Top Ten Performances of 2018

Mon Dec 24, 2018 at 12:56 pm

Daniil Trifonov

1. Daniil Trifonov’s “Decades” program at Zankel Hall.

Every performance of Daniil Trifonov cements his growing legacy as an artist of historical greatness, and this journey through music from different decades of the 20th century was a pinnacle. As thrilling as it was to hear his extraordinary pianism applied to Berg’s Piano Sonata and pieces from Prokofiev and Messiaen, it was the singular experience of a lifetime to hear him collapse the different decades and disparate ideas–from the likes of Bartók, John Adams, and Aaron Copland–into a seamless, logical, and coherent whole. (GG)

Emily Pulley (front), Cree Carrico, and Blythe Gaissert in On Site Opera's production of Ricky Ian Gordon's "Morning Star." Photo: Angela Gaul

Emily Pulley (front), Cree Carrico, and Blythe Gaissert in Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Morning Star.” Photo: Angela Gaul

2. Ricky Ian Gordon’s Morning Star. On Site Opera.

One could hardly imagine a better argument for On Site Opera’s mission of opera in situ than their March production of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Morning Star: an opera about a Jewish immigrant family, given at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, just blocks away from the site of the Triangle Factory Fire, the tragic event at the opera’s core. On a chilly evening that dumped 10 inches of snow on New York, a brilliant cast of young singers gave a deeply moving performance of Gordon’s intensely human work, crafting rich portrayals of their characters and breathing tragic life into the many-faceted score. (ES)

XX in the title role of Michael Gordon's "Acquanetta" Tuseday night at the Prototype Festival. Photo:

Mikaela Bennett in Michael Gordon’s “Acquanetta.” Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki

3. Michael Gordon’s Acquanetta. Prototype Festival.

In any other season without a concert from Daniil Trifonov, Acquanetta would have stood head and shoulders above every other classical experience. Conceptually, Michael Gordon’s opera presented and completed the essential task of bringing together the premiere dramatic art form of the 19th Century—opera—with that of the 20th, film. And as one has come to expect from this great and strangely underrated composer, the music was gripping, both emotionally and physically. Add Mikaela Bennett’s riveting performance, and one had an unforgettable experience. (GG)

Evelyn Herlitzius as Kundry and Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role of Wagner's "Parsifal" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Evelyn Herlitzius and Klaus Florian Vogt in Wagner’s “Parsifal.” Photo: Ken Howard

4. Wagner’s Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera.

When Yannick Nézet-Séguin was announced in 2016 as the next music director of the Metropolitan Opera, the choice was met with widespread acclaim, save for one troublesome question: can he conduct Wagner? That concern was put to rest once and for all with his inspired reading of Parsifal in February, a sonically intense performance of a prodigiously complex score. The François Girard production, one of the most gripping in the Met’s repertory, was filled out with memorable performances by Evelyn Herlitzius, René Pape, and Peter Mattei. (ES)

Michael Hersch and Miranda Cuckson performed Hersch's music Tuesday night at National Sawdust.

Michael Hersch and Miranda Cuckson.

5. Michael Hersch performs Michael Hersch, with violinist Miranda Cuckson.

It would have been rewarding enough to hear a simple retrospective of Michael Hersch’s passionately dissonant compositions for piano, violin, or both (see Rzewski, below) in this September recital at National Sawdust. Instead, Hersch and violinist Cuckson excerpted, stitched, and recomposed material from a half dozen works to make what was in effect a new piece, a continuous, hourlong performance in which both players tested the limits of tonal range and virtuosity on their instruments, while exploring mostly the darker side of human experience. (DW)

Yuja Wang and Martin Grubinger performed at Carnegie Hall Friday night. Photo: Chris Lee

Yuja Wang and Martin Grubinger. Photo: Chris Lee

6. Yuja Wang and Martin Grubinger at Carnegie Hall.

A striking stage presence is an integral part of Yuja Wang’s concertizing, but when she sits at the piano, she’s all business. This exciting and imaginative concert, a collaboration between Wang and percussionist Martin Grubinger and his colleagues (and father), showed her showmanship as well. And like everything Wang does, that was dedicated to making exceptional music, in this case as part of an ensemble, with the Chinese pianist and her drummers rocking the house. (GG)

Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote star in Massenet's "Cendrillon" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote star in Massenet’s “Cendrillon.” Photo: Ken Howard

7. Massenet’s Cendrillon at the Metropolitan Opera.

The Met has done well by Massenet in recent years. Recent productions of Thaïs, Manon, and Werther have enjoyed first-rate revivals, and this season saw the first-ever performance of Cendrillon, the composer’s touching take on the Cinderella fairy tale. The production by Laurent Pelly, first seen in Santa Fe in 2006, perfectly captured the balance of sentiment and whimsy essential to the genre. Leading the performance from the pit, Bertrand de Billy made a superb argument for the piece as an enchanting. (ES)

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony Thursday night at Carnegie Hall. File photo: Jennifer Taylor

Michael Tilson Thomas. File photo: Jennifer Taylor

8. Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall. Music of Stravinsky.

You know you’re hearing a seasoned performance of The Rite of Spring when the fortissimos come in different colors. Michael Tilson Thomas’s much-ballyhooed association with Stravinsky—dating back to when he sat in on the master’s rehearsals as a teenager in Los Angeles—bore real fruit in this consistently excellent April concert at Carnegie Hall. No passions torn to tatters, no striving for effect—just lived-in and finely detailed renderings of the repertoire standards: Pétrouchka, Le sacre and the Violin Concerto (with a characterful solo by Leonidas Kavakos). (DW)

Amahl (Devin Zamir Coleman) and his Mother (Aundi Marie Moore) in Gian Carlo Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" at the xxxxx./ Photo: Pavel Antonov

Aundi Marie Moore and Devin Zamir Coleman in “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Photo: Pavel Antonov

9. Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. On Site Opera.

On Site Opera’s coup began with the choice of Gian Carlo Menotti’s gem of a chamber opera, apprehending its meaning, and putting it in the most apropos and meaningful contemporary setting imaginable—a place to shelter the poor (Amahl and his mother) and the indigent (the Three Kings as characters, and the all the chorus members). Sung and played with beauty and great joy, this was also the most meaningful Christmastime performance in many years. (GG)


Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” Photo: Ken Howard

10. Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci at the Metropolitan Opera.

There’s a reason Pagliacci continues to enjoy a place in the standard verismo rep: its two acts are tightly wound, and with the right cast and conductor it can—and should—explode into violent passion. The off-stage couple of Robert Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak achieved spectacular on-stage chemistry. Kurzak was ideal as a vivacious, youthful Nedda, and Alagna’s Canio was one of his most gripping performances in years, resulting in an evening of devastating emotional power. (ES)

Honorable Mentions

There’s nothing like a spectacular world premiere or a dazzling debut. Exceptionally, a March program led by Esa-Pekka Salonen had both in what was the most memorable night at the New York Philharmonic in 2018. 

Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos made a powerful impression in its debut performance, evoking an enormous vista of space and time in a 12-minute span with broad, artfully blended strokes of orchestral color. Then, Benjamin Grosvenor made his Philharmonic subscription debut as soloist in a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 that will be remembered for its lapidary details and irresistible vitality. (DW)

The most consistent weakness on the New York classical scene is the dearth of great pieces from the more quirky composers, like Berwald, Lou Harrison, and especially Hector Berlioz. So the two all-Berlioz concerts at Carnegie Hall from John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique brought water to a parched land. The presentation was equally marvelous, with the orchestra in full-throated song during the “Chasse royale et orage” from Les Troyens, and viola soloist Antoine Tamestit as Harold himself, taking a sentimental tour through Italy. (GG)

Janine Jansen and the Philadelphia Orchestra gave the New York premiere of Michel Van der Aa’s thrilling, icy Violin Concerto. After an absence of several years, superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann returned to New York with an admirable performance of Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin. Juan Diego Flórez capped a fine Carnegie Hall recital with a set of lovely Latin encores—accompanying himself on the guitar, no less. Anna Netrebko headlined the starriest Aida the Met has seen in years. The Crossing gave a moving concert of works about conflict at the Park Avenue Armory. And the Artemis String Quartet proved equally adept in Beethoven, Schumann, and Bartók in their Zankel Hall concert. (ES)

