Commentary: Best Classical Performances of 2016

Picks for the top live classical performances of 2016. Feel free to agree, disagree, add to them, come up with your own list, etc.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

What a year was 2016. In Boston-area classical music it was certainly a rich one. Looking back, there were many highlights that ought to make local critics’ “Best of…” lists. Below are mine.

As I always say, I’m well aware that I haven’t heard nearly everything that’s been performed here in the last twelve months. There are some glaring omissions below. In particular, I wasn’t able to attend any of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s 2016 concerts; they were one of my favorite ensembles the previous year. And, while my reviewing and concert-going has covered a broad swath of the areas many groups, there were a number of notable orchestral, chamber, opera, and early music offerings I didn’t get the chance to take in. So this list is necessarily (and consciously) not comprehensive.

Still, it’s fun to recall what’s been played locally since January and be reminded just how fortunate we are to have the musicians and ensembles in town that we do. So, without further ado, here are my selections for top live classical performances of 2016. Feel free to agree, disagree, add to them, come up with your own list, etc. Above all, enjoy recalling this – in music, at least – most remarkable year!


Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Photo: Celebrity Series.

Performance of the year: Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

The year’s best all-around orchestral performance came in November, courtesy of Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 2016’s most prestigious orchestral guests. They delivered not just the best orchestral concert of the annum but one of the finest I’ve heard anywhere, anytime. In music by Boulez and Mahler, the BPO and its longtime director demonstrated not just smart programming chops but consistently dazzling ensemble. Their playing was on a level rarely encountered: perfectly blended, balanced with uncanny sensitivity, and tonally unified. It breathed and moved as one. Indeed, at times it was as though 100+ musicians were simply engaging in a giant chamber performance, so kinetically engaged with each other were the members of the orchestra. And the expressive results – a delicate, icy Boulez Éclat and a heaven-storming, thrilling Mahler Seventh Symphony – approached the highest, brightest peaks: twenty years on, this is a concert those lucky enough to hear it will still speak vividly of.

Best orchestral performance: Benjamin Zander conducting Elgar’s Symphony no. 1

After the Berliners, there were many fine options from which to choose. My personal favorite came at the end of February, when Benjamin Zander led the other BPO, the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, in a stirring, heartfelt reading of Elgar’s monumental Symphony no. 1. It’s a glorious piece, one that should be played with far more frequency – in this country, especially – than it is (the Boston Symphony, for instance, has only programmed it in town five times since 1909). Zander made as strong a case for it as one could want. From the noble introduction; through the discursive first movement; across the driving Scherzo; over the sweepingly lyrical Adagio; and right through the potent, battering finale, this was a reading about as locked in as they come. The BPO has rarely sounded better, playing with such earnestness, color, and sensitivity that the performance packed a special, emotional wallop. If ever a year ended up warranting this Symphony’s theme of perseverance through adversity, surely this was one. Zander and his band, at their formidable best, rose to the occasion.

Runners up: Bernard Haitink conducted a deliberately-paced Mahler Symphony no. 1 in April that was somehow also spectacularly alive and dramatically robust, a welcome reminder (as if one were needed) of how lucky Boston is to have him in town for a couple of weeks each season. And Benjamin Zander led the Boston Philharmonic – again in fine form – in a mighty, fighting performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony in October.

Gil Rose and the Odyssey Opera Orchestra with Aleš Briscein and Olga Jelínková in a staging of Photo: Kathy Wittman.

Gil Rose and the Odyssey Opera Orchestra with Aleš Briscein and Olga Jelínková in a staging of Antonin Dvorak’s “Dimitrij.” Photo: Kathy Wittman.

Best operatic performance: Odyssey Opera’s Dimitrij

There were more than a few operatic highlights this year. Odyssey Opera offered a short, Roman-themed festival in May and June, for one of them. Another was Boston Lyric Opera’s fortieth-season-opening revival of Calixto Bieto’s Carmen in September, one whose staging was less provocative than advertised but still packed a thoughtful punch. Also in September, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony assembled a dream cast for a widely-heralded concert production of Der Rosenkavalier.

