By Lawrence Budmen

The 2004-2005 music season in South Florida was remarkably rich in quality and diversity. The sheer number of memorable, even inspiring evenings was unusually high. Here is an overview of the highlights and (the few) low points of the recently concluded season.

MOST MEMORABLE CONCERT – The Miami International Piano Festival capped the season with a stunning celebration of the piano-orchestral works of Franz Liszt. With riveting performances by pianists Kemal Gekic, Ilya Itin, and Francesco Libetta, the big news of the evening was the debut of a new professional orchestra under the baton of veteran conductor William Noll. The often brilliant playing of this ensemble gave notice that South Florida’s local orchestral void may soon be filled. Honorable Mention: The New World Symphony’s reunion concert brought the return of twenty-one of the Miami based training orchestra’s alumni (dating back to 1988) to join this season’s musicians in a magisterial reading of Mahler’s First Symphony under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas – one of the great Mahler conductors of our time. Also Paavo Jarvi galvanized the New World players in a program of visionary Mozart (a la Harnencourt) and a stirring version of Carl Nielsen’s enigmatic Sixth Symphony.

BEST VISITING ORCHESTRAS – Two ensembles from Dresden took special honors. The Dresden Philharmonic under the patrician baton of Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos offered rich textures readings of Sibelius and Beethoven. The venerable Dresden Staatskapelle under Myung Whun Chung brought the inexorable momentum and intensity of Toscanini in symphonies by Beethoven and Brahms. Honorable Mention: Russian music was served up in exciting style by two groups from St. Petersburg: the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under that orchestral wizard Yuri Temirkanov and the Kirov Orchestra under the dynamic Valery Gergiev (all courtesy of the Concert Association). 

MOST DISAPPOINTING ORCHESTRAL PERFORMANCE – The Prague Symphony played a ragged, pedestrian all Beethoven program under the plodding direction of Per Altrichter. 

BEST CONCERTO COLLABORATIONS – There were many stellar offerings here but two incandescent performances still ring in the memory: Vadim Repin’s ethereal, soaring version of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1 (with Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic) and Antonio Bohorquez’s deeply personal, illuminating performance of Dvorak’s great Cello Concerto (with vigorous support by the New World Symphony under Hans Graf). Honorable Mention: Francesco Libetta’s elegantly sculpted approach to Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy (with fiery accompaniment from William Noll and his new ensemble) at Miami International Piano Festival and Jean Yves Thibaudet’s lithe, idiomatic view of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major (with a rejuvenated Orchestre National de France under the high voltage direction of Kurt Masur). 

MOST DISAPPOINTING CONCERTO PERFORMANCE – Martin Kasik displayed poor technique (not to mention a slew of wrong notes) in his attempt at Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (with sour toned, feeble playing by the Prague Symphony under Altrichter).

BEST SOLO RECITALS – Two pianists produced a virtual dead heat. The young Russian genius Denis Burstein played thrilling, deeply illuminating Beethoven, Medtner, and Stravinsky at his recital for Sunday Afternoons of Music (SAM). For sheer aristocratic musicality England’s Leon McCawley was in a class by himself in scores by Mozart, Chopin, Scarlatti, and Rachmaninoff at the Piano Festival. Honorable Mention: At SAM’s season opener, violinist Aaron Rosand’s playing brought back the Golden Age of Russian virtuosos (i.e. Leopold Auer, Efrem Zimbalist, and Misha Elman). That Rosand can still play with such insightful artistry and unparalleled technique after six decades of concretizing remains one of the seven wonders of the music world. 

MOST DISAPPOINTING SOLO RECITALS – In pianistic outings both Kirill Gerstein and Jose Feghali proved that speed and volume do not equal artistry. 

MOST MEMORABLE INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCES – Rubinstein Competition winner Alexander Gavrylyuk dazzled audiences at the Miami International Piano Festival with his ecstatic Scriabin – bringing back memories of Horowitz and Richter. Also Stephen Hough (the ultimate patrician keyboard artist) revivified the romantic Grand Manner with soaring Schubert and Berg sonatas. Honorable Mention: Emanuele Arciuli’s brilliantly original Round Midnight program at Festival Miami paid tribute to jazz great Thelonious Monk with a cornucopia of variations on his famous theme by multiple composers – a wonderful synthesis of superb pianistic artistry, creative versatility, and artistic enterprise. A festive concert indeed! 

