Boston has too much music on the highest level for one listener to hear everything. So here are my top choices from among the performances I was able to attend.
BEST OPERA PRODUCTION :: Peter Maxwell Davies's The Lighthouse (Boston Lyric Opera). Horror story? Religious mystery? Staged at the JFK Library (with its real lighthouse) by Tim Albery, conducted by David Angus, designed by Canadian installation artist Camellia Koo, spectacularly lit by Thomas Hase, and superbly sung, this was probably the BLO's all-time best production. Terrifying. Unforgettable.
BEST ORCHESTRAL PERFORMANCE :: Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at its peak offered an overwhelming version of Shostakovich's powerful but rarely performed Fourth Symphony.
MOST INSPIRED PROGRAMMING :: Composer/conductor/virtuoso pianist Thomas Adès returned to lead the BSO, soprano Dawn Upshaw, and pianist Kirill Gerstein in a life-affirming program of Sibelius, Prokofiev, and Adès evoking the Creation and its aftermath.
BEST REVIVAL :: The late composer Leon Kirchner's opera Lily, based on Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, was a New York City Opera disaster in 1977. But Kirchner's own abbreviated chamber version at the New England Conservatory, with its original soprano, Diana Hoagland, still in glorious voice, made a powerful impression and cried out for a full revival.
BEST NEW GROUP :: Conductor Benjamin Zander's new orchestra, the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, made its impressive debut at Symphony Hall with technically superlative, sonically magnificent, and musically satisfying performances by 117 very grown-up players between the ages of 12 and 21. A most rewarding addition to the classical community.
BEST VOCAL PERFORMANCE (THREE-WAY TIE) :: The best singing award has to be shared by three dazzling and expressive sopranos: Deborah van Renterghem, for her hair-raising wannabe empress in Emmanuel Music's exciting concert version of Mozart's last opera, La clemenza di Tito; Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko, for her exquisite Nightingale in the BSO's marvelous concert version of Stravinsky's early fairy-tale opera The Nightengale (she also sparkled as Fire in Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges, the second half of that magical double bill of one-acts); and Amanda Forsythe, for her witty, charming, and touching embodiment of the title role in Boston Baroque's superb semi-staged version of Handel's Partenope.
BEST PIANO PLAYING :: The Rivers School Chopin Symposium re-created a fascinating concert Chopin himself organized in 1842, and playing what Chopin played, Rivers artist-in-residence Roberto Poli conveyed Chopin's spontaneity, brilliance, warmth, playfulness, mysterious depth, and singing tone.
BEST NEW WORK (ANOTHER TIE) :: At the BSO, David Zinman stepped in for James Levine to lead John Harbison's haunting Sixth Symphony, with eloquent Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy singing James Wright's poem "Entering the Temple in Nimes." And Winsor Music premiered the scintillating and inward-turning new Oboe Quartet by 30-year-old Scottish composer Helen Grime, whom Harbison brought to Tanglewood as a 2008 composition fellow. The extraordinary oboist was, of course, Grime's commissioner, Peggy Pearson.
MOST FUN :: Boston Conservatory has the city's best music-theater program, and its production of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock's 1966 minor Broadway hit, The Apple Tree, wonderfully cast with the stars of tomorrow, was the year's most thoroughly entertaining event.
GREATEST LOSS :: Elliott Carter, America's most profound classical composer, died a month before his 104th birthday, having worked with full creative power up until the very end. Happily, there are still major works that haven't yet been performed (including a Wallace Stevens cycle commissioned by James Levine), but it's heartbreaking that there'll never be another new piece, especially the setting of Sappho he was eagerly contemplating.