Top Ten Performances of 2016

Thu Dec 22, 2016 at 10:44 am
Patricia Racette stars in Richard Strauss's "Salome" at the Metropolitan Opera Photo: Ken Howard

Photo: Ken Howard

1. Patricia Racette in Salome at the Metropolitan Opera

She wasn’t even supposed to sing the role. Catherine Naglestad’s appearance in the title role of Richard Strauss’s Salome was to be a highlight of the Met’s season, and there was little celebration when it was announced that she would be replaced by Patricia Racette, whose recent turns at the company have shown some wear on her voice. In the end, Racette erased any lingering doubts with a raw, spellbinding, and disturbing portrait of the infamous anti-heroine, giving the most memorable performance of the year. (ES)

Photo: Stefan Cohen

Photo: Stefan Cohen

2. Daniil Trifonov’s recital at Carnegie Hall

This was an astounding performance. Trifonov’s sheer musical artistry, his touch, phrasing, articulation, and dynamics, are head and shoulders above every other pianist on the contemporary scene. That would be thrilling enough. Beyond that, his probing and poetic musical thinking, the way his playing sounds like the most logical way for the music to go while also being emotionally and aesthetically gripping, marks him with historic greatness. (GG)

Manfred Honeck conducted the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Photo: Chris Lee

3. Manfred Honeck and the New York Philharmonic: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 

Widely thought to be the runner-up in the New York Philharmonic’s maestro sweepstakes, Manfred Honeck has been among the orchestra’s most reliable guest conductors in the last several seasons, giving outstanding performances of Romantic repertory. His reading of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony was one for the ages, a glorious, roaring, intricately detailed interpretation. Though often overshadowed by its odd-numbered siblings, Beethoven’s mid-career masterpiece is a treasure of the concert literature, and Honeck made a fresh and powerful argument for it. (ES)

Eric Owens and Susanna Phillips star in Kaija Saariaho's "L'Amour de loin" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Photo: Ken Howard

4. Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin at the Metropolitan Opera

The Met’s debut production of Kaija Saariaho’s opera is one of the company’s great successes of the decade. The opera itself is compelling and beautiful, an important addition to the repertory. In conjunction with Robert LePage’s visually and intellectually brilliant production and conductor Susanna Mälkki’s commanding leadership, the experience was mesmerizing. Susanna Phillips, Tamara Mumford, and Eric Owens added a touching humanity to this profound experience.

As a related event, AXIOM’s December performance of three of Saariaho’s scores was not just a worthy footnote to the opera but the finest contemporary music concert of the year.(GG)

Kristine Opolais in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Photo: Marty Sohl

5. Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna in Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera

A star vehicle if there ever was one, Madama Butterfly lives or dies on the performance of the woman in the title role. In a revival of the evergreen Anthony Minghella production, Kristine Opolais was unforgettable as the betrayed young bride, painting a heartbreaking portrayal that was supported by the committed performance of Roberto Alagna. (ES)

Semyon Bychkov conducted the New York Philharmonic in Mahler's Symphony No. 6 Thursday night. File photo: Chris Christodoulou

File photo: Chris Christodoulou

6. Semyon Bychkov and New York Philharmonic: Mahler’s Symphony No. 6

2016 was an excellent year for Mahlerians, with numerous fine performances of Mahler’s middle and late symphonies. It was this first one, from February, that still stands out. Semyon Bychokov’s clear, matter-of-fact leadership and the orchestra’s intense, serrated-edge playing felt like the composer speaking forcefully in his own voice through the music. (GG)

Sondra Radvanovsky stars in Donizetti's "Roberto Devereux" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Photo: Ken Howard

7. Sondra Radvanovsky in Roberto Devereux at the Metropolitan Opera

Sondra Radvanovsky was the star of the Met’s 2015–16 season, becoming the first soprano to sing all of Donizetti’s Tudor Queens in New York since Beverly Sills, and the first ever at the Met. Her quest for the triple crown culminated in March as she took on the role of Queen Elizabeth I in the company premiere of Roberto Devereux. Her own searing performance was complemented by a star-studded supporting cast, with Elina Garanča and Matthew Polenzani giving moving portrayals of the illicit lovers Sara and Roberto. (ES)

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the New York Philharmonic in Messiaen's "Turangalîla-symphonie" with Yuja Wang and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Photo: Chris Lee

8. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the New York Philharmonic: Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie

One of the most spectacular symphonic compositions was matched by some of the most spectacular symphonic playing of the year in this March concert. One expects energetic leadership and playing from conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and pianist Yuja Wang, but they were easily matched by the tremendous exuberance and physical energy of the orchestra’s performance. (GG)

Simon Rattle conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Thursday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

9. Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic: Webern, Schoenberg, Berg, and Brahms

For the last fifteen years, Simon Rattle’s tenure at the head of the Berlin Philharmonic has been among the world’s greatest musical partnerships, and New Yorkers have been among the beneficiaries, with the BPO’s frequent visits to Carnegie Hall standing as highlights of each season. For his final Carnegie appearance as the orchestra’s principal conductor, Rattle offered an intense, brilliantly realized program beginning with a full hour of the Second Viennese School and ending with an extraordinary reading of Brahms’s heroic Second Symphony. (ES)

10. Yefim Bronfman playing Prokofiev’s “War” Sonatas at Carnegie Hall

This was a pluperfect partnership of composer and performer. Bronfman was sympathetic to the extraordinary range of the music, from pastoral wistfulness to malevolent mechanization. There were moments of almost shocking pianistic violence, and of aching quiet. His encore of Schumann’s Arabeske was itself a remarkable performance, with an understatement and consolation that felt like the ambiguous comforts of a wake. (GG)

