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2011 year in review: Best in classical music

December 14, 2011 | 11:22 am

Esa-Pekka Salonen
The good signs for the future of classical music this year have been a splendid string of new concert halls and opera houses, many with distinguished architecture and acoustics. That began in January with the visionary New World Center in Miami Beach, Fla., and continued with halls in Reykjavik, Iceland; Helsinki, Finland; Kansas City, Mo.; Montreal; and, in our area, Aliso Viejo. Still to come: On Wednesday, Zubin Mehta opens the New Opera Theater in Florence, Italy, that will be a snazzy new home for the city’s famed Maggio Musicale festival.

The anxiety in classical music is, as it is everywhere, about money. Combine the world’s poor economy and over-assertive populism (the minister of culture in Finland chose to attend a sporting event rather than the opening of the country’s major new concert hall, which was an international event) with sometimes poor arts management (the Philadelphia Orchestra), and we see symphony orchestras and opera companies struggling. But we also see others, particularly those boldly committed to progress and innovation, thriving.

Those include the 10-best-list-topping Los Angeles Philharmonic — which performed, on average, a new or contemporary work (many being commissions) every week of its Walt Disney Concert Hall subscription season — and Michael Tilson Thomas’ New World Symphony.

Best most surprising symphony performance: Returning to the L.A. Phil, its laureate conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen made Shostakovich’s incoherent-seeming Fourth Symphony a searing, soul-wrenching experience that left audiences shaken and amazed.

Best least surprising symphony performance: Valery Gergiev has given great Tchaikovsky performances for years, but nothing was preparation for the way he got four Tchaikovsky symphonies to erupt with elemental volcanic power in his appearances with his Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra at the Segerstrom Concert Hall.

Best performance by Gustavo Dudamel: The highlight of the L.A. Phil’s “Brahms Unbound” festival was his profoundly spiritual performance of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony.

Best debut(s): A three-way tie among the vibrant French early music specialist Emmanuelle Haïm at the Los Angeles Philharmonic; German director Christof Loy, who was responsible for Los Angeles Opera’s delectable production of Rossini’s “The Turk in Italy”; and, also at L.A. Opera, the Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo in Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Best proof that Shakespeare didn’t say it all, whether he wrote his plays or not: The collaboration among director Peter Sellars, the African musician Rokia Traoré and novelist Toni Morrison in “Desdemona,” at Berkeley, turned the afterlife of Othello and Desdemona into a true transmigration of souls.

Best opera production: Sellars rendered Handel’s “Hercules” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, a wake-up call about the experiences of American war veterans.

Best-dressed pianist: The L.A. Times’ spicy photo of Yuja Wang in her revealing little orange dress at the Hollywood Bowl went viral as the blogosphere bloviated about the appropriateness of this and that, somewhat obscuring her electrifying performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto.

Best vocal performance under trying circumstances: Baritone Nicholas Isherwood opened every raw nerve with his starkly honest and cathartic solos in György Kurtág’s death-haunted “…pas à pas — nulle part…” when he gave the work’s U.S. premiere, for the Monday Evening Concerts, on the night his mother died.

Best old-timers: The 91-year-old Ravi Shankar gave a glorious Disney recital, and Elliott Carter celebrated his 103rd birthday in New York with premieres of several (yes, several!) new pieces.

Best reason to laugh through hard times: Igudesman and Joo, the funniest (and most accomplished) musical comedy act since PDQ Bach, shook the Broad Stage with so much hilarity that they did double duty testing the young theater’s earthquake preparedness.

Worst new opera: Christopher Theofanidis’ empty Sept. 11 tear-jerker, “Heart of a Soldier” at San Francisco Opera, with Mark-Anthony Turnage’s offensive “Anna Nicole” as runner-up at Royal Opera in London.

For more, here's an essay on opera in 2011.


More year-end picks from the Los Angeles Times art critics

Music review: Premiere of Shostakovich's long-lost 'Orango'

Music review: Yuja Wang and Lionel Bringuier at Hollywood Bowl

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Dec. 2. Credit: Jay Clendenin/Los Angeles Times