2013 was a tremendous year for the New Orleans classical arts scene, accentuated by outstanding achievements from individuals and smaller groups. Here are the top 10 performances from 2013:
1. Copland’s Clarinet Concerto – On February 21, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra found themselves in quite a pinch. On their Thursday night program was Aaron Copland’s 17-minute concerto requiring skills of a clarinet virtuoso, and the LPO’s guest soloist had fallen suddenly and violently ill. During their emergency intermission, the orchestra’s own 21-year clarinetist Chris Pell courageously stepped forward and volunteered to perform the piece without having practiced a single note. Violist Matt Carrington summed it up best: “It’s every orchestral musician’s dream to sort of step up and save the day and be in the limelight—and music-making captures the feeling of music when it can be so spontaneous and impromptu.” The hall filled with nervous energy, the LPO and audience connected in a way not seen before or since. Pell performed the piece flawlessly and brought the house down. With leaping ovations, ecstatic hollering, and conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto thrusting his fists in the air, the last-minute concerto was akin to a sporting event, and high point of classical arts concerts this year.
2. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – On May 24, Birdfoot Festival had already wowed audiences at the Little Gem Saloon with chamber works by György Kurtág and Fauré before presenting the centerpiece of the festival and finest classical performance of the year: Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” Featuring former New Orleans resident and piano virtuoso Danny Driver and showcasing clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein, the quartet’s interpretation of the masterwork had an obvious affect on audiences. Rarely have classical listeners been seen more quiet and attentive, and their reactions ran the gamut from teary-eyed to solemn to blissful. The performance generated one of the longest-running standing ovations of the year, and it continues to be one of the most talked about Birdfoot pieces of 2013.
3. Britten Violin Concerto – It was a good year to be living in New Orleans for fans of Benjamin Britten. While there were centennial celebrations around the world, the LPO made New Orleans one of a handful of American cities that offered a complete program of the British composer’s music on his birthday. The highlight of the November 22 concert was a performance of “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra,” featuring Karen Gomyo soloing on the demanding work. Conducted by Maestro Prieto, the LPO offered a sturdy foundation for Gomyo’s impressive playing. Once concluded, a smiling Prieto offered Gomyo a bouquet of flowers and she was called back onto the stage three times. During intermission, concertgoers were abuzz, many having heard the piece for the first time that evening, and reveling in newfound interest in the composer.
4. Noah’s Flood – A week prior to Britten’s birthday, the New Orleans Opera Association offered their take on the worldwide centennial, presenting the composer’s short opera Noye’s Fludde to packed houses at Trinity Episcopal Church. