPHONY GUEST CONDUCTOR – Manfred Honeck, newly named music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, tamed the harsh acoustics of the Lincoln Theater and illuminated Bruckner’s 7th Symphony to an incandescent level. Honeck’s taut, minutely detailed conducting brought the composer’s luminous cathedral in sound to exciting life. Eschewing personal celebrity, Honeck puts the music first. A potentially great maestro! 

Honorable Mention: Sir Roger Norington brought his experience of working with period instrument ensembles to the New World’s all Schumann program. With Norington commanding taut, vibratoless playing from the strings, Schumann emerged as a musical revolutionary, a romantic iconoclast light years away from the mushy sounding conservatism of most orchestral renditions of this composer’s works. Add Robert Levin’s bracing, poetic take on the familiar Piano Concerto, an evening when everything old became new again.

BEST CONTEMPORARY SCORE – Ellen Taffee Zwilich’s Bassoon Concerto seemed to reinvent the instrument in a complex brew of evocative lyricism and jazzy virtuosity. Add a lush, nimble orchestration (featuring a trap drum set in the riveting finale) for one of the most innovative scores for a wind instrument. Veteran bassoonist Luciano Magnanini’s bravura rendition was matched by the probing musicianship of conductor Alastair Willis, leading the Boca Raton Philharmonic Symphonia’s best concert yet.

Honorable Mention: Michael Tilson Thomas’ Notturno was an extended instrumental operatic aria in bel canto style, a wonderful valentine to the remarkable technical fluidity and vivacious musicality of flutist Paula Robison. The score’s cascading roulades were both pensive and celebratory. A one of a kind piece and striking evidence of this superstar conductor’s increasingly strong ability as a composer! 

Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra begins where Bartok left off. Higdon’s quirky melodic, harmonic and rhythmic sensibilities produce a constantly changing, mesmeric showpiece – a modern day concerto-grosso writ large. With Robert Spano revving up the musical temperature to a fever pitch, the New World Symphony produced a high octane performance of this bona fide orchestral showpiece, perhaps the first major repertoire work of the 21st century.

MOST JOYOUS EVENT – The first annual Festival of the Arts Boca brought thousands of music lovers to the Mizner Park Amphitheater for a weeklong residency by the Russian National Orchestra, the jewel of Moscow’s musical crown. Despite the vagaries of amplification and extraneous noises, the RNO gave an awesome display of orchestral virtuosity with top flight soloists (Nina Kotova, Helene Grimaud, Itzhak Perlman) to add glamour and musical volatility. These were exhilarating evenings when artists and audiences bonded for a visceral demonstration of the joy of music.

BIGGEST SURPRISE – Cleveland International Piano Competition winner Chou-Fang Huang (at SAM) brought poetry, an endless cascade of coloration and patrician musicianship to a wide stylistic gamut from the classicism of Scarlatti to the romantic turbulence of Schumann to the Impressionistic gauze of Debussy and Ravel. Transcending the mere technical adeptness of most competition winners, she is an artist of the highest level with a bright future.

Honorable Mention: Marshall Turkin has long been known as an orchestral administrator, concert impresario, and jazz clarinetist. His 1950’s Saxophone Sonata was a wonderful “find” at Turkin’s Mostly Music series in Boca Raton. With a haunting atonal “night music” at its center, Turkin’s moody, jazzy piece proved a wonderful addition to the limited classical repertoire for this distinctive wind instrument. With the University of Miami’s Gary Keller igniting a feverish, impassioned performance, Turkin’s brilliantly conceived score astounded the listener with its inventive, strikingly original discourse.

MOST IMPORTANT DISCOVERY – At the Miami International Piano Festival, German pianist Severin von Eckardstein brought a revisionist view of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata to the Lincoln Theater stage – light, fleet, replete with unexpected twists and turns. With flawless technique, von Eckardstein ventured unconventional repertoire by Janacek, Medtner and Scriabin, combining poetry and cascading tonal colors in equal measure. This pianist’s intellectual approach yielded rich musical dividends.

MOST ENCORAGING DEVELOPMENT – Boca Raton emerged as a major performing arts venue. Festival of the Arts Boca served decisive notice that the city is now an arts leader – potentially the most important market for classical music in South Florida. With the Boca Raton Philharmonic Symphonia making a strong showing (in only its second season) and the Florida Classical Orchestra (often an uneven pit ensemble for Florida Grand Opera and Miami City Ballet) making impressive strides in a symphonic concert series, all this city needs is a first class auditorium to take center stage. 

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS – Two of Russia’s hottest, fast rising young conductors made impressive South Florida appearances. At the Boca Raton Festival, Vladimir Jurowski led the Russia National Orchestra in an incendiary Prokofiev 5th Symphony, a sensuously romantic Romeo and Juliet (Tchaikovsky), and revived Stravinsky’s opulent Scherzo Fantastique, conjuring up some of the most magical string textures heard in South Florida in many seasons. Andrey Boreyko brought his Hamburg Symphony to the Broward Center for an idiomatic, darkly sonorous traversal of Brahms’ 1st Symphony (with Robert McDuffie as a rich toned, eloquent soloist in Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1).

Rossini scholar Alberto Zedda conducted L’Italiana en Algeri with verve and fizzy pizzazz for Palm Beach Opera with a fine cast to boot. Florida Grand Opera’s Abduction from the Seraglio took a cue from the classic comedy Twentieth Century, setting the opera aboard the Orient Express circa 1920’s. With Brian Anderson’s lyric tenor highlighting an impressive cast, the staging was pure fun.

Renee Fleming’s radiant performance of Strauss’ Four Last Songs glowed with vocal magic, lushly supported by Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony at the Carnival Center. Although he had to contend with the unflattering acoustics of the Lincoln Theater (the New World’s regular venue), Thomas Hampson brought dark baritonal velvet to Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder, focusing on the war poems. An imposing antiwar statement and a demonstration of subtle, refined artistry! Rolando Villazon’s ringing tenor spun out arias with dulcet sweetness as well as clarion brilliance.

The Pittsburgh Symphony’s lyrically entrancing version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade (under Jan Pascal Tortelier) made the rumors of an annual weeklong Kravis Center engagement all the more enticing. The Sao Paulo State Symphony (led by founder John Neschling) propelled orchestral showpieces by Villa-Lobos and Ginastera to barn burning velocity.

Mark Wigglesworth may be the world’s most underrated conductor. In a return New World Symphony engagement, he led a hyper intense Tchaikovsky Pathetique Symphony and drew sumptuous vibes in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1 (with Leila Josefowicz soaring in the violinistic stratosphere). At its chamber series, the NWS revived Chausson’s gorgeous Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet with Cory Cerovsek impressive in the solo honors. Schoenberg pupil Leon Kirchner conducted the NWS in his Concerto for Violin, Cello, Ten Winds and Percussion – an enchanting tapestry of iridescent timbres. Austrian iconoclast H.K. Gruber led and recited his witty “pan-demonium” Frankenstein for the New World’s Sounds of the Times series. Part Dudley Moore, part Peter Schickele (P.D.Q. Bach), Gruber was utterly endearing.

In a Concert Association recital, Maxim Vengerov reasserted his supremacy among the younger generation of violinists. His Mozart, Beethoven, Prokofiev and Shostakovich were deeply probing, illuminating the dark sides of those creative giants. The superb Israeli born cellist Yehuda Hanani returned to South Florida for a darkly burnished, intensely spiritual performance of Frederick Kaufman’s moving Kaddish (at the Florida International University Music Festival). His patrician artistry was a joy to hear! 