My favorite operatic event of 2016 also came from September: it was Antonin Dvorak’s Dimitrij, given in Odyssey Opera’s annual grand-opera concert performance at Jordan Hall. Odyssey’s casting, led by Ales Briscein in the title role, was excellent, the choral singing top-notch, and the orchestral playing brilliant as ever. Front-and-center was one of the repertoire’s most popular composers – but not for opera. It’s ironic that Dvorak considered his operatic output to be so significant as nearly all of it has been neglected since his death. Still, with Dimitrij, Gil Rose and Odyssey made the case that he’s far more than just the composer of the New World Symphony and American Quartet, one worth a serious reassessment from audiences and musicians alike. It’s something they do, year in and year out, better than almost any other ensemble in the country.

Best solo performance: Susanna Ogata playing Torelli

My favorite solo performance of the year came in a short piece played not in Boston but during a Handel & Haydn Society run-out concert to Worcester in May. There, in the cozy confines of the First Unitarian Church sanctuary, Susana Ogata dug into Giuseppe Torelli’s Violin Concerto in F (op. 8, no. 11) with such joy and abandon that it was impossible not to be swept up in the proceedings. Hers was playing of electrifying energy, awesome technical command, and rollicking dialogue, especially in the Concerto’s finale. Afterwards, H&H cellist Guy Fishman said that was perhaps “the best performance” the piece has yet received. That’s a tall order, but, no matter how you might cut it, it was rousing.

Runners up: I’ve rarely been more impressed with an encore than with a concerto, but that was the case with Javier Perianes’ follow-up to his March performance of Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain with the BSO. Granted, the Falla’s something of an anti-concerto – the piano’s more a part of the orchestra than a soloist leading, or battling with, the ensemble – so getting to hear Perianes, of whose recordings I’ve been a big fan for years but a pianist whom I’d never heard live before, truly take center stage was exciting in itself. He more than lived up to expectations, playing Chopin’s E-minor Nocturne with such radiant tone, supple lyricism, and inward focus that it caused a late-winter audience in Symphony Hall to sit in utter silence, completely spellbound.

The next month, Garrick Ohlsson, who’s as sterling a Beethoven pianist as they come, gave an inspired, fierce account of the Piano Concerto no. 4. It can be tough to make this music sound fresh, but Ohlsson did just that, playing it with such intelligence and fervor that it was almost as though he was creating the piece on the spot.

Best chamber music performance/recital: St. Lawrence String Quartet playing Haydn, Golijov, and Saint-Saens

For the second year in a row, my favorite area chamber concert was given by a string quartet brought to Massachusetts by Music Worcester. The San Francisco-based St. Lawrence String Quartet played a program of (mostly) curiosities by Osvaldo Golijov and Camille Saint-Saens at the College of the Holy Cross on a cold night in February. Saint-Saens’ Quartet no. 1 got about as exuberant a reading as you could have expected it to receive and Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet (the night’s only canonical entry) sounded grand. But the highlight was a rare performance of Golijov’s quizzical Qohelet. The composer, whose travails with recent commissions is well-documented, was on hand to bask in the warm applause that followed; the piece was a welcome reminder of his formidable gifts.

Andris Nelsons and Barbara Hannigan perform Hans Abrahamsen’s “let me tell you.” Photo: Michael Blanchard.

Andris Nelsons and Barbara Hannigan perform Hans Abrahamsen’s “let me tell you.” Photo: Michael Blanchard.

Best premiere (local or world): Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you

What a year 2016 was for premieres in Boston! The standout from the many worthy entries, though, was an early one: Hans Abrahamsen’s mesmeric song cycle, let me tell you, sung by Barbara Hannigan, with Andris Nelsons conducting the BSO. In some ways, it’s hard to tell which made the bigger impression, the singer or the piece. That’s saying something, considering how inventive, exhilarating, and downright beautiful Abrahamsen’s writing in it is. But Hannigan, who commissioned let me tell you and is easily one of the best singers before the public today, delivered a performance of such searing intensity that it’s hard to separate the two. No matter: let me tell you, a meditation on Shakespeare’s Ophelia, was the high point of the BSO’s early-year mini-festival dedicated to the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, a display of Nelsons and his band at their collective best, and a celebration of some of the finest contemporary music yet penned in our still-young century.

