Top Ten Performances of 2015

By Lawrence Budmen and David Fleshler

Kara Shay Thomson stars as Magda Sorel in Florida Grand Opera's staging of Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul." Photo: Brittany Mazzurco

Photo: Brittany Mazzurco

1. Florida Grand Opera: Menotti’s The Consul

Gian Carlo Menotti’s Cold War drama is one of the greatest American operas of the 20th century. In May, Florida Grand Opera offered a gripping, dramatic production of The Consul. With taut leadership from conductor Andrew Bisantz, soprano Kara Shay Thomson brought gleaming vocalism in a searing, dramatic portrayal of the heroine Magda Sorel. One of FGO’s finest achievements. (LB)


2. Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra: Mahler’s Symphony No. 6

When the Cleveland Orchestra is playing at its peak, it is a world-class ensemble. In March, as part of the orchestra’s annual Miami residency, music director Franz Welser-Möst’s unflagging thrust and energy illuminated Mahler’s dark masterpiece. Eschewing prettified Mahler, extremes of emotion and volume traced the score’s trajectory from joyous abandon to depths of despair. (LB)


Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Photo: Chris Christodoulou

3. Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8

In February at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, the superb St. Petersburg-based ensemble under Valery Gergiev brought a rich, burnished sonority and raucous abandon in equal measure to the sprawling, brooding canvas of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8. Behzod Abduraimov’s steel-fingered, whirlwind reading of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was a terrific bonus. (LB)


4. Anne-Sophie Mutter with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony

At the New World Symphony’s final concert of the season in May, Mutter, one of the music world’s most refined and deeply probing artists, made her first Miami appearance in two decades. Mutter’s spacious phrasing and impeccable technique drew out layers of emotion in Berg’s elegiac Violin Concerto. Her purity of tone enhanced the striking fragments of melody and color in Norbert Moret’s En réve with Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra richly supportive. (LB)


5. Piotr Anderszewski’s Bach and Schumann at the Miami Piano Festival

After a ten-year absence, Anderszewski returned to the Miami International Piano Festival in March. The pianist’s secure technique and keen musical intelligence encompassed both the austere textures and springy rhythms of Bach (Overture in French Style and English Suite) as well as the boldly romantic canvas of Schumann (Fantasy in C) with a wide dynamic palette. (LB)


6. Thomas Sleeper and the Frost Symphony Orchestra: American program at Festival Miami

In an edition of Festival Miami that marginalized classical music, Thomas Sleeper led the Frost Symphony Orchestra in an uncompromising all-American program in October. The bristling energy and austerity of Howard Hanson’s unjustly neglected Symphony No. 5 (“Sinfonia Sacra”) received a splendid revival, with the student orchestra playing on a professional level. Simone Dinnerstein was a fine piano soloist in Philip Lasser’s lyrical The Circle and the Child. (LB)


Patrick Quigley conducted Seraphic Fire in music of Bach and Mahler Friday night in Fort Lauderdale.

7. Seraphic Fire: Mahler’s Das Lied van der Erde

Patrick Quigley rose to the challenge of Schoenberg’s inventive chamber version of Mahler’s vocal symphony, with his finest orchestral conducting to date. Susanne Mentzer and Bryan Hymel offered world-class vocalism in a unique and memorable performance. (LB)


James Ehnes performed Mendelssohn with the New World Symphony Saturday night at the Arsht Center. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

8. James Ehnes with James Conlon and the New World Symphony

The prospect of another performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto may not quicken the pulse of anyone who regularly attends concerts. Yet the violinist James Ehnes, who appears frequently on South Florida stages, showed what a great performance of this popular work could achieve. With a light, graceful style and unquestionable mastery of the notes, he brought a winsome vulnerability and a keen sense of drama to the performance, investing new life in one of the world’s most frequently played concert works. (DF)


Photo: Paul Henderson Kelly

Photo: Paul Henderson Kelly

9. The Australian Chamber Orchestra

The Australian Chamber Orchestra brought virtuoso technique and interpretive originality to a concert at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. A brooding, eerie performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, with the famous opening melody rendered in an almost ghostly manner, was the highlight of a concert that also included a sensitive and lively performance of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with soloist Sharon Kam. (DF)


Jeanette Sorrell led the New World Symphony in a Baroque program Saturday night. File photo: Roger Mastroianni

Photo: Roger Mastroianni

10. Jeannette Sorrell and the New World Symphony: Bach, Handel and Vivaldi

A concert that attempts to evoke the atmosphere of a Leipzig coffeehouse during Bach’s time might have seemed gimmicky had the music and the performances not been on such a high level. The early music specialist Jeannette Sorrell led members of the New World Symphony in performances of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi that sizzled with energy, leavened by the interpretive and historically informed intelligence she brought to the concert. (DF)