After three decades of being consigned to the left hand piano repertoire, Leon Fleisher returned to the mainstream keyboard literature, playing and conducting Mozart’s Concerto No.15 with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra at the Kravis Center. While less than note perfect, Fleisher offered idiomatic, gracefully embroidered Mozart (despite some unreliable orchestral playing). Ilya Itin, one of the most reliable keyboard virtuosos, probed the depths of Rachmaninoff’s moody Sonata No.2 in B minor and concluded the Miami International Piano Festival with a large scale, fiery traversal of that composer’s mammoth Concerto No.3, highlighted by a rhapsodic, gorgeously beautiful slow movement. Horacio Gutierrez threw caution to the winds in a big boned, powerful rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No.1, bringing new vigor to an overplayed repertoire staple (sumptuously accompanied by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya). 

Richard Stoltzman’s protean artistry illuminated a welcome revival of Frank Bridge’s folksy, warmly lyrical Clarinet Concerto (with passionate support from a surprisingly strong University of Miami Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Sleeper) at Festival Miami. The silvery purity of Eugenia Zukerman’s flute and her gracious artistry brought the dance like charm of Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp to life (ably seconded by harpist Karen Ott and James Brooks-Bruzzese leading a revivified Symphony of the Americas). 

THE CARNIVAL CENTER – While much has been written about the problems (i.e. lack of parking, budgetary woes) of Miami’s new performing arts center, the Carnival’s most important artistic attribute rates five stars. The acoustics (in both the Knight Concert Hall and the Ziff Opera House) are wonderful. After years of concert and opera performances in halls that ranged from horrendous to barely adequate, Miami now has wonderful performance spaces. These halls are a fitting memorial to acoustician Russell Johnson whose recent death ended a distinguished career. Johnson was a true master of sound. Happily he was able to see the Carnival Center project through to fruition. 

ON THE DOWNSIDE – Olga Kern pounded her way through Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2, leaving a blur of missed notes and runs, her tempos at odds with Vladimir Spivakov and the impressive National Philharmonic of Russia. Adam Neiman (usually an impressive keyboard artist) and the overrated Jonathan Biss played heavy handed, funeral performances of Mozart Piano Concerti. Orion Weiss offered a Grieg Piano Concerto devoid of romance and ardor.

Why did Palm Beach Opera waste the stellar talents of conductor Kerry Lynn Wilson and a fine cast on Massenet’s Thais, a dated, boring period piece? Florida Grand Opera’s production of Puccini’s passionate Manon Lescaut suffered from substandard casting where it counted most. Sylvie Valayre was a glamorous stage presence but sounded frayed and less than radiant in the pivotal title role. As Des Grieux (a tenor role championed by Gigli, Bjoerling, Tucker and Domingo) Hugh Smith merely hectored and strained in the upper register. When conductor Alvaro Cavallaro justifiably received the ovation of the evening, something was definitely amiss. The paper thin voice of tenor Bruce Sledge seriously impeded FGO’s version of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, further weighted down by a low budget production. 

OF THE FUTURE – Miami still needs a first rate professional symphony orchestra. The new performing arts center would provide an ideal venue. Where is South Florida’s artistic pride? The recent change of leadership at the Concert Association begs the question of that organization’s continued artistic standards. On the positive side, the New World Symphony will break ground this fall on its new music center, designed by the innovative American architect Frank Gehry. At last, that visionary organization will get the home venue it deserves; the cramped aural perspective of the Lincoln Theater will become a thing of the past. The recent announcement that Judy Drucker (founder and leader of the Concert Association for four decades) will become Artistic Advisor to Florida Grand Opera is cause to rejoice. Drucker will produce a three concert series (beginning in 2008-2009) featuring world class operatic superstars. She will also advise FGO on casting and repertoire for its main stage productions. Her expertise and flair for discovering major talent can only improve the company’s frequently weak casting of recent seasons. And the second Festival of the Arts Boca looks even glitterier than the initial offering. The future offers both exciting prospects and serious challenges. 


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