Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

My Ten and Only - Best of Music '10

December 21, 2010

Linda Watson and Vitalij Kowaljow Photo: Monika Rittershaus/LAO

Oh it’s that time of year again. And, although my performance schedule for the last two weeks is in significant flux, I feel it’s time to make the call for this year’s top ten primarily music-related events. 2010’s denominator included 236 complete live performances of which 163 were either operas or musical concerts, be they “classic” or otherwise. (That’s 72 operas, and 91 concerts) Here’s what I thought was worth remembering this year:

1. Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at L.A. Opera. 7/10 A monumental production from the mind of Achim Freyer that was so much more than an opera production. Not everything in the course of these many hours was perfect (Linda Watson and John Treleaven to name two), but Freyer managed to produce a work of art of his own that changed the way you thought about Wagner’s Ring. That is if you were willing to listen and think about something new. Like much great art, it was met with divisive opinions and sadly was not committed to video. But the company stuck its neck out in virtually every way for a huge artistic success. The only question now is how long we’ll have to wait for the show to return.

Karita Mattila and Gerd Grochowski Photo: Cory Weaver

2. Janáček’s The Makropulos Case at San Francisco Opera. 11/10 Operatic perfection - pure and simple. What’s more, Karita Mattila gave a definitive performance of Emilia Marty and further cemented her stature as an operatic legend with perhaps one of the most vocally and physically comprehensive performances you’ll ever see. Watch out New York, she’s on her way back with this achievement in tow.

Nina Stemme and Mark Delavan
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2010

3. Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde in Die Walküre at San Francisco Opera. 6/10 Talk about comprehensively great performances. Stemme made it clear that with Christine Brewer on the sidelines, no one currently singing this Mt. Everest of roles can even come close to her. Stemme manages so much beauty, ease, and outright lightness in this part that it actually sounded like the proverbial bel canto music Wagner thought he was writing. Sadly, New York, you’ll be missing out on this one for the foreseeable future. Get your San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle tickets now.

4. Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet No. 3, subtitled In Iij. Noct performed by the JACK Quartet at Monday Evening Concerts. 4/10 The daring young men of the JACK Quartet let it all go for this hour long adventure played in total darkness. The MEC team spared no expense in creating an environment that was more than completely darkened, but one where it didn’t matter if your eyes were open or closed, it all looked the same. The audience, like the players were forced to listen in new ways and I was astonished to discover how dependent I am on visual cues even when listening to music.

Paulo Szot in The Nose
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010

5. Shostakovich’s The Nose at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. 3/10 William Kentridge’s irreverent, marauding production of this neglected masterpiece proved a perfect environment for the talents of baritone Paulo Szot in the leading role. Another opera where the art of the stage craft rivaled the art of the opera itself.

6. Purcell’s The Fairy Queen at BAM in New York. 3/10 William Christie and Les Arts Florissants returned to New York with the hit of the 2009 Glyndebourne Festival in the spring. A visually stunning, often outright hysterical staging of a sometimes ungainly work, Christie was in his element with Baroque music that sounded as lovely as one imagines it did hundreds of years ago.

Mojca Erdmann and Johannes Martin Kränzle Photo: Ruth Walz

7. Wolfgang Rhim’s Dionysus and String Quartets at the Salzburg Festival. 8/10 Rhim got the attention he deserves at a festival not nearly large enough to contain the music of this most prolific of living composers. Even the small fractions I was able to see left me desiring much more, though. His world premiere opera based on Nietzsche and his writings in a productions from Jonathan Meese was a hallucinatory shot in the arm. This was the life of the mind and easily the year's best new opera. The Arditti Quartet's take on his middle period String Quartets, also performed at the festival, was equally remarkable.

8. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings at the Wiltern Theater. 6/10 No one does it quite like Ms. Jones and the tightest band in America. The players returned to Los Angeles for an evening of their incomparable soul stylings that easily surpassed any other popular music I saw this year. (Though the xx on their first U.S. tour weren’t too shabby either.)

9. Louis Andriessen’s La Commedia with the ASKO/Schönberg Ensemble. 4/10 I know this is a bit of cheating considering this piece made the list in 2008 with the same soloists and conductor Reinbert De Leeuw. But this major recent operatic work, receiving its U.S. Premiere in a concert version without Hal Hartley’s companion video installation, was an event to remember. One of the great operas of the new century thus far. And if you don't believe me, just ask the folks who gave the Grawemeyer Award to Andriessen for this very piece this year.

10. Either Adams’ Nixon in China at Long Beach Opera 3/10 or Berg’s Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera. 5/10 You can choose between the two – I can’t. Long Beach Opera continued to thumb its nose at a bad economy with a big, good-looking production of a major 20th-century work on a shoe-sting budget managing to outclass 95% of everything put on stage by more comfortably funded organizations. Meanwhile, the Met used its formidable resources to dust off a relic of a production which was then lavished with musical qualities beyond compare, including the conducting of Fabio Luisi.

Most Overrated: I had a hard time with Anne Sofie von Otter nearly everywhere I saw her this year. Despite a reasonable Countess Geschwitz in that Met Opera Lulu, she was the weakest link in a number of concert performances including a French program from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France with Myung-Whun Chung and then got drowned out by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen as Judith in an otherwise superb version of Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Here’s wishing her a better 2011.

Dudamel high point of the year: Leading Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs in 4/10 with Kelley O’Connor. Gustavo Dudamel continued to struggle in the first full calendar year in his tenure as music director with the L.A. Philharmonic. He and the orchestra were critically drubbed just about everywhere they went on a U.S. tour in the spring after an essentially free ride in the press here at home. Other writers have begun to question the effect of the allegedly small amounts of time he’s spent with the orchestra so far. The PR machine rolls on uninterrupted, however, with a plan for live concert broadcasts to theaters around the country next year and more DVDs than you can shake a stick at. Dudamel does have moments every now and then, though, and Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, which was featured as part of the “Americas and Americans” festival was one of those moments where you were tempted to think that there still might be some way he can make his tenure here something really worth hearing. His conducting during a concert performance of Bizet’s Carmen at the Hollywood Bowl this summer wasn’t half-bad either.

Honorable mentions: Riccardo Muti leading Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and Claus Guth’s take on a start-studded Don Giovanni in Salzburg. The magnificent Lieder recital of Anja Harteros also in Salzburg. The Metropolitan Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier from way back in 1/10 and the Met Opera orchestra's two appearances at Carnegie Hall this year with Diana Damrau and later Pierre Boulez conducting Schoenberg’s Erwartung. Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten and Catan’s Il Postino, also helped to round out one of L.A. Opera's strongest years ever. San Francisco Opera’s production of Werther from 9/10. Messiaen’s Harawi presented by Piano Spheres with Vicki Ray and Elissa Johnston in 4/10. Oh, and the sound of bicycles swooshing by on Grand Avenue downtown in Mauricio Kagels’s Eine Brise in one of the many fun moments brought to us courtesy of Monday Evening Concerts.

Next up – the theater.



You see much more than I do, but I appreciate what we saw in common had similar impacts.
Was that first picture from the Ring? It must be, right? Looks like they got a leg up on Tron.

And I can't wait to get the opportunity to see the Andriessen at some point. Do you know if there's a DVD in the works...or any future performance in CA?
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