Honorable Mentions

The New World Symphony’s performances of Copland’s Symphony No. 3 led by Michael Tilson Thomas, and John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean under Jeffrey Milarsky; Johannes Moser’s intense reading of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with the Cleveland Orchestra; Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in a searing traversal of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony; William Christie and Les Arts Florissants’ Baroque pastiche “Serious Airs and Drinking Songs”; the Ehnes String Quartet’s all-Beethoven program at Friends of Chamber Music; Seraphic Fire’s Handel-Charpentier Coronation Anthems program; soprano Jacquelyn Stucker’s solo tour de force in Poulenc’s La voix humaine in a downtown Miami gallery; the UM Frost Opera Theater’s double bill of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica and their concert version of Michael Dellaira’s Death of Webern (LB)

The flutist Paula Robison’s demonstration of the power and range of her instrument with the New World Symphony; guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth’s high-energy Brahms and Schoenberg with the New World Symphony; the lusty ensemble singing and sensitive performance by soprano Sydney Mancasola in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. (DF)

Dishonorable Mentions

Palm Beach Opera’s premiere of Ben Moore’s tedious Enemies, A Love Story; Florida Grand Opera’s Cosí fan tutte with Bernard Uzan’s travesty of a production matched by a soprano and tenor who were not remotely able to sing their roles adequately; the poor intonation and ragged ensemble of the Dresden Philharmonic under the plodding direction of Michael Sanderling; Giancarlo Guerrero’s mostly listless conducting in Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 (Organ) with the Cleveland Orchestra (LB)

Worst programming

The 2015 edition of Festival Miami, the University of Miami Frost School of Music’s annual showcase, hit a new low with just four bona fide classical programs. Several crossover concerts were barely even that, the majority of performances devoted to jazz, pop and country music. The growth in recent years of the Frost’s programs and faculty in non-classical genres is important and laudable. But classical music should be given equal time and exposure in the school’s premiere event. To do less is unfair to the students and faculty as well as South Florida audiences. (LB)

Losses I

The American composer Marvin David Levy died February 9 in Fort Lauderdale at the age of 82. Levy’s masterpiece, the dark and disturbing Mourning Becomes Electra, is considered one of the great American operas. It was premiered in 1967 at the Metropolitan Opera, revised and presented again to great acclaim by Lyric Opera of Chicago. He lived long enough to share in the applause in 2013 when Florida Grand Opera presented Mourning at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. (DF)

Losses II

Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev were replaced by contemporary Christian music, as South Florida lost its only classical music radio station. American Public Media sold the three Classical South Florida stations, based in Miami, West Palm Beach and Naples, to Educational Media Foundation, a California-based, nonprofit religious broadcaster. The loss of Classical South Florida generated a furious reaction from classical music fans, particularly for the abrupt manner in which it was handled, with the owner doing nothing to allow the community time to try to save it. (DF)

Most promising new group

The Nu Deco Ensemble, a chamber orchestra devoted to contemporary music, debuted with a lively program in April, opening its first full season in September. Composed of some of South Florida’s best players and led with verve by Jacomo Bairos, the group seems to draw a youthful audience at its Wynwood venue. However, programming needs to include major 20th- and 21st-century scores instead of just ten-minute miniatures and pop acts. (LB)

Best new works

The New World Symphony’s traversal of John Luther Adams’ surging Become Ocean demonstrated why the score won a Pulitzer Prize. Thomas Sleeper’s Symphony No. 5 (Chamber Symphony) mixed pensive darkness and neo-Classical energy in tribute to retiring Frost faculty member Gary Green; Jennifer Higdon’s lyrical Viola Concerto was a splendid vehicle for Roberto Diaz; Flutist Trudy Kane displayed virtuosity and tonal gleam in the rhapsodic lyricism of Miami native Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Concerto Elegia. (LB)

Most innovative presentations

Carson Kievman’s music theater work Intelligent Systems-The Surrender of Self in Mystical Contemplation was a multimedia feast depicting nothing less than the birth, destruction and rebirth of the universe; the brilliantly inventive score veering from Renaissance madrigals to driving minimalism. The Mainly Mozart Festival mixed Dante Alghieri’s The Divine Comedy and the two piano version of Liszt’s Dante Symphony with spoken text, film, dance and lighting for a trip from the infernal depths to heavenly gates. (LB)

Distinguished Achievement Award

Professor Gary Green retired in April after 22 years at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. Green reestablished the wind ensemble program at the university, presenting some of the school’s most adventurous concerts and inspiring students to give first-rate performances of challenging repertoire. Green premiered 40 new works and taken part in 50 multi-university consortium commissions. Few, if any, conductors have enriched the wind ensemble repertoire with such depth since the legendary Frederick Fennell. His farewell concert featured no less than four world premieres. Green’s contribution to South Florida’s concert life has been immense. He will be greatly missed. (LB)

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One Response to “Top Ten Performances of 2015”

  1. Posted Dec 27, 2015 at 10:32 am by paula robison

    Thanks so much for the good words!

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Thu Dec 24, 2015
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