Honorable Mentions

Colin Carr gave an exquisite account of Bach’s Third Cello Suite at Alice Tully Hall for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The Danish String Quartet showed deep emotional power with final chamber works by Shostakovich and Schubert. Simon Rattle, Nina Stemme, and a brilliant cast gave a musically rich Tristan und Isolde on opening night at the Met. And Gustavo Dudamel paired his usual fire with remarkable maturity in a vigorous reading of Mahler’s Third Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (ES)

Mahler of the Year

If the above list were expanded, it would be filled out with all of the excellent orchestral performances of Mahler during the year; Bychkov’s return with the Concertgebouw Orchestra playing Symphony No. 5 at Carnegie Hall; the Philharmonic’s magnificent Mahler Ninth under Bernard Haitink and a glowing Das Lied von der Erde, under Alan Gilbert—sung by tenor Stefan Vinke and baritone Thomas Hampson; and Simon Rattle leading powerful and expressive performances of Symphony No. 6 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Symphony No. 7 with the Berlin Philharmonic, both at Carnegie Hall. (GG)

Furthest Trip Outside Comfort Zone

The New York Philharmonic likes to tour foreign countries, so in October it left Lincoln Center for the exotic East (Side, that is).  In the impressive Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory, Esa-Pekka Salonen led the orchestra in an uninterrupted, 90-minute performance of four works by Kaija Saariaho, collectively titled Circle Map after the last piece in the set,  For those who like their media mixed, the performance, with musicians on the move around the cavernous premises and a light show pulsing and swirling on the big screen, was a feast. (David Wright)

The Consolations of the Classics

Even with fulfilling performances of music from Stockhausen, Lou Harrison, Fred Rzewski, and others, the year is notable for how the bulk of the most affecting and satisfying music making came via the standard repertoire. Highlights included an extraordinarily well sung Abduction from the Seraglio at the Met, and the MET Orchestra’s gorgeous and moving playing of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6; the Jerusalem and Danish String Quartets playing early and late Beethoven at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; and a reliably spectacular performance of a Handel opera—Orlando this time—from Harry Bicket and the English Concert. (GG)

Best Supporting Actress

In the past few seasons, Anita Hartig has been revelatory in supporting roles by Puccini, Mozart, and Bizet. Her 2016 appearances as Liù in Turandot and Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro were superb, demonstrating again that she has a gorgeous instrument and superb dramatic instincts. With any luck, it won’t be long before the Met gives her a shot at a real star vehicle. (ES)

Best Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra

Okay, not many entries in this category, but the humble spirit and delight in music-making that made Ravi Shankar’s concerts so memorable lived again in his daughter Anoushka’s performance with the Philharmonic of his Sitar Concerto, composed in 1981 for this orchestra and then-music director Zubin Mehta.  In these November concerts, one heard the Indian master dipping into his Western paint box an instrument or a section at a time, combining them in endlessly inventive ways, and tossing the players fast, gnarly solos that were every bit as jaw-dropping as Anoushka Shankar’s on the sitar.  Stepping in for the ailing Mehta, Manfred Honeck bravely tackled the complex, overlapping Indian rhythms, with apparent success. (David Wright)

We Will Talk About Him When He’s Gone

There are only a few months left in Alan Gilbert’s tenure at the Philharmonic, and there may be more thoughts turned toward his absence than his current presence. Case in point: it was only since around New Year’s that Gilbert began to show audiences his captivating way with Sibelius, via the Swan of Tuonela, Finlandia, the Violin Concerto, and Symphonies 4 and 7. The possibilities those concerts promised will be missed. (GG)

Most Should-Have-Been-Eagerly-Awaited Philharmonic Debut

In December, at age 70, the Seoul-born, Juilliard-trained, Paris-based pianist Kun Woo Paik made his first appearance with the New York Philharmonic in this country, with a triumphant performance of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 in C minor.

Piano fans knew of Paik through his recent recordings of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas.  December’s live, unfiltered performances in David Geffen Hall, with Jiří Bělohlávek conducting, proved that those masterful renderings on CD were no trick of the recording studio.  One wanted to bring every intermediate piano student into the hall and say, This is what Beethoven sounds like when you have it all together—no showing off, no exaggeration, just every note, phrase, and emphasis where it needs to be to make the whole building rise before your eyes. (David Wright)

Fond Farewells

No one’s seat has been safe in New York this year. For the first time since 1976, the Metropolitan Opera opened its season without James Levine at the head of the company. Though he continues to appear in the pit from time to time, his historic valedictory concert of Wagner excerpts at Carnegie Hall was a memorable send-off. Across the plaza, Alan Gilbert is winding up his final season at the helm of the New York Philharmonic. Though his tenure has not always been smooth, his commitment to new music has been a boon to the orchestra and to the city’s musical life. (ES)

You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello

Two major departures means two major arrivals—Lincoln Center’s two biggest tenants made headlines this year when they announced their new music directors: Jaap van Zweden at the Philharmonic, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the Met. While neither will assume his post immediately, both will shape New York’s musical experience for years to come. (ES)

From Ashes

A year ago, the New York City Opera was just a memory; though a legal dispute between two parties vying to restart the company was ongoing, it was hard to imagine that NYCO could return with any sort of staying power. Since that time, the reborn company has produced dozens of staged opera performances, in addition to a handful of concerts and recitals. While the longevity of the reboot remains to be seen, the new NYCO has undoubtedly been the great surprise success story of 2016. (ES)


Leave a Comment