The Top 10 Performances of 2012

Sat Dec 22, 2012 at 7:04 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bruce Tammen conducting the Chicago Chorale. Photo: Jasmine Kwong

1. Chicago Chorale in Shchedrin’s The Sealed Angel

The Chicago Chorale is not a high-profile presence on the local music scene with Bruce Tammen’s ensemble only doing two or three programs a year. But artistic director Tammen’s extensive preparation was manifest in the remarkable performance of Rodion Shchedrin’s cantata The Sealed Angel in November. This largely unknown crypto-religious work is Shchedrin’s masterpiece, melding the Russian Orthodox past with an acerbic 20th-century bite. Under Tammen’s scrupulous direction, the Chicago Chorale delivered a glowing, idiomatically Russian and beautifully sung performance. This revelatory and transcendent evening at Hyde Park Union Church was the top performance of 2012.

Manfred Honeck. Photo: John Heller/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

2. Manfred Honeck and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Dvořák and Beethoven

Manfred Honeck’s January performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 achieved that rare experience when you feel you are really hearing a familiar work of music for the very first time. In addition to uncovering a wealth of expressive and dynamic detailing, Honeck’s performance had the sensation that Dvořák could be played no other way, with a vernal sense of the Bohemian outdoors, glorious playing by the CSO winds and an exhilarating coda. Till Fellner’s performance of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto was on the same high level.

Spektral Quartet

3. Spektral Quartet: George Crumb’s Black Angels

In their multimedia anti-war event at the Chopin Theater in late May, the young musicians of the Spektral Quartet delivered an unforgettable performance of George Crumb’s plugged-in Black Angels. Painstakingly rehearsed and prepared, every nerve end and tendril of this haunting, envelope-pushing score was laid bare in the most memorable chamber performance of the year.

Riccardo Muti: Photo: Todd Rosenberg

4. Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven and Shostakovich

With a hale and healthy Riccardo Muti, the CSO’s music director enjoyed several memorable nights this year but none more than the penultimate program of the 2011-12 season. The Italian conductor’s partnership with the CSO peaked in June with a thrilling and  volatile Beethoven Fifth and a shattering performance of Shostakovich’s Suite on Verses of Michelangelo with bass soloist Ildar Abdrazakov.

Cecelia Hall in the title role of Handel’s “Teseo” at Chicago Opera Theater. Photo: Liz Lauren

5. Chicago Opera Theater: Handel’s Teseo 

Handel’s Teseo was the final installment of Chicago Opera Theater’s three-year Medea cycle, and by far the most successful of the series. Led by Cecelia Hall in the title role, the superb young cast and stylish staging by James Darrah in April made this final show of Brian Dickie’s tenure one of COT’s greatest success of recent years.

Peter Serkin

6. Peter Serkin in Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations

The finest solo piano performance of the year happened at Mandel Hall in February. courtesy of the University of Chicago Presents series. With a characteristic blend of intellectual rigor and stainless-steel technique, Peter Serkin delivering a powerful, thrilling and supremely eloquent account of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, making one believe that this hour-long set of variations on Diabelli’s ditzy little waltz, is, in many ways, the composer’s most unique achievement.

Carlos Kalmar

7. Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus: Currier’s Sleepers and Dreamers

In its 50th anniversary season the Grant Park Chorus was featured prominently on several programs this past summer. But the most memorable concert came on a sweltering July night with the lakefront festival’s premiere of Sebastian Currier’s Sleepers and Dreamers. Commissioned by the Grant Park Music Festival for the chorus’s anniversary, this haunting, mysterious music offered yet another absorbing work by Currier, one of our finest composers, and was given an outstanding, full-throttle sendoff by Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus.

Mitsuko Uchida. Photo: Richard Avedon

8. Mitsuko Uchida in Mozart with CSO and Schubert sonatas

Mitsuko Uchida’s annual Mozart performances with the CSO continue to offer an exemplar, as a model of taste, expressive elegance and scintillating energy. In addition to her usual first-class Mozart concertos with the CSO, conducted from the keyboard, in the same week in March she offered probing and insightful performances of Schubert’s final three sonatas.

