THE PEAKS AND PLATEAUS OF A MUSIC SEASON (2005-2006)

In a sense the 2005-2006 South Florida music season was marking time for the opening of Miami’s new performing arts center. Yet the season was rich in memorable performances and interesting repertoire. Here is a reflective overview of the high points and disappointments (remarkably few) of a year of music.

BEST VISITING ORCHESTRA – This was a tie between the Berlin Staatskapelle and the Cleveland Orchestra – both presented by the Concert Association. Daniel Barenboim led the Berliners in Mozart of the most patrician variety. (He also doubled as a nimble piano soloist.) Vladimir Ashkenazy brought soaring musical line and strength to Elgar’s 1st Symphony with the Cleveland ensemble. The exquisite playing and peerless first chair solos of the Clevelanders bodes well for their annual residency at the new Miami center.
Honorable Mention: Christoph Eschenbach led the Philadelphia Orchestra in some of the finest Beethoven performances in South Florida in many seasons – eloquent, virile, and aristocratic. 

MOST IMPROVED VISITING ORCHESTRA – Three seasons ago the Jerusalem Symphony exhibited serious ensemble weaknesses with especially poor brass and wind playing. With musical and intellectual polymath Leon Botstein newly in charge as Music Director, the Jerusalem ensemble sounded like a different orchestra. The group performed strongly in a typically eclectic Botstein program of rare Hindemith and Copland and a fresh take on Shostakovich’s most played symphony (No.5).

BEST CHORAL PERFORMANCE – The remarkable Jo Michel-Scheibe has honed his Master Chorale of South Florida into a richly voluminous, precision instrument. Scheibe led a magisterial account of Vaughan Williams’s anti-war Dona Nobis Pacem that spoke as eloquently about the horror and futility of war today as when the composer penned the work after World War I. The new Boca Raton Philharmonic Symphonia shone brightly in stalwart support.

Honorable Mention: Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin of 1610 is a work that changed liturgical music forever. Patrick Quigley conducted the marvelous chamber choir Seraphic Fire and first rate soloists in an imaginative, scaled down realization of this life changing score. 

BEST OPERATIC PERFORMANCE – Palm Beach Opera’s Tosca was the real thing – flaming Italianate melodrama sung with vociferous abandon. New Artistic Director Bruno Aprea drew playing of extraordinary subtlety from the orchestra and brought fiery passion to every bar of Puccini’s score. The ringing, full throated vocalism of Daniela Dessi, Fabio Armiliato, and Frederick Burchinal was often thrilling. Add a tightly focused production by Bodo Igesz and it was an exciting night at the opera.

Honorable Mention: Florida Grand Opera’s production of Donizetti’s enchanting opera comique La Fille du Regiment (Daughter of the Regiment) was an utter delight. Chen Reiss combined the glittering coloratura of Lily Pons with the comedic sensuality of Sarah Jessica Parker. Tenor John Osborne staked his claim as the new King of the High C’s with the kind of robust, fearless vocalism that legends are made of. Add the first rate talents of Joyce Castle and Timothy Nolen in supporting roles and the sprightly baton of Peter Leonard on the podium for an evening of enchanting entertainment.

BEST VOCAL RECITAL – Renee Fleming is one of America’s greatest artistic treasures. Her glowing soprano voice embraced arias and lieder from Purcell to Strauss to Gershwin with radiant immediacy. For an evening of sheer vocal beauty, she was in a class all her own.

Honorable Mention: Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian celebrated Sunday Afternoons of Music’s first quarter century with gorgeous vocal hues in a program that spanned the gamut from Baroque opera and Mozart arias to Americana. With her thrilling vocalism, this soprano is on a roll. 

BEST INSTRUMENTAL RECITAL – Cellist Matt Haimovitz is a daring artist. In a Sunday Afternoons of Music (SAM) program, his traversal of Gyorgy Ligeti’s masterful Sonata pushed the limits of virtuosity. His dark, molten tone embraced Schumann and Brahms while his Shostakovich was properly brusque at times. Haimovitz has made a graceful transition from prodigy to mature artist.

Honorable Mention: Joshua Bell is such a violinist par excellence that he is easily taken for granted. In a Concert Association performance, his gentle Mozart, exuberant Beethoven, and elegant salon pieces all had the mark of true artistry. 