Runners up: Also among the highlights from BSO programs I heard this year was George Tsontakis’ Sonnets (premiered in February), a moving concerto for English horn and orchestra (superbly played by Robert Sheena); Jörg Widmann’s grim, visceral Trauermarsch (heard in October); and Thomas Adès’ harrowing and, ultimately, touching Totentanz (given in November).

I also thought highly of Bernard Hoffer’s lively ballet, Paul Revere’s Ride, presented by Boston Musica Viva in March. John Harbison’s Nine Rasas, commissioned and premiered by Radius Ensemble in May, left a strong impression, since reinforced by Radius’s excellent recording of the piece on their new album, Fresh Paint. Derek Bermel’s Murmurations was a highlight of A Far Cry’s May season-finale, especially its gorgeous second movement, “Gliding Over Algiers.” And the Boston Philharmonic turned in an excellent reading of Lera Auerbach’s Icarus in October.

Best revival of an underrated/-valued composer: David del Tredici’s Child Alice

Del Tredici’s a significant figure in late-20th-century music, largely for his pioneering work as a neo-Romantic and his outspoken advocacy for social issues through music. Still, he’s not exactly a familiar presence on concert programs, especially orchestral ones. So BMOP’s March presentation of his 130-plus minute magnum opus, Child Alice, was a big deal. It’s a piece that has, perhaps unsurprisingly, not had the easiest time getting played. For one, it requires a special type of solo singer to navigate its considerable acrobatics. It also involves a huge orchestra. BMOP’s performance with soprano Courtenay Budd, just Alice’s second complete hearing in thirty years, was easily one of the biggest deals of 2016. And, if you missed it, don’t despair: the extravaganza was recorded for a release next spring (the full work’s debut recording) on BMOP/Sound.

Runner up: Another pair of composer revivals came courtesy of BMOP. Harold Shapero’s snappy, focused “Partita in C” and Steven Stucky’s Chamber Concerto comprised the second half of the ensemble’s October season opener, “American Masters.” Both proved marvelously concentrated and inventive demonstrations of their respective composer’s voices, each of whom are deserving of more performances and worth becoming better acquainted with.

Best revival of a piece written since 1980: Hans Werner Henze’s Symphony no. 8

The BSO premiered Henze’s Eighth Symphony in 1993, played it again in 2001, and then let it rest until this past January. What a revelation it proved to be then. The score, inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, features writing as direct, vibrant, and ecstatic as it comes. It’s not necessarily an easy symphony, by any means, but it’s a rewarding one, all the same. Paired on that program with Mendelssohn’s famous incidental music to the same play, the Henze offered a fresh, bracing, sometimes earthy response to both to the older score and the comedy.

Most creative program: the BSO’s Shakespeare mini-festival

I’ve not always been crazy about the BSO’s penchant for safe programming, but some of their subscription series this year attempted to step outside the box and, overall, a good proportion really worked well. The most enduring in my memory was the orchestra’s January and February Shakespeare mini-festival, which connected both piece-to-piece and week-to-week. On each of the three programs, there was only one heavily-played favorite. And each of those were well-located: in the context of Strauss’s Macbeth and Dvorak’s Othello Overture, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet not only fit, but provided a welcome, centering context. Music from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet did the same thing during the middle program, following up pieces by Shostakovich and Abrahamsen. But the series’ best program was its first, with Weber’s Oberon and Mendelssohn’s complete incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream framing Henze’s Symphony no. 8. Like I noted above, here was the same play viewed across more than 150 years, and the familiar music was enhanced by a semi-staging that took full advantage of the hall and even incorporated the audience at the end. It was, I thought, one of the smartest and most humanizing approaches to art – musical and dramatic – I’ve encountered yet at Symphony Hall.

Runners up: Other standout BSO programs this year included the paring of Jörg Widmann’s Trauermarsch with Brahms’s German Requiem in October and Thomas Adès’ macabre and frighteningly-timely offering of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Sibelius’s Tapiola, and his own extraordinary Totentanz.

Also, New England Philharmonic’s October “Finding the Keys” stands out for its interplay of themes – musical, philosophical, spiritual – in pieces by Andrew Norman, Carl Ruggles, Yehudi Wyner, and Bela Bartók. And I thoroughly enjoyed the spirited playfulness of the Handel & Haydn Society’s April concert pairing Beethoven’s Septet with a marvelous clarinet quartet arrangement of Mozart’s Violin Sonata in B-flat.

