Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Music 2008: A look back at classical's most memorable

Violinist Vadim Gluzman.

By Greg Stepanich

The pressure of work earlier this year being what it was, I can't really offer a true "best of" list for 2008. I didn't get to enough of the concerts I wanted to see, and the ones I missed I heard good things about.

So allow me to offer this list instead of some memorable performances from 2008:

Vadim Gluzman, violin: Earlier this month, the Russian violinist turned the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto into a blistering exercise in full-throated Romanticism, and an audience at a Boca Symphonia concert into shouting, standing mayhem. And for his encore, he chose a movement from an Ysaye sonata that was every bit as difficult. An astonishing, incredibly exciting performance, and one that made Tchaikovsky sound fresh and new.

Seraphic Fire: The Miami-based chamber choir under Patrick Dupre Quigley is always worth hearing and seeing, partly because the programming is so sharp and the feeling of camaraderie among the singers is so palpable. In May, the group's Music for Kings program featured fine singing from soloists and ensemble in works of Handel and Mozart, including Zadok the Priest and the Kyrie from the Coronation Mass. The group returned to Palm Beach County in September to open a series of appearances at the Harriet Himmel Theater at CityPlace with Baroque music from New Spain, and Cuba in particular. In addition to the chance to hear 18th-century rarities by Esteban Salas, the group also premiered a jazzy new choral piece by the group's guitarist, Alvaro Bermudez. It takes skill, boldness and imagination to pull off a program like that, and Seraphic Fire did it.

Pianist Konstantin Lifschitz.

Konstantin Lifschitz, piano: The Russian pianist played the entire Well-Tempered Clavier cycle of J.S. Bach during his appearances in late March at the Miami International Piano Festival. I caught the first half in a recital at the Broward Center, and it was wonderful to hear these works played back-to-back like this, not only because it threw the immense variety of these pieces into high relief, but also because Lifschitz played them with style, polish and a technical assurance that allowed him to play rapid passages and interior fugal voices with equal clarity. The performance has been recorded on DVD by VAI, so you can see and hear it for yourself if you missed it.

Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival: It's been going for 16 seasons now in the middle of the South Florida summers, and here, too, there always is something worth listening to. I caught three of the four concerts this July and August; the high points were a radiant Beethoven Archduke Trio on the first concert, two delightful rarities on Concert 3 -- a work for clarinet and bassoon by the Polish composer and mountaineer Wawrzyniec Zulawski, and the quirky Revue de Cuisine of the Czech Bohuslav Martinu -- and an absorbing Brahms G major String Quintet on Concert 4. Hats off to Karen Dixon, Michael Forte and Michael Ellert, who founded this festival in 1992 and have kept it going all this time.

Master Chorale of South Florida: The choir that rose from the ashes of the Florida Philharmonic chorus has a new director in Joshua Habermann, who took over from Jo-Michael Scheibe, who took a teaching position in California. Scheibe's last concert, a presentation of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, was impressive even in the composer's reduced orchestration for two pianos and percussion, and during the performance at Boca Raton's Pine Crest School, the last 15 minutes or so really started to cook in a thoroughly joyous manner. Habermann's mounting of Elijah was even more impressive from a sonic standpoint at least, with a huge wallop of voices and instruments making a strong case for the Mendelssohn oratorio. But you could also hear a gratifying attention to diction and dynamics on the part of the chorus, surely a sign they want to be on their toes for their new director.

The Tokyo String Quartet.

Three quartets: Early Beethoven got a nice reading from a veteran quartet and a group of college musicians back in January. The Tokyo String Quartet, playing at the Society for the Four Arts, gave a fine concert in which a high point was the Op. 18, No. 2, quartet, polished to a high-gloss sheen that was as elegant a performance of this music as I've heard. Later in the month, the Lynn String Quartet (since renamed the Alues String Quartet), four talented students at the Lynn University conservatory, played the first quartet in the Op. 18 set. What this performance lacked in spit-shine it more than compensated for in energy and fire, a good match for the spirit of the young composer whose first string quartet this was. Another quartet from Lynn, the Edan Quartet, did a decent job later in the year with the Schubert Death and the Maiden Quartet in a performance in Coral Springs. One venerable quartet of undoubted excellence, and two youthful quartets following in their footsteps.

Other memorable performances included the Chinese-born pianist Di Wu in an all-Ravel recital at the Rinker Playhouse, and harpsichordist Chiara Massini making her American debut in Delray Beach. And as I recently noted, the Goldstein-Kaler-Peled Trio made a great case for the Beethoven Triple Concerto in a concert with the Palm Beach Symphony at the Four Arts.

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