Last February, and marking Britten’s centennial, the Glyndebourne Festival’s stunning production of Billy Budd arrived for just four performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. A tightly constructed, claustrophobic set gave plenty of room for the well-rehearsed cast headed by Mark Padmore and, in the pit, the formidable London Philharmonic Orchestra headed by Sir Mark Elder.
A few days later, the JACK Quartet plunged into the three string quartets of Helmut Lachenmann at the Morgan Library. The hall’s clear acoustic, coupled with a rapt, silent audience, allowed even the tiniest snaps, scrapes and rustles to be audible.
The first week of March was a good one, starting with Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester, who brought their unique style to Carnegie Hall. As if from another era, the droll Raabe crooned his way through arcane German and American songs from the 1920s and 1930s, such as “Mein kleiner grüner Kaktus” (“My little green cactus”) and longstanding hits such as “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.” The agile orchestra—each of whom plays multiple instruments—should be the envy of any singer in the world.
Not even a week later, Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic devised—with the help of director Lonny Price—a mighty and wittily effective version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Bryn Terfel was quietly smoldering in the title role, Emma Thompson found both humor and pathos as Mrs. Lovett, and Audra McDonald sneaked in as the Beggar Woman. Sealing the deal: outstanding work from Gilbert, the orchestra, and everyone else in the cast.
In between came not one, but two concerts by the Talea Ensemble (part of Carnegie Hall’s festival, Vienna: City of Dreams) with recent—and striking—works by Pierluigi Billone, Bernard Gander, and Olga Neuwirth. In the chamber music evening, Adrian Morejon (bassoon) and Chris Gross (cello with ring modulator) made an indelible impression in Neuwirth’s In Nacht und Eis.
April brought the annual MATA Festival for a record six concerts at the Kitchen. After performing a fascinating new work by Oscar Bianchi the night before, Stuttgart’s Neue Vocalsolisten followed it with an afternoon of recent vocal music, a startling treat.
In June, Jeffrey Gavett’s expert vocal group Ekmeles sat on the floor of the DiMenna Center’s Cary Hall for Stockhausen’s Stimmung, an hour of droning phonemes that showed the group’s technical command in an extraordinarily moving evening.
Virtuoso Christian Tetzlaff opened the 92nd Street Y season with a three-hour marathon of all of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. An astonishing journey—climaxing with a rigorous, intense Chaconne—left the violinist sweaty and exhausted, and the audience in cheers.
At the Americas Society, the Dover String Quartet showed why they swept the Banff competition with an immaculately played evening of Mozart, Dvorak, and a riveting new quartet by Vivian Fung. The group already shows wisdom and cohesiveness that many ensembles take years to develop.
At the Metropolitan Opera in November, Graham Vick’s bracing production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk really should have made it to the HD Broadcasts—not to mention the bleakly compelling performance from Eva-Maria Westbroek.
(Originally published on Seen and Heard International, Dec. 19, 2014)