BEST CHAMBER MUSIC PERFORMANCE – The great Emerson Quartet gave towering performances of quartets by Beethoven and Schubert (at the Friends of Chamber Music) – sheer perfection! Honorable Mention: The youthful Jerusalem Quartet presented strongly projected, idiosyncratic readings of Dvorak and Smetana quartets. Musicians from Marlboro brought youthful exuberance to Mendelssohn’s remarkable Octet – the kind of joyous music making that makes the score glow anew. 

MOST DISAPPOINTING CHAMBER MUSIC PERFORMANCE – The Belcea Quartet sounded more like a one person band than an ensemble. While violinist Corina Belcea played with considerable passion, the other three musicians had persistent intonation problems. 

MOST SURPRISING CONCERTS – Soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme revealed a voice of glistening purity in songs by Schumann and Debussy (at SAM). Pianist Daniel Lessner (a former Miamian) returned home to play invigorating, stylish Bach and Schumann and powerhouse Stravinsky for Miami Civic Music Association.

MOST INTERESTING CONTEMPORARY MUSIC – The New World Symphony offered scores by Viktor Kissine and Sofia Gubaidulina that reinvented Russian musical traditions. The Kremlin Chamber Orchestra gave sonorous tribute to American master John Corigliano – particularly his romantic film score for The Red Violin. Honorable Mention: Henri Dutilleux’s Gallic tinged String Quartet in a light as a feather performance by Musicians from Marlboro. Leonid Desyatnikoff’s reinvention of the finale of Schubert’s Winterreise was bracing – played with emotional power by violinist Yuval Waldman and pianist Paul Posnak at Civic Music. 

MOST JOYOUS EVENT – The Miami Bach Society celebrated its 25th anniversary with an inspired performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor – conducted with idiomatic flair and heavenly beauty by MBS co-founder Donald Oglesby. Sublime music making! Honorable Mention: The MBS Tropical Baroque Festival presented the brilliant British Baroque group Red Priest in a vivacious reinvention of Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi chestnuts – terrific musicianship and great entertainment!

MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS – The Amernet String Quartet – the new resident ensemble at Florida International University – played with incredible tonal warmth and musical immediacy in a wide variety of repertoire. Whether in the glimmering Ravel quartet or the multi-cultural panorama of Frederick Kaufman (at the FIU Festival) or vibrant Mozart string quintets (with violist Richard Fleishman at the opening of the Mainly Mozart Festival) the Amernet’s darkly burnished sound (via recently acquired Amati instruments) and superb musicianship marked the group as a true gem in Miami’s cultural crown. Honorable Mention: Cellist Ross Harbaugh gave an eloquent reading of Elgar’s elegiac Cello Concerto at the opening of Festival Miami and anchored an intense traversal of Schubert’s autumnal String Quintet (with the Bergonzi String Quartet and cellist Laura Jean Deming at Mainly Mozart). 

MOST UNSUNG HERO – Mark Wigglesworth may be the world’s most underated conductor. In his second engagement with NWS Wigglesworth delivered Wagner and Brahms performances of the legendary variety. Honorable Mention: The New World’s Principal Guest Conductor Alasdair Neale again proved to be a beacon of versatility in repertoire that ranged from Mozart and Beethoven to bristling contemporary creations by Kevin Puts, Joan Tower, and John Adams.

BIGGEST MUSICAL LOSSES – The demise of WKAT Classical 1360 again left Miami without a classical radio voice. The lack of a strong director at the FIU School of Music (following Frederick Kaufman’s resignation) resulted in an FIU Music Festival that lacked focus, celebration, or even publicity.

BIGGEST REASONS FOR OPTIMISM – The Performing Arts Center of Greater Miami’s recent signing of the Cleveland Orchestra for a three week annual residency will result in a truly gala opening for the long delayed facility. The New World Symphony will soon unveil plans for its new campus – an ambitious music education, technology center, and 21st century concert hall to be designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry.

The season past was a vivid reminder that audiences want quality. That so many nights remain etched in the memory is a tribute to the gifted artists who made South Florida stages come alive. 

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