The Top 10 Performances of 2011

By David Fleshler & Lawrence Budmen

 1. Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony in Mahler’s Symphony No. 6

Michael Tilson Thomas led a shattering performance of this grim, hard-driving work. Thirteen of the orchestra’s alumnae returned last May to participate, including members of the orchestras of Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and San Francisco, and the result was a harrowing, brilliantly executed account of this difficult and rarely heard (in South Florida) symphony. Violins were terrific, from the warm lyricism of the slow movement to the intense ascent into the upper register that opens the last. And the horns played in robust, assured manner throughout. Tilson Thomas kept a firm hand on the volume, calibrating the performance carefully so when the fortissimo moments came, it was put across with even greater impact. (DF)


2. Ken Noda and friends  

Few concerts capture the convivial spirit of chamber music better than those of Friends of Chamber Music of Miami, which puts together events that give a hint of what it must have felt like to spend a musical evening in the home of the young Felix Mendelssohn or among the friends of Franz Schubert. Julian Kreeger, the group’s president, asked the pianist Ken Noda to assemble such an evening, and the result was an offbeat concert in May that included young soprano Lei Xu in sensuous songs of Debussy, and clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein who brought agility, a rounded tone and graceful phrasing to Brahms’ clarinet sonatas. (DF)

Photo: Gaston de Cardenas

3. Florida Grand Opera’s Don Giovanni

Opera updates often fail, but this April FGO production that allowed Don Giovanni to inflict his atrocities on Franco-era Spain succeeded brilliantly. The Don appeared as a high-ranking army officer, with Leporello as his intimidating aide. Nothing better captured his hypocrisy and moral detachment better than the image of the Don in a cafe murmuring the word “Poverina” about the plight of Donna Elvira as he paged through a newspaper. FGO fielded a strong cast in an opera with seven big roles, headed by the bass-baritone David Pittsinger as an overpowering Don Giovanni. (DF)

Photo: Gaston de Cardenas

4. Florida Grand Opera’s Tales of Hoffmann

The soprano Elizabeth Futral performed the feat of taking on all four female roles in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann in January, doing it with energy, grace and style. She spun out over-the-top coloratura as the singing fembot Olympia, moved easily to the gentle lyricism of the dying singer Antonia and rose to the dramatic heights of the courtesan Giulietta. (Futral’s performance more than compensated for another lame high-concept directing job by Renaud Doucet, who is mercifully absent from FGO’s schedule this year, having gone on to what may be a more congenial home as director of the Big Apple Circus.) (DF)


5. Violinist Ray Chen 

This young student of Aaron Rosand gave a dashing performance earlier this month for Sunday Afternoons of Music that recalled the virtuosic playing of the Heifetz, Milstein and Oistrakh era. Chen provided a darkly dramatic, brilliantly gleaming performance of the Brahms Sonata No. 3 and blazed through an unaccompanied sonata of Ysaÿe and showpieces by Saint-Saëns. A heavy, vibrato-laden Mozart sonata apart, this was a great recital that introduced a violinist we’re surely going to hear more from in the near future. (DF)


6. Palm Beach Opera’s Orfeo ed Euridice

Palm Beach Opera made the best of financial adversity by mounting a semi-staged production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in January. The production used six white-clad dancers as a substitute for scenery, and thanks to the intelligent direction of Doug Varone, this enhanced the music and plot rather than distracting from it. But what really made the performance a success were first-class performances by the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, whose gleaming voice created a character of nobility and courage, and the soprano Nadine Sierra, who gave a dramatic, radiantly sung performance. (DF)


7. The Cleveland Orchestra and Jiri Bělohlávek

The combination of Czech conductor Jiri  Bělohlávek and the Cleveland sound in all its glory produced one of the best concerts in the five years of the Clevelanders’ Miami residency in April. An incandescent Dvorak Seventh Symphony was paired with old fashioned, big-band Haydn and a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 with unusual refinement and detailing in the orchestral lines. Horacio Gutierrez was the capital soloist. (LB)

