1. BEST PERFORMANCE
Conductors can’t be pop heroes these days, when orchestras are supposedly lumbering into extinction. Nobody seems to have told Gustavo Dudamel, or the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, or the citizens of Venezuela, a substantial number of whom showed up last month to hear a crackling Beethoven’s Fifth. A few weeks later, Dudamel, the 26-year-old music-director designate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was back to make his New York Phil debut and prove that he could galvanize his elders as well.
2. BEST REGIME CHANGE
Alan Gilbert at the Philharmonic
We’ll already be getting tired of the next president before Alan Gilbert takes over the New York Philharmonic in 2009, but even now you can feel the future stirring. The 40-year-old grew up here, both his parents playing in the violin section. In recent years, he has regularly guest-conducted Mom and Dad’s colleagues, and each time the relationship audibly deepened. Last spring, he masterfully guided the orchestra through György Ligeti’s scary, gorgeous Violin Concerto. He’s back in March, not as guest but as boss-in-waiting.
3. BEST TIP OF THE HAT FROM ONE CULTURE CAPITAL TO ANOTHER
Berlin In Lights
In November, New York— led by Carnegie Hall—treated Berlin as a prodigal fatherland, importing Weimar songs, agitprop, beard-stroking avant-gardism, multiethnic electronica, and, of course, symphonies, courtesy of the ever-triumphant Berlin Philharmonic. Then there were exhibits, panels, screenings—a battery of programs that made one think with a chuckle: Where but in New York? Oh, right: Berlin.
4. BEST OPERA PERFORMANCES
Janácek’s opera offers abundant village misery, but Karita Mattila made a joyous evening of it by bringing to the title role her unerring ferocity and resignation. In this case, she shared the stage with the formidable sexagenarian soprano Anja Silja, who sang Jenufa’s stepmother. Silja, as famous for her marriages and miniskirts as for her outsize soprano, has found the perfect role for her second act. Together, the women gave off a steel mill’s worth of sparks.
5. BEST NEW TALENT
Nico Muhly at Zankel Hall
The music that Nico Muhly loves rings clearly through his style of nonchalant invention: English Renaissance choral music, sixties minimalism, lush electronica, and dense, bleak, intellectual pop. But he’s not mired in influence, and Muhly has the confidence to start a piece slowly and let it gradually achieve insanity.
6. BEST REDISCOVERY
Iphigénie en Tauride
A century ago, Christoph Gluck was considered opera’s old master, and Iphigénie en Tauride his autumnal masterwork. The Met finally staged it in 1916 (137 years after its premiere) and left it alone till now. Steven Wadsworth’s staging was without weaknesses, but its principal pillars were conductor Louis Langrée; the mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Iphigénie, owning the role; tenor Paul Groves; and Plácido Domingo, now in his fourth or fifth heyday.
7. BEST SOUNDTRACK
Last January, a few hundred people gathered at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on the Lower East Side to let the world melt away. Bill Morrison’s 2002 assemblage of fading film ran on three screens, wrapping viewers in an elegy for all that crumbles. Michael Gordon’s soundtrack, on the other hand, is driving and unsentimental, building from a harsh pulse to a violent howl. Decasia is about endings, but a follow-up, Dystopia, opens in L.A. next month and will surely slouch east soon.
8. BEST CD FROM AN UNEXPECTED SOURCE
Grand Valley State New Music Ensemble: Steve Reich, Music for Eighteen Musicians
When a 1976 work became the obsession of a group at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, it was clear that New York had lost its exclusive on Steve Reich. After rehearsing for eight months, they not only came to Manhattan to perform but even recorded it. The result proves (1) that what one person hears as a caffeinated urban pulse, another hears as the rhythm of the flatlands, and (2) that a bunch of midwestern kids can play Reich better than he can.
9. BEST ORGANIST
New York has an overlooked abundance of fine pipe organs, and a phenomenal organist in Paul Jacobs, the youthful-looking chairman of the organ department at Juilliard. For audiences as small as two dozen, Jacobs has played the complete organ works of Bach and Messiaen in marathons. But on one night in October, he bewitched a blissed-out gathering in a Times Square church with Messiaen’s Livre du Saint Sacrément.
10. BEST MULTIMEDIA REINVENTION
The Tristan Project
Richard Wagner was the nineteenth century’s virtuoso of slow motion; the video artist Bill Viola is ours. The multimedia concert of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde imported by the L.A. Philharmonic elegantly solved the problem of what to look at during all that music. Viola sometimes trusted too much in the allure of super-slo-mo images, but he more than made up for it with stretches like the final one, when Tristan’s corpse lifts off its slab, accompanied by a rush of water, and goes spinning off into a vaporous spray of light.
When the cello prodigy and Columbia grad made her Mostly Mozart debut playing Osvaldo Golijov’s ecstatic Azul, the composer had finished a major rewrite just days earlier, but Weilerstein sounded like she had spent a lifetime with the work.
The Kirov Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen
The Kirov’s visit last summer transcended all categories of badness. Lumpy brown gods hung overhead like papier-mâché made by giant second-graders. The Valkyries wore tinfoil hats. Small people pushed around smaller humanoid lumps that flickered like McDonald’s freebies. Watching this garish murk felt like rubbernecking.