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Firsts for Harbison, finale for Haitink lead a glorious year

Boston opera and music theater hit rare high note

To choose the 10 best concerts of any given Boston season, from the thousands worth hearing, is a foolhardy enterprise. No single individual could possibly attend them all (especially on those occasions when two or more take place simultaneously). My Globe colleagues Ellen Pfeifer and Richard Buell could easily create their own year-end lists without overlapping with mine. And music lovers are a notoriously opinionated lot.Still, response to the Boston Symphony Orchestra's luminous concert performances of Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" in Boston and New York was almost unanimously ecstatic. The BSO sounded glorious in this music, which it had never before played in full, and there was a superb cast headed by the intelligent Simon Keenlyside and the sublime Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Bernard Haitink's reading of the score was revelatory. (Characteristically, he deflected compliments in a recent interview in Opera News, saying, "The BSO has something with French music. They can play it extremely well. I find it difficult to recommend my own way of conducting.") The Symphony Hall performances may have marked the Dutch maestro's final appearances as principal guest conductor -- now 73, he will be absent next season -- so he deserves to be named musician of the year, not just for his programs in 2003 but for his whole extended tenure as an esteemed and beloved member of the BSO family. Haitink has conducted in Boston more often than in any other American city. The BSO is the better for it, and the public owes him a debt of deep gratitude.

Earlier in the year Haitink presided over the world premiere of John Harbison's Requiem, a particularly radiant work. It was a major year for Harbison, bringing also Robert Levin's performance of a magnificent new piano sonata, the first complete performance of his ballet "Ulysses" (by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose), BSO music director-designate James Levine's performances of his Third Symphony, Emmanuel Music's new seven-concert series focused on his music, and the commissioning of a new work by the Vatican and Pope John Paul II.

But Harbison was hardly the only composer in the news. We heard significant new operas from Osvaldo Golijov and Rob Zuidam at Tanglewood ("Ainadamar" and "Rage d'amours," respectively); a beautiful new piece by Sofia Gubaidulina, "Light of the End"; the area premiere of Wynton Marsalis's crossover success "All Rise"; and Gunther Schuller's more adventurous Third Stream work, "Encounters," the fruit of decades of study and practical experience in many kinds of music. At Tanglewood, the music of Jennifer Higdon won acclaim; in Boston Andrew Violette brought an extraordinary new and personal voice into a world where one might not have expected it -- minimalism. Leon Kirchner's new piano sonata, premiered by Russell Sherman, is a vividly energetic creation of an Old Master. Tod Machover's "Toy Symphony" project produced a pleasing result -- but just as important was the process of its creation, both in MIT's Media Lab and in dozens of workshops with children across the city.

The list of productive composers is long; the list of brilliant performers too long to do any justice to. Dubravka Tomsic's Chopin etudes were of Golden Age status; the singing of Lieberson and Mitsuko Shirai (with Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic) touched the heart. So, in her own way, did Joan Morris, with her husband, William Bolcom, at the piano -- and they tickled the funny bone, too. Charismatic pianist Lang Lang lived up to his own mixed publicity; with virtually no publicity, young Kyrill Gerstein played just as spectacularly, and far more musically. Bruno Carmignola proved to be a Baroque violinist of charisma during the Boston Early Music Festival, and our old friends in the Museum Trio maintained their exemplary standards. So did the Borromeo Quartet, completing its Bartok cycle. Maureen O'Flynn at Berkshire Opera offered a complete and touching characterization of Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata." Dominique Labelle sang exquisitely in a program of Baroque cantatas presented by Sarasa in a tiny venue in Cambridge -- the kind of event that makes musical life here so special.

The most unpredictable element on this year's list is the prominence of contenders in the opera/music-theater category -- Boston is not supposed to be an opera town, and every available venue presents unfair challenges to the art form. But this was an enthralling year, full of contenders -- the Teatro Lirico d'Europa's rousing performances of "Boris Godunov" and "Don Giovanni"; the Boston Lyric Opera's elegant "La Rondine"; the Boston Early Music Festival's recovery of a totally forgotten masterpiece, Conradi's "Ariadne," in a beautiful, well-sung production; Lynn Torgove's searching "semi-staging" of Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" in a musically superior performance by David Hoose and the Cantata Singers; and Emmanuel Music's concert performance of Schubert's "Alfonso und Estrella," a work much better than its reputation. The North Shore Music Theatre's production of Sondheim's "Pacific Overtures" was superior to most of the musicals in downtown theaters.

Most exciting of all was something new: Opera Unlimited, a festival of chamber opera jointly presented by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the Boston Academy of Music (now renamed Opera Boston). There were world premieres by Daniel Pinkham and Elena Ruehr, revivals of works by Harbison and Pinkham, and the New England premiere of Thomas Ades's brilliant, naughty, and moving "Powder Her Face." Most of the performers and productions were outstanding, and the audiences roared approval.

And one should also mention the quality and quantity of student opera. Particularly outstanding this season were Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" at the Boston Conservatory and Mozart's "Idomeneo" at Boston University. These performances merged youthful enthusiasm with professional faculty know-how and brought new audiences to the theater; these people are helping to guarantee the future of an art.

Richard Dyer's Picks
Bernard Haitink
Bernard Haitink, who ended his run as the BSO's principal guest conductor, presided over many of classical music's memorable moments this year.
  • Concert opera: Boston Symphony Orchestra, Debussy, "Pelleas et Melisande," Bernard Haitink, conductor
  • BSO program: Haydn and Elgar, Sir Colin Davis, guest conductor
  • Opera: Opera Unlimited Festival, Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the Boston Academy of Music
  • New work: John Harbison, Requiem (BSO); Gunther Schuller, "Encounters" (New England Conservatory Jordan Hall Celebration)
  • Debut artist: Pianist Kyrill Gerstein (Boston Conservatory Virtuoso Piano Series)
  • Chamber music: Borromeo Quartet (Bartok/Mozart series at the Gardner Museum)
  • Early music: Conradi, "Ariadne" (Boston Early Music Festival)
  • Educational adventure: Tod Machover, "Toy Symphony" project
  • FleetBoston Celebrity Series recital: Dubravka Tomsic, piano; Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano, with Peter Serkin, piano
  • Small event: Sarasa Chamber Music with soprano Dominique Labelle, music by Handel and Scarlatti
  • Classical musician of the year: Bernard Haitink, BSO principal guest conductor
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