Richard Pittman conducting the

Richard Pittman conducting the New England Philharmonic — the NEP’s mission and longevity are particularly worth celebrating and supporting.

Local musician(s) of the year: New England Philharmonic

There are few more enduring presences in Boston-area new music than Richard Pittman and his two ensembles, Boston Musica Viva and the New England Philharmonic. BMV’s been around for almost half a century, but this year the NEP, a semi-professional orchestra that champions everything from Brahms and Rachmaninoff to Ligeti, Bernstein, and Revueltas – plus hosts of local composers and an impressive array of young ones – turns forty. I’ve often praised this group for the craftiness of its programs: they’re reliably among the best you’ll find given by any ensemble, locally or nationally. But the commitment and energy with which the orchestra tackles this, that, and everything in between is a real pleasure to encounter and rare, a testament to Pittman’s leadership and vision, now, with this group, entering its fifth decade. In a city where too many good things – like Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston and Courtney Lewis’s Discovery Ensemble – peter out, the NEP’s mission and longevity are particularly worth celebrating and supporting.

In memoriam…

There are no two ways around the fact that 2016 was a brutal year, both in and out of the arts. Within, no discipline was left untouched: film, theater, literature, architecture, and rock all lost significant figures. So, too, classical music, where a number of titans departed the stage for the final time.

The late

The late Pierre Boulez.

The first and, in many ways, most significant to go was Pierre Boulez, who died in January, about three months shy of his 91st birthday. Silenced by ill health for the last several years, he left a legacy as fiery polemicist, iconoclastic conductor, and controversial composer that will likely not be exceeded, at least any time soon.

Like Boulez, Nikolaus Harnoncourt was as provocative and forward-thinking a conductor as they come. Unlike Boulez, he made his name as a champion of early music (his recordings of Monteverdi and Bach are among the finest in the catalogue) and all over the standard canon. His death in March, at 86, wasn’t particularly surprising – he had retired from conducting shortly before – but it was untimely: Harnoncourt’s valedictory performances of two Beethoven symphonies and the Missa solemnis, taped in the summer of 2015, were released this year, together demonstrating a mind, at the very end, as thoughtful, engaged, and noncomplacent as ever.

Another leading figure in early music, Sir Neville Marriner, died in October at the ripe old age of 92. He was an occasional presence with the BSO – mostly in the ‘70s and ‘00s; his most recent appearance was at Tanglewood in 2015 – but remains best known for the crackerjack Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which he founded in 1958.

Among major 20th/21st-century composers who died this year were Peter Maxell Davies (in March), Ursula Mamlok (in May), Einojuhani Rautavaara (in July), and Pauline Oliveros (in November). Stylistically, they’re not tied together by any consistent threads, but, whether it be through evocations of nature, explorations of electroacoustic composition, or “deep listening,” each enhanced and broadened our understanding of sound as music and music as expression.

Most shocking was the sudden death of Steven Stucky, a composer long associated with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Cornell University, but with strong ties to Boston, too: Boston Musica Viva and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project commissioned and performed his music regularly. He left us in February, too soon, at the age of 66.

Also tragic was the demise of the exceptional tenor Johan Botha, who succumbed to cancer in September aged just 51. The great pianist/conductor Zoltan Kocsis passed away in November at 64 and the soprano Marni Nixon – heard more than seen in her many film roles (she dubbed Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, among others) – passed away in July.

Local figures gone this year include the incomparable soprano Phyllis Curtin, a longtime presence at Tanglewood and Boston University (not to mention stages and concert halls around the world), who died in June. Composer Elliott Schwartz passed away after a long illness in December. And, in November, Jules Eskin, the BSO’s long-time principal cellist, died at 85. Eskin was one of the Orchestra’s last living links to the golden age of Koussevitzky (he studied at Tanglewood in the ‘40s), a consummate professional, and a player possessing such warm, singing tone that you simply sat up straighter and paid closer attention whenever he had a solo. Like Joseph Silverstein, the BSO concertmaster who preceded him in death by almost exactly a year, his playing is a legacy that will live on in the memories of listeners and the fingers and minds of his many colleagues and students.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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