The best of times, the worst of times

A year in classical
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 20, 2006

BEST DEBUT: Venezuela’s Gustavo Dudamel leading the BSO at Tanglewood.

This year Boston classical music lost some of its most beloved figures — some, like mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, at the very height of their extraordinary powers, others, like opera director Sarah Caldwell and her conductor/collaborator, Osbourne McConathy, after long and gratifying runs. I’ll remember with affection superstar sopranos Birgit Nilsson and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and the too-young Elizabeth (Betsy) Parcells, once a staple of the Boston opera scene. Boston (though not only Boston) also saw the demise of the record store. But let’s concentrate on what we have to be grateful for. Here’s my look back at 2006, a splendid musical year even under the worst circumstances.

BSO music director James Levine’s Beethoven/Schoenberg project, which demonstrated the relationship between two of classical music’s towering innovators. We got Schoenberg’s surrealistic song cycle Pierrot Lunaire with the BSO Chamber Players and legendary soprano Anja Silja; the Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff; the Piano Concerto with Daniel Barenboim; that visceral and abstract monumental torso of an opera, Moses und Aron; and the romantic epic Gurrelieder, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, in her last Boston performances, as the sorrowing Wood Dove. Levine’s Beethoven was not as consistently successful, but the concerts in which he both preceded and followed the Beethoven and Schoenberg Violin Concertos (Tetzlaff in both) with his own string-orchestra arrangement of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge represented the single most inspired piece of programming I’ve ever heard at the BSO.

The highest of several high points of Levine’s Tanglewood season, and of the Mozart 250th-birthday year, was a concert version of Don Giovanni, a truly great performance of this comic and harrowing masterpiece — and how rare is that?

In 1979, Emmanuel Music under Craig Smith gave the first uncut American performance of Handel’s Orlando. This fall, Smith and Emmanuel Music began a three-part exploration of Handel’s three great operas based on stories from Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso. Smith’s conducting demonstrated not only expertise but wisdom, and both the singing and the playing (by some of the same musicians) were sublime. Countertenor Jeffrey Gall, sopranos Kendra Colton and Dominique Labelle, and mezzo-soprano Krista River were the outstanding singers.

At Tanglewood, 25-year-old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, in his BSO debut, not only lived up to his reputation as one of the most exciting young musicians in the world but proved that the program to train young musicians in his native country continues to produce amazing musical results at the same time it’s saving hundreds of thousands of impoverished lives.

Benjamin Zander has won an international reputation for his performances of Mahler, both with Philharmonia Orchestra of London and here at home with his own Boston Philharmonic. In recent years, I’ve thought he was coasting a little. But his feverish and mercurial Mahler Fifth Symphony this year transported me back to the time when each of his Mahler performances had something new and devastating to say.

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