In single performances as part of larger concerts, Leila Josefowicz and Anthony De Mare were masterful in Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto (with the New York Philharmonic) and Fred Rzewski’s De Profundis—each in total command of the technical demands and fully in touch with the point of the music. Mirga Gražinytè-Tyla’s leadership of the MET Orchestra at Carnegie was similarly charismatic while focused on both details and form. And by now one should no longer be surprised that the National Youth Orchestra of the USA is a near rival for the best professional orchestras in the country; but one is still astonished at how good these young musicians are. (GG)

Most upstaged world premiere

It isn’t easy, sharing the bill with a monument of Western civilization. Just ask André Previn, whose very attractive The Fifth Season, was introduced to the world by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Lambert Orkis during their March recital at Carnegie Hall. The premiere won warm and well-deserved applause—but all anybody could talk about afterward was the amazing focus, flow, and insight of Mutter’s performance of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor for unaccompanied violin, with its colossal concluding Chaconne. (DW)

Tosca times four

It was a good year for Puccini’s darkest drama, as four different sopranos shone in some two dozen performances as Tosca. Sonya Yoncheva rang in 2018 with a bracing performance in a new production by David McVicar—Anna Netrebko soon followed in a hotly anticipated role debut that did not disappoint. Jennifer Rowley earned good notices for her brief turn as the legendary diva, her biggest role yet with the company. And Sondra Radvanovsky showed that familiarity has not made the piece stale for her, giving a devastating portrayal in her third run as Tosca at the Met. (ES)

Rzewski Festival: There was a sound

If a musical tree grows in Brooklyn, and nobody is there to hear it, is there a sound?  For the happy few who made the trek to Spectrum, the outer borough’s garage performing space, November’s multi-evening survey of Frederic Rzewski’s works—mostly for piano solo—was endlessly intriguing and often deeply expressive. Pianist and festival organizer Gabriel Zucker cast a wide net for expert performers of the 80-year-old composer’s technically challenging, socially-conscious music, then upstaged them all with his own masterful rendition of Rzewski’s Squares. (DW)

Golden Anniversaries

No singer currently active at the Met ever appeared at the old house on 39th Street—but Plácido Domingo comes the closest, having made his debut in 1968, when the new house was barely two years old. This fall he celebrated an astonishing fifty years on the Met stage, appearing in the title role of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Though not as high-profile, Maurizio Pollini’s fiftieth anniversary at Carnegie Hall shouldn’t be overlooked. In a recital to mark the occasion, the 76-year-old Chopin master showed that he can still twirl a Prelude with the best of them. (ES)

Biggest surprise from an artist we thought we knew

Mitsuko Uchida’s traversal of Schubert’s complete piano sonatas at Carnegie Hall began with two recitals in February and March, and will conclude with two more next year. February’s program was what one has come to expect from the veteran pianist: a meditative experience, gently and unhurriedly illuminating every corner of Schubert’s rich scores. The second recital began in that same rewarding way. 

Then the artist encountered the program’s closing work, the extroverted Sonata in D major, D. 850, and all hell broke loose. Fortissimo piled on fortissimo, as Uchida’s slender hands plunged into the keys and lifted her off the bench. The sonata’s first movement became a roar, a flood, a tempest to match the nor’easter that was blowing outside the hall that night. Then the pianist relaxed into the later movements, closing the final rondo on the tenderest of pianissimos—and leaving listeners wondering if they had really heard what they just heard. (DW)

Pinch-hitter of the year

The life of a cover is never thrilling, until it is. Alexander Birch Elliott had never sung on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, and then suddenly found himself stepping into the second act of Les Pêcheurs de Perles, filling in for Mariusz Kwiecień—in three consecutive performances. The young American baritone performed admirably under the circumstances, and the company rewarded him by giving him the last four performances of the run in their entirety—finally giving him a chance to sing that great first-act duet. (ES)

Emerging artist to watch

Avery Amereau has already turned some heads at the Met and elsewhere in peripheral roles such as Puccini’s Kate Pinkerton and Mozart’s Third Lady. Her voice is a marvel in itself—clear and appealing in the mezzo range, it just gets warmer and richer as it descends into contralto. As soloist in Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody in a March concert with the American Classical Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall, Amereau held listeners spellbound with long vocal lines and a freedom of nuance that responded to every inflection of this unutterably sad and sweet music. (DW)

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