FULLY ENGAGED: The Borromeo String Quartet delivered the year’s best chamber music in their Béla Bartók quartet cycle at the Gardner Museum.
This was a queasy year for classical music. It began with a grand gesture — classical music at a presidential inauguration. But what the world heard was pre-recorded. Phooey! James Levine was going to conduct his first complete Beethoven symphony cycle with the Boston Symphony Orchestra — maybe not the most exciting project, but better than what we actually got after the maestro's unexpected back surgery forced him to bow out. And we lost some of the most inspiring figures in the music world, among them composer Leon Kirchner, writer Michael Steinberg, and violinist Marylou Speaker Churchill. Still, as always, there was much to think back on with pleasure.
• MOST-OUTSTANDING SYMPHONY CONCERT
Was there a more thrilling single event this year than the visit by Sir Simon Rattle and the fabulous Berlin Philharmonic in the Celebrity Series of Boston? Whether or not you admired every detail (I pretty much did), the two magnificently played Brahms symphonies, "interrupted" by a brief Schoenberg rarity, opened doors to insight and further discussion. Brahms is overplayed in this town, and I wasn't looking forward to this program, but it's the single orchestral concert I remember best.
• BEST-KEPT SECRET
Courtney Lewis, now assistant conductor at the Minneapolis Orchestra, does good work bringing his Discovery Ensemble to thousands of inner-city kids who might never have heard classical music before and now are excited about it. He brings the gifted young musicians in this marvelous chamber orchestra to sophisticated grown-ups, as well, and the performances — from Mozart and Beethoven to Stravinsky and Britten — have been revelations.
• BEST OPERA PRODUCTION
You can go to the Met this year to see its first production of Shostakovich's satiric masterpiece The Nose, which is based on a surrealistic story by Gogol. But I'd be very surprised if it will be better than Opera Boston's breathtaking production at the intimate Cutler Majestic Theatre. Gil Rose led and Julia Pevzner staged what was by far Boston's best opera production of the year (actually, of quite a number of years) — it was hilarious and horrifying, with a terrific cast of American and Russian singers that included baritone Stephen Salters as the benighted hero with the missing facial appendage.
• BEST OF THE BSO
We may have missed Levine's Beethoven, but we did get a concert version of an opera that is both a rarity and one of his specialties: Verdi's darkly political late-middle-period masterwork Simon Boccanegra. The famous Council Chamber Scene in the Doge's palace, one of the greatest ensembles in all of opera, was only one of the many high points, with a galaxy of Metropolitan Opera stars (the towering José von Dam in the title role, Barbara Frittoli, Marcello Giordani, James Morris) and John Oliver's splendid Tanglewood Festival Chorus.