Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

OWA Knows Best - Music 2009

January 07, 2010

Esa-Pekka Salonen hugs Leila Josefowicz after the debut of his Violin Concerto in 4/09
Photo: mine 2009

Well now that 2009 is actually over, it’s time for the annual best of music list. I know it’s somewhat silly, but I’m a list kind of guy. There were 265 live performances I attended in 2009 to choose from. Here are the 10 best shows that involved music from among 70 operas, 93 programs of “classical” music, and 15 other musical concerts of more popular fare. Read ’em, but don’t weep.

1. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. 4/09 In perhaps the greatest series of concerts Los Angeles has seen, Esa-Pekka Salonen, the departing L.A. Philharmonic music director, went out with a musical bang despite his often humble style. Between January and April, he led shows with an incredible number of world premieres each more outstanding than the last including Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No.4, Andriessen’s double piano concerto, The Hague Hacking, and best of all his own Violin Concerto presented in his penultimate performance with the orchestra and Leila Josefowicz. If I had to pick just one, it was the Josefowicz program I admired the most, which also featured Ligeti's Clocks and Clouds and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 since no show quite encapsulated his tenure here as well as this one evening. The following week was a glorious finale, with a pairing of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms in a semi-staged performance packed with all the redemption and salvation you could want for the world.

Linda Watson as Brünnhilde and Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan in Die Walküre
Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO 2009

2. Wagner’s Die Walküre at Los Angeles Opera. 4/09 L.A. Opera generated headlines all year with the first three installments of the Achim Freyer-directed Ring cycle, which will be presented in full this coming Spring. It’s a major undertaking that is paying off immensely in artistic terms. It’s a groundbreaking staging that is doing what few opera productions can – push audiences to question their preconceived notions of a work. Despite grousing of how it doesn't look exactly what less adventurous types might expect, no production could be more literal. There is incredible beauty in Freyer’s primitive, rough-hewn vision and the cycle’s completion bodes to be a major achievement.

Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros in Lohengrin
Photo: Wilifred Hösl 2009

3. Wagner’s Lohengrin at Bayerische Staatsoper. 7/09 I admittedly had reservations about Richard Jones very dark and challenging production. But over time, I found I couldn’t get this evening out of my head. The performances were simply outstanding including Anja Harteros as Elsa and the arrival of a major new Lohengrin in the form of Jonas Kaufmann. Kent Nagano continues to be one of the most impressive conductors around, and this was an evening to savor.

Peter Mattei in From the House of the Dead
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

4. Janacek’s From the House of the Dead at The Metropolitan Opera. 11/09 The Met’s efforts to catch up with the most important artists of the 20th century continued with the house debuts of Patrice Chereau and Esa-Pekka Salonen in this well-received staging of Janacek’s final, bleak drama about prison life and redemption. Gorgeous in every sense, it was a major achievement and contained a wonderful performance from Peter Mattei.

5. Leonard Cohen in Los Angeles. 4/09 I hate it when people talk about song lyrics as poetry, but I must admit, there are few other ways to seriously talk about Cohen’s songs with their marvelous language and intricacy. Exhibit A in the unimportance of a beautiful voice in a masterful musical performance. Cohen's shows in Los Angeles were easy going and beautiful in their world-weary way and were unsurpassed this year.

Dawn Upshaw, Michael Scuhmacher, Salonen and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

6. Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone with Dawn Upshaw and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. 1/09. Another of the superior Esa-Pekka Salonen performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this year, these twice delayed performances of Saariaho's masterful reflection on the life of Simone Weil finally took place in January 2009. Saariaho’s brilliant music finally received the quality performance it really deserved. Upshaw brought her beautiful voice to bear on a complicated life during time of war. Saariaho enjoyed another major outing this year with the UK premiere of L’Amour de Loin at English National Opera where the work was given a new staging filled with acrobatics and flowing fabric.

7. Joyce DiDonato in Il Barbiere di Siviglia everywhere but particularly at the Royal Opera House in London. 7/09. DiDonato proved herself every inch a global superstar this year with a fantastic recording of Rossini arias and several performances of Rosina in London, New York and Los Angeles that were unsurpassed. Most amazingly, she completed a performance of the role in June at Convent Garden after breaking her leg in the first act. Even after this incredible night where she performed in what must have been remarkable pain, she returned to sing the rest of the performances of the run in a cast. Her Los Angeles performances were no less endearing and she even offered up the best John Adams anecdote of the year on her blog.

Maria Kanyova as Marie Antoinette
Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2009

8. John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles at Opera Theater St Louis. 6/09 The Metropolitan Opera may have abandoned its plans for a major revival of this work in late 2008, but St. Louis got the last laugh. The company went ahead with its smaller, revised version of the work for an evening of incredibly ambitious and thoughtful music, proving once again that bigger is not always better.

9. Bob Dylan at the Hollywood Palladium. 10/09 He’s got nothing to prove. But with a new recording in hand, he launched into a blisteringly tight set with a band that responded immediately to his every move. Perhaps the single performance I underestimated the most this year, and thus (to me) the biggest surprise.

from the Wooster Group's La Didone
Photo: The Wooster Group 2009

10. Cavalli’s La Didone from the Wooster Group in New York and Los Angeles. 4/09 Initially at St. Ann’s Warehouse and then REDCAT in L.A. this summer, The Wooster Group took their first foray into opera by fusing Cavalli’s Baroque opera with a 60s Italian sci fiction nugget and supertitles. Psychedelic and technologically daring, it kicked off an ongoing collaboration of several works from The Wooster Group and REDCAT in Los Angeles. If everything to come is half this good, it’s going to be a beautiful relationship.

Honorable Mention: Christine Brewer in Alceste in Santa Fe and in recital, Renée Fleming's recital in support of Verismo and her monumental turn in the Met's Der Rosenkavalier, Simon Rattle leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust, Peter Gelb actually allowing the Met Opera to take some chances as above and in La Sonnambula and Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Karita Mattila in Katya Kabanova in Chicago, and Christoph Eschenbach's Bruckner with the L.A. Philharmonic.

Most Overrated: Need I even say it again? The train wreck that is Gustavo Dud-amel and the circus that has followed him into town heralding many of the worst concerts of the year.



When I read your posts I often think to myself "I wish I'd seen that," and I especially am doing so today. Pleased to see we have one "best" in common and it came in at number 1 to boot. I actually did expect to see one more, but given the huge number of performances you attend I ought to be surprised there were any at all. You are always a good read and I look forward to more from the peripatetic OWA in 2010!
this is a fascinating, diverse, and well informed list. your ability to cover so many perfs around the world is truly astonishing. i don't know if i could sit through that many perfs, but i'm still green with jealousy. lucky you!

your list inspired my own...which will be up in the next day or two.

SO glad to see joyce on here, as well as the LA walkure. ours (SF's) is practically 'round the corner.

happy new year! all the best, and happy theatre/opera/etc. goin'!
again, thanks for inspiring this. perhaps you'll find my entries interesting (more musical theatre weighted).:

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