Classical music cutbacks and powerful performances

Dallas Morning News Dallas, TX December 21, 2012

The sluggish economic recovery is still taking a toll on musical organizations. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra cut back both classical and pops seasons by a fourth, and the Dallas Opera was down from five productions to three.

Artistically, the DSO continues to reach unprecedented heights under music director Jaap van Zweden, and in March 2013 they’ll make their first European tour together. Both the DSO and the Fort Worth Symphony got high-visibility exposure at the Dallas conference of the League of American Orchestras. The new 750-seat Dallas City Performance Hall, with variable acoustics, provided a welcome new venue for smaller-scale performances, but its rents are too high for many smaller groups.

Wonderful performances included:

1 Meyers-Tsang-Nel Trio, Oct. 20. Pianist Anton Nel and cellist Bion Tsang, both on the music faculty of the University of Texas at Austin, are regular performance partners. They added violinist Anne Akiko Meyers for a program ranging from a virtuoso piano piece by Granados to Britten’s C-major Cello Sonata and the Arensky Piano Trio. Start to finish, this was playing of brilliance and finely felt expression.

2 Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, van Zweden.Britten: War Requiem, Nov. 8. Practically any concert led by Jaap van Zweden, now in his fifth season as DSO music director, would be worth top 10 inclusion. But his command of form, structure and detail, and his visceral way of making music, yielded a particularly electrifying performance of one of the greatest chorus-and-orchestra works of all time.

3 Dallas Opera: Tristan und Isolde, Feb. 16. Only a late fundraising campaign brought this imaginative production — direction by Christian Räth, projections by Elaine McCarthy — to pass. It was one of the company’s greatest triumphs of the 21st century, with powerful portrayals of Wagner’s doomed lovers by Clifton Forbis and Jean-Michèle Charbonnet and eloquent playing by the orchestra, under music director Graeme Jenkins.

4 Chanticleer, Oct. 28. This was a good year for choral music, but the best of the best was probably this male vocal ensemble. In a program ranging from renaissance polyphony to the group’s signature spiritual arrangements, this was singing of astonishing élan and elegance, all the more glorious in the spacious acoustics of the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

5 Tallis Scholars, March 26. Guadalupe Cathedral was also the setting for this exquisite concert by one of England’s top professional chamber choirs. The music, by the 16th century Englishman William Cornysh and the Frenchman Jean Mouton, was pretty esoteric, but director Peter Phillips and his charges brought its rich counterpoint to glorious life.

6 Alessio Bax, Oct. 2. Although Bax is Italian by birth, Dallas has a certain claim to him thanks to his study with Joaquín Achúcarro at Southern Methodist University, and he was based here for a number of years. New York is now home, but Bax is back frequently to teach and perform, and he gave one of the first classical performances in the new Dallas City Performance Hall. Although stuck with a brassy Kawai piano, he delivered a seasoned and sensitive master’s accounts of Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Ravel.

7 Brentano String Quartet, Nov. 13. That this foursome will be the quartet-in-residence for the upcoming Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is some of the best news in ages. Their finely buffed concert at Bass Performance Hall was a revelation, with genuinely different — and stylistically apt — sounds for music by Purcell, Haydn, Brahms and Bartók.

8 Orpheus Chamber Singers, April 21. Dallas’ excellent professional chamber choir, led by Donald Krehbiel, is a reliable placeholder in the year’s top 10. A program of music from the British Isles, from Thomas Tallis to Herbert Howells and James MacMillan, wanted more reverberation than Spring Valley United Methodist Church could supply. Beautiful music still made its mark in polished and expressive singing.

9 Meadows Symphony Orchestra, April 10. Led by Paul Phillips, Southern Methodist University’s student orchestra continues to amaze. “Had you been led in blindfolded, with no knowledge of who was playing the Mahler Ninth Symphony,” the review read, “you might have assumed some famous orchestra, led by a maestro of uncanny command and sensitivity.”

10 (Tie) Fort Worth Symphony/Rachleff, Oct. 27, and Fort Worth Opera Tosca, May 12. Guest conductor Larry Rachleff’s lovingly detailed concert with the FWSO was a dramatic demonstration of what’s too often lacking from that very able orchestra. The Fort Worth Opera Festival mounted a gripping Tosca, with a powerful trio of Carter Scott (Tosca), Roger Honeywell (Cavaradossi) and Michael Chioldi (Scarpia).

Top CDs

1 Beethoven: Late String Quartets. Cypress String Quartet (Cypress, 3 CDs)

2 Beethoven: Piano Sonatas. Jonathan Biss (Onyx)

3 Brahms: Cello Sonatas, arrangements of Hungarian Dances. Bion Tsang, Anton Nel (Artek)

4 Brahms: Piano Works. Alessio Bax (Signum)

5 Fuchs: Serenades. Cologne Chamber Orchestra, Christian Ludwig (Naxos)

By Scott Cantrell Classical Music Critic

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