8. Seraphic Fire: Bach’s St. John Passion

Bach’s soul-stirring masterwork proved one of the most moving and unforgettable events of the season in March and one of artistic director Patrick Quigley’s finest achievements. The expressive beauty of the thirteen-voice choir and the lean, period-influenced playing of the Firebird Chamber Orchestra under Quigley’s urgent direction vividly conveyed the grandeur and anguish of this monumental score. (LB)


9. Yuri Bashmet and Evgeny Kissin in Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata.

Two Russian greats at the top of their game played Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata, the composer’s final testament, with probing intensity. The poignancy and dark angularity of this masterpiece emerged in an April performance of incredible power and immediacy, even in the vast space of the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall, meeting Shostakovich’s tormented vision on its own terms. (LB)

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

10. Violinist James Ehnes

In a June recital for the Coral Gables Congregational Church’s summer concert series, the Canadian violinist exhibited fearless virtuosity and artistry of the highest order. A wonderfully light and Gallic Franck sonata, fiery Bartok and romanticized Mozart prefaced a stellar reading of Saint-Saens’ Sonata No. 1. (LB)


Honorable Mentions

John Adams conducting his own City Noir with the New World Symphony; soprano Christine Brewer in Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the New World Symphony; Florida Grand Opera’s first zarzuela performance with Luisa Fernanda; pianist Jeremy Denk’s formidable recital of Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 1 and Bach’s Goldberg Variations; conductor Alasdair Neale with the New World Symphony in Elgar’s Enigma Variations; the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. (DF)

Also Stephane Deneve leading the New World Symphony with idiomatic fluency in a French program with Jean-Yves Thibaudet; Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony’s Beethoven marathon; Miami Lyric Opera’s delightful production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore; the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio in a sensuous version of Ravel’s Piano Trio; Kim Kashkashian’s  bracing overview of American works for viola at the SoBe Arts American Masterworks String Festival. (LB)

Dishonorable Mentions

Itzhak Perlman for a mailed-in recital that shows him heading toward a Pavarotti-like decline of full houses and bad music-making. (DF). Also the provincial Munich Symphony under Philippe Entremont’s plodding direction in major scores by Mozart and Schoenberg at the Kravis Center, and the Arsht Center charging top ticket prices for a fading Perlman paired with students in an uneven chamber music program (LB)

Distinguished Achievement Award

Alan Johnson has rejuvenated the University of Miami’s Frost Opera Theater, making it South Florida’s only regular venue for contemporary opera. Working with extremely limited resources, Johnson and co-director Dean Southern have produced inventive productions like the recent “Visions of Orpheus,” in which Ricky Ian Gordon and Philip Glass seamlessly shared space with Gluck and Monteverdi. (LB)

Best Debut 

The New World Symphony’s New World Center is a gorgeous hall that has really served its purpose by opening up the orchestra’s concert options. “A Schubert Journey,” for example, was an intensely focused concert that went from the main stage to auxiliary stages mounted above the audience for a concentrated performances of the composer’s symphony, chamber and vocal works. (DF)

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3 Responses to “The Top 10 Performances of 2011”

  1. Posted Dec 23, 2011 at 3:57 pm by Charlene Harb

    Heartiest congratulations to Frost Opera Theater.
    It is notable that Johnson and Southern can produce such high quality within a university
    community and with these limited resources.

  2. Posted Dec 23, 2011 at 5:21 pm by Kristian Toimil

    So happy they mentioned James Ehnes’ intimate and wonderful performance at Coral Gables Congregational Church. However, I really feel that Stephane Deneve and Jean-Yves Thibaudet with the New World Symphony deserved mention in the Top 10. And certainly, the New World Symphony’s very recent performance of Dvorak’s 9th Symphony deserves plaudits. Oh well, still a heck of a year for music in South Florida! Can’t wait for 2012!

  3. Posted Jan 08, 2012 at 1:50 pm by Harvey Rosenwasser

    The Friends of Chamber Music series is perhaps the biggest bargain of Miami’s musical presentations. Often, the groups presented have just performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center or Avery Fisher Hall in New York City where tickets are three times the price. Cheers for Julian Kreege’s continuing efforts!

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