2009: The year in Classical

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  January 4, 2010

• HAPPY BIRTHDAYS
Three of Boston's most distinguished and original composers celebrated landmark birthdays this year. The late Leon Kirchner's last public appearance in Boston was at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's 90th-birthday tribute to him, with knockout chamber performances by some extraordinary young musicians, among them the Claremont Trio. Yehudi Wyner had several 80th-birthday presents: the BSO recording with Robert Levin of his thrilling 2006 Pulitzer Prize piano concerto, Chiavi in mano, was nominated for a Grammy this year, and Theodore Antoniou's Alea III offered a birthday concert that included his searching and wide-ranging Oboe Quartet, which was also featured at Tanglewood's Contemporary Music Festival. And MIT threw one of its favorite faculty members, John Harbison, a free 70th-birthday concert with a remarkable number of juicy new pieces. Richard Pittman's Boston Musica Viva (just having celebrated its own 40th birthday), meanwhile, offered Bostonians their first hearing of Harbison's major new song cycle The Seven Ages — gorgeous settings of six unsettling poems by Louise Glück, with mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal.

• MOST-ADVENTUROUS PROGRAMMING
John Harbison celebrated his 70th by giving as well as receiving. For Emmanuel Music, he organized and performed in a series of concerts by two composers' composers, Haydn and Schoenberg; they may not be audience favorites, but they provided illuminating contrasts, and the magnificent performances included Schoenberg's tremendous String Trio (violinist Gabriela Diaz, violist Margaret Dyer, and cellist Rafael Popper-Keiser) and a Haydn Creation that Harbison led with joy coming out of every pore. I also want to applaud David Hoose and the Cantata Singers for their year-long surveys of major but neglected composers, and the imaginative juxtaposition of those composers' works with many centuries of other composers. They started with Kurt Weill; last year it was Benjamin Britten, and now we're getting Heinrich Schütz.

• MOST-OUTSTANDING CHAMBER-MUSIC CONCERT
In two Gardner Museum concerts, the Borromeo String Quartet offered all six Béla Bartók quartets. You could hear Bartók becoming more and more a 20th-century composer, and these performances were stunning examples of how thoroughly musicians can identify with the music they're playing.

• MOST-OUTSTANDING SOLOIST
The 66-year-old Russian cellist Natalia Gutman made a welcome guest appearance with Ben Zander and the Boston Philharmonic in a work she's uniquely suited for: Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto in E minor, which she learned from her teacher, Mstislav Rostropovich — who helped Prokofiev get it into shape. Gutman is a technically dazzling and authoritative player with a gorgeous earth-motherly tone. (Having a great Guarneri helps.) As an encore, she played the airborne Bourrée from Bach's Third Cello Suite. I also have to include Russell Sherman's program of Chopin and Debussy preludes. The 79-year-old keyboard guru is still playing at the top of his game.

• MOST-EXCITING CONTEMPORARY MUSIC CONCERT
Collage New Music, under the guest direction of BSO assistant conductor Julian Kuerti, offered a fascinating evening of atmospheric and tonally elusive French "Spectralism" from the 1980s and '90s and followed that with a staging of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's 1969 chamber monodrama, Eight Songs for a Mad King, with a hair-raising performance by baritone Brian Church as the tormented George III, a role he's made his own but daren't do more than once every five years lest he destroy his voice.

• MOST FUN
As part of their "Art of Song" series, Richard Conrad's the Bostonians gave us an ebullient and stylish evening of that lost art form, the operetta. Joining Conrad were soprano Debra Renz, tenor Thomas Morris, bass Philip Lima, and pianist William Merrill, all keeping their hearts on their sleeves and their tongues in their cheeks. The selections from Victor Herbert, Sigmund Romberg, and Rudolf Friml were irresistible, and I could swear the audience was humming along with "Toyland" and "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" and laughing aloud to more obscure gems like "The Fireman's Bride" and (no kidding) "I Want To Marry a Male Quartet."

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