BEST RECITAL ACCOMPANIST – As Bell’s sonata partner, Jeremy Denk offered probing musicality, superb technical prowess, and the ability to give the music priority over self indulgent display. 

Honorable Mention: Robert Kulik provided patrician musicianship and finely honed chamber music skills in support of Haimovitz and the problematical violinist Arabella Steinbacher (at the Coral Gables Congregational Church Concert Series). 

BEST CHAMBER MUSIC PERFORMANCE – The stellar Amernet String Quartet, new ensemble in residence at Florida International University, invited chamber music legends Zvi Zeitlin, Shmuel Ashkenazi, Sergiu Schwartz (violins), Toby Appel (viola), and Yehuda Hanani (cello) for a chamber music evening and series of masterclasses. Scintillating performances of scores by Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Mendelssohn radiated the sheer joy of music making by great musicians. This was chamber music in its purest form – a great musical get together with the audience invited in.

Honorable Mention: Three members of the Emerson Quartet and the superb pianist Gilbert Kalish lit up a Festival Miami concert with incandescent performances of piano quartets by Mozart and Brahms. 

MOST VALUABLE MUSICAL RESOURCE The New World Symphony

This educational ensemble, composed of top graduates from the world’s conservatories, continued to amaze in a widely varied repertoire. Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted a revelatory performance of Beethoven Eroica Symphony and a Shostakovich 7th Symphony (Leningrad) that burned with inner conviction that vividly delineated the power, tragedy, and compassion that keep this score so vibrantly alive long after the siege of Leningrad that inspired its creation. England’s Robert King led a vivacious Baroque musical tour of Europe (in collaboration with Seraphic Fire). Roberto Abbado conjured up Toscanini with a lithe Beethoven 4th Symphony plus vividly realized Schnittke and Rachmaninoff. Reinbert de Leeuw brought the visionary melismas of Messiaen’s From the Canyon to the Stars to throbbing, visceral life. The New World musicians brought technical finesse and enthusiasm to the entire stylistic gamut of the orchestral repertoire.

BEST NEW WORLD GUEST CONDUCTOR – Marin Alsop illuminated the structural mastery and long limbed lyricism of Brahms’s 2nd Symphony with a fluidity of line and gracefulness of phrasing that spell greatness. She drew playing of unusual tonal richness and beauty from the ensemble’s gifted instrumentalists. Alsop also made a convincing case for the jazzy eclecticism of Christopher Rouse’s music.

Honorable Mention: Lawrence Foster captured the brooding intensity of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste – a work that is too often played for cold, steely brilliance. Foster brought out subtleties and instrumental hues in the score that are often submerged in more mundane performances and he commanded dazzling playing from the New World musicians. 

BEST CONCERTO PERFORMANCE – Ingrid Fliter gave an electrifying rendition of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto at the Miami International Piano Festival. This brilliant Gilmore Award winner can evoke pianistic thunder or gossamer elegance at will from the keyboard. Fliter is a major talent – a 21st century Martha Argerich. Kudos are in order to conductor William Noll for his astutely gauged accompaniment.

Honorable Mention: Gil Shaham is an absolute master of violinistic bravura. He is also a true artist who brings intense musicality and patrician elegance to every score he plays. Whether in a buoyant, virtuosic rendition of Mozart’s 5th Concerto (Turkish) with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (for the Concert Association) or in a darkly evocative revival of William Schuman’s Violin Concerto (with Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony), Shaham exhibited superb musicianship and artistry of the highest order. Also Ilya Itin’s vivacious, feathery performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.27 – the master’s final work in that genre (with the Boca Raton Philharmonic Symphonia under Mischa Santora). Long a powerful keyboard virtuoso, Itin also revealed sensitivity, elegance, and the ability to probe the pathos beneath the light, glowing surface of Mozart’s writing.

BEST CONTEMPORARY SCORE – Roberto Sierra’s Sinfonia No.2 (Gran Passacaglia) exhibited orchestral color, rhythmic energy, and thematic invention that riveted attention. The score’s acerbic Stravinskyan neo-classicism marked an important step forward for Sierra. This Festival Miami commission was given a vigorous, exciting premiere by the student University of Miami Symphony under the often miraculous direction of Thomas Sleeper. 
Honorable Mention: Michael Tilson Thomas’s Songs on Poems of Emily Dickinson combined Copland inspired lyricism with astringent musical irony for a winning vocal-orchestral song cycle. With the radiant vocalism of soprano Barbara Bonney and Tilson Thomas leading his spare, austere orchestral score, the piece was a definite winner. 