Sir Mark Elder

9. Sir Mark Elder and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Alice Coote 

December brought one of the CSO’s highlights of the year. After Riccardo Muti, no conductor seems to get as consistently combustible results with the CSO as Sir Mark Elder. This thoughtful program brought a luminous performance of Dvorak’s late tone poem The Golden Spinning Wheel with an electrifying account of the teenage Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote’s expressive and deeply felt performance of Berlioz’s song cycle Les nuits d’ete sealed a memorable evening.

Thomas Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto in “Simon Boccanegra.” Photo: Dan Rest

10. Lyric Opera of Chicago: Simon Boccanegra

Many felt that Strauss’s Elektra was the Lyric Opera’s high point of the year, but my vote goes to this fall’s performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. This dark, brooding opera is dominated by low male voices, but a stellar cast led by Thomas Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto powerfully delivered the opera’s violent collision of the personal and political in an involving, well sung and visually striking show.

Honorable Mentions

Nicolai Lugansky’s fiery Rachmaninoff Third with the CSO; Chicago Opera Theater’s youthful and engaging production of Shostakovich’s operetta Moscow Cheryomushki; Handel’s L’allegro, il moderato and il penseroso by Jane Glover and Music of the Baroque; Lang Lang’s deep and expressive recital at the Lyric Opera; Mark Elder’s illuminating Berlioz program with CSO; Riccardo Muti and the CSO in Carmina Burana; Andras Schiff in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier; Strauss’s Elektra at Lyric Opera; Alan Heatherington and Ars Viva in Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 8; Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in Haydn’s The Seasons and Dvořák’s The Spectre’s Bride; and CSO principal trumpet Chris Martin’s tour de force solo playing in the world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Heimdall’s Trumpet.

Distinguished soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian turned out to be a witty, torchy tango singer in her March solo recital at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall. In August a concert version of Mozart’s Idomeneo, conducted by James Conlon and starring Susanna Phillips and Richard Croft, filled Ravinia’s intimate Martin Theatre with dramatic intensity. And the boundary-pushing, talented Spektral Quartet brought a program that ranged from Beethoven to new pieces by Chicago-based composers to an enthusiastic, young SRO audience at the Empty Bottle, a funky night spot in Ukrainian Village. (Wynne Delacoma)

Several thousand listeners attentively sitting out in the pouring rain at Millennium Park while Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus offered a nuanced rendition of Carl Orff’s Carmina burana that surpassed January’s indoor performances; in commemoration of Claude Debussy’s 150th birthday year, Chicago Chamber Musicians made a major artistic statement by presenting all of the French composer’s chamber music across several memorable concerts; Alan Heatherington and Ars Viva in polished performances of a Shostakovich Ninth that was as witty and sprightly as their Sibelius Fourth was dark and sullen; after multiple cancellations due to a hand injury, a vibrant Murray Perahia offering a poetic piano recital that included new repertoire by Haydn and Schumann; a gloriously sung Sistine Chapel High Renaissance program from Bella Voce spotlighting Palestrina’s entire Missa Papae Marcelli and Allegri’s Miserere. (Dennis Polkow)

Dishonorable Mention

Director Francisco Negrin’s disastrous and confounding revisionist Werther at Lyric Opera.

Most Dismaying Continuing Development

Dale Clevenger’s apparent lifetime appointment as principal horn of the CSO. No matter that he’s been playing poorly with flashes of mediocrity for the past several seasons. The man who regarded himself as the conscience of the CSO has become a weekly one-man wrecking crew, doing damage to the reputation of the orchestra and the quality of its performances. Clevenger’s unwillingness to recognize that he is no longer the musician he once was and his refusal to voluntarily take the long walk displays unmoored egotism, and a selfish contempt for his CSO colleagues, Chicago audiences and the ensemble’s tradition of excellence.

Best New Development

After just a couple months on the job, Chicago Opera Theater’s new chief Andreas Mitisek announced a three-year American opera project, which will lead off in February with Philip Glass’s Fall of the House of Usher and include a commissioned world premiere in 2015.

Second Best New Development

The beautiful, acoustically superb new Logan Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Chicago.

Photo: Jason Smith

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