Love and loss

Classical: 2007 in review
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 18, 2007
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GUSTAVO DUDAMEL: A sprawling, toe-tapping, three-hour love-in.

Craig Smith (1947–2007)
Boston’s biggest classical-music story this year was also its saddest. Craig Smith, long-time artistic director of Emmanuel Music, collaborator with Peter Sellars, Mark Morris, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, John Harbison, Russell Sherman, and some of Boston’s most gifted and devoted singers and players, died at the age of 60 of complications from diabetes. For 37 years, he’d been at the musical epicenter of this city. This fall, he was to be one of 14 pianists in an evening he’d planned devoted to Bach’s massive Der Kunst der Fuge (“The Art of the Fugue”), but he was too weak to do more than greet the audience. Even with only 13 pianists, the event was a major accomplishment, and a testament to his leadership. A sensitive accompanist and a profound conductor, especially of Bach (he was the first American to lead all of Bach’s cantatas, which he did as part of the Emmanuel Church Sunday liturgy), Handel, and Mozart, he was equally at home in Johann Strauss and Kurt Weill. He was writing a book (the book) on Bach’s cantatas, but he was no pedant; he once had the chutzpah to substitute a bluesy saxophone for a violin obbligato and made it sound even more like Bach. A concert in his memory will take place at Emmanuel Church on January 31, his birthday.

Ida Haendel’s Bach
At the end of a symposium for legendary violinist/pedagogue Carl Flesch at the Longy School, one of Flesch’s most notable students played an impromptu recital. This was the great septuagenarian Ida Haendel, and her performance of the grand and complex Chaconne from Bach’s Second Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin was one of the most breath-stopping violin performances I or, it seems, anyone present (many distinguished violinists were there) had ever heard.

James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Maestro Levine’s transformation of the BSO is no longer news. They had an outstanding year, with two particularly towering performances: an enthralling rendering of Berlioz’s quasi-opera, Le damnation de Faust, and a thoughtful, intense, and moving version of Mahler’s last completed symphony, the Ninth. The final movement of the latter was surely the slowest on record, but for more than half an hour, it had me at the edge of my seat. On the same program was a heartfelt and eloquent performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto with another wonderful musician, Christian Tetzlaff.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
At 26, Gustavo Dudamel has become one of classical music’s brightest stars, and he’s about to take over the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. The New England Conservatory, with help from the BSO and the Celebrity Series of Boston, invited him to Symphony Hall to lead the ensemble out of which he grew, the phenomenal youth orchestra that international superstars Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado go out of their way to conduct. The event was more a sprawling, toe-tapping, three-hour love-in than a fulfilled artistic triumph, but no one present will forget it.

Kurt Weill
Fifty-seven years after his early death, Boston is finally coming to grips with Kurt Weill. The most exciting opera production of the year was Opera Boston’s Der Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (“The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”), a blistering version of Weill’s most ambitious collaboration with playwright Bertolt Brecht. Later, David Hoose and the Cantata Singers launched their year-long exploration of lesser-known Weill with a cantata completed two years after Charles Lindbergh’s milestone Atlantic crossing, Der Lindberghflug (“The Lindbergh Flight”), in the appropriate venue of the Collings Aviation Museum in Stow, with the superb performers facing an amazing array of historic flying machines.

Contemporary revivals
John Harbison won his 1986 Pulitzer Prize with a darkly beautiful cantata, The Flight into Egypt, commissioned by David Hoose and the Cantata Singers. Twenty years later, the same team commissioned the more consoling But Mary Stood. They began 2007 with a satisfying pairing of both works on the same program. Donald Teeters led Boston Cecilia in by far the best performance of Scott Wheeler’s hilarious and touching cantata/music-theater piece The Construction of Boston, his setting of a poem by the late Kenneth Koch. And in anticipation of Elliott Carter’s 99th birthday, Richard Pittman led soprano Elizabeth Keusch and Boston Musica Viva in a ravishing performance of Carter’s most beautiful recent song cycle, Tempo e tempi, his exquisite 1999 setting of poems by the three greatest Italian poets of the 20th century, Montale, Quasimodo, and Ungaretti.

Chamber music
Shostakovich’s string quartets are heartrending personal statements, without the inflation that makes parts of his more popular symphonies hard to endure, and we were treated to the Borromeo Quartet’s elegant, eloquent (and sold-out) performances at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Shostakovich turned up again as a hilarious encore (a mind-tickling polka) to an extraordinary Celebrity Series concert by the Takács Quartet: thoughtful, warm, ineffably tender performances of melancholy masterpieces by Haydn (Opus 74 No. 1), Bartók (No. 5), and Brahms (Opus 51 No. 1).

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic
No concert this year was more eagerly awaited than the Celebrity Series of Boston’s presentation of the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle. The major work was Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, and the heavenly and vehement settings of Chinese poems were sung with force and nuance by tenor Ben Heppner and bass baritone Thomas Quasthoff. Some would prefer a contralto to a bass baritone in this work (Mahler allowed for either), perhaps because a female voice seems closer to being an earth mother. But if you have to have a man, Quasthoff would be the man of choice. And the Berlin Phil would be the choice orchestra. The concert opened with György Kurtág’s elegiac Stele. The top ticket was $187, but few are likely to have wanted their money back.

Boston Conservatory’s West Side Story
The American musical has powerful and authoritative advocates in the Boston Conservatory Theater Department, with its ferociously talented students, who can act and sing and who in this year’s West Side Story danced Jerome Robbins’s original choreography. Are they ready for Broadway? Broadway should be so lucky.

Peggy Pearson
Over the years, few Boston musicians have maintained as high a level as Peggy Pearson. A cornerstone of Emmanuel Music (that’s usually her plaintively singing oboe in the Sunday-morning Bach cantatas), she’s also the founder and director of Winsor Music, a chamber series performing mainly out of Lexington’s octagonal Follen Church, in which she often performs music she’s either commissioned or transcribed for oboe. This season with David Feltner’s Chamber Orchestra of Boston she played two pieces Tison Street composed for her 30 years apart. She’s also principal oboist in Benjamin Zander’s Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. In November, her playing shone with special splendor in Zander’s epic Bruckner Fifth Symphony and his tender, pulsating Schubert Unfinished, in which the wind section included two of her old colleagues from the Naumburg Prize–winning Emmanuel Wind Quintet: flutist Christopher Krueger and clarinettist Bruce Creditor. They put exquisite chamber music at the center of Schubert’s beloved orchestral work.

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