MOST JOYOUS MUSICAL EVENT – The Empire Brass concluded the SAM 25th anniversary season with a virtuosic blast of brass that traversed the musical landscape from Baroque and Renaissance scores to Tchaikovsky and Duke Ellington. With terrific charts, these fabulous musicians mixed entertainment and artistry in equal proportion. 

Honorable Mention: Dimitri Hvorostovsky brought his honeyed baritone to Russian operatic arias (for the Concert Association), then turned pop crooner in a series of heroic and sentimental Russian songs from the era of World War II. Add the excellent Philharmonia of Russia and lively conducting by Constantine Orbelian and it was a great party. Also Jordi Savall and his Hesperion XXI group presented a lively evening of Spanish Baroque music in high style for the Miami Bach Society’s Tropical Baroque Festival. 

BIGGEST SURPRISE – Teenage pianist Sijing Ye graced the Miami International Piano Festival with some of the most sensitive, deeply felt Chopin playing that this listener has ever encountered. Her glorious version of the Piano Concerto No.1 was lyrically abetted by conductor William Noll and a hard working ensemble.

Honorable Mention: Violinist Robert McDuffie found the melancholy Gypsy angst as well as firebrand pyrotechnics in Miklos Rozsa’s Violin Concerto (with Lawrence Foster and the New World Symphony). Who would have guessed that this film composer’s Heifetz vehicle had such depth? 

IMPORTANT DISCOVERY – Pianist Lisa Leonard was the star of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival. Whether she was playing Shostakovich, Saint-Saens, or early Copland, Leonard proved to be the authentic article. Her bold keyboard fireworks, sterling technique, and grand musical line are what great playing is all about. An instructor at Lynn University’s Conservatory of Music, Leonard is a local treasure.

MOST ENCOURAGING DEVELOPMENT – The new Boca Raton Philharmonic Symphonia gave Palm Beach County an excellent professional orchestra. Composed mainly of former Florida Philharmonic players, the ensemble’s bright, intensely musical playing was a reminder of what South Florida has missed for the past several seasons. Particularly under the high energy direction of Alastair Willis, the orchestra gave hope for many wonderful future performances. 

A FEW MORE HIGHLIGHTS – A joyous Salute to Vienna New Year’s concert with Vienesse conductor Christian Schulz and some excellent singers and dancers from the Vienna State Opera Ballet – the best performance in this annual series to date; soprano Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs’s radiant Minnie set the house ablaze in Florida Grand Opera’s La Fanciulla del West; the Palm Beach Opera’s flapper era take on Donizetti’s Don Pasquale with the veteran buffo élan of Paul Plishka and the youthful, gorgeous soubrette vocalism of Maria Kanyova; Benedetto Lupo’s elegantly sculpted interpretation of Mozart’s Elvira Madigan Concerto (No.21) with vibrant support from members of the New World Symphony under Bernard Labadie; Alastair Neale’s transparent, glowing view of Elgar’s underrated Second Symphony (with the New World); Itzhak Pearlman and Pinchas Zukerman in a celebration of friendship and artistry capped by a glowing reading of Moszkowski’s Suite for Two Violins – salon heaven; and Jeffrey Biegel’s high powered, bravura version of the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue (in musicologists’ complete, restored version) at SAM. 

On the debit side count Bernard Labadie’s vibratoless, heavy handed view of Mozart’s Symphony No.40 with the New World Symphony – the kind of performance that gives Mozart’s music a powdered wig; Lorraine Earnest’s shrill, off pitch Queen of the Night in the Palm Beach Opera production of The Magic Flute; Florida Grand Opera’s embarrassingly tasteless version of Rossini’s Barber of Seville with poor singing to boot – redeemed only by Stewart Robertson’s vivacious conducting; and much of Olga Kern’s SAM recital – glamour could not mask her less than stellar keyboard technique and unimaginative interpretive approach.

The plateaus of this season were remarkably few and far between. South Florida celebrated a year of often glorious music as it looks to the enticing future. Even as Miami’s new Carnaval Center prepares to open, the New World Symphony’s Frank Gehry designed Soundspace promises new vistas for music in South Florida. The 2005-2006 season was a good musical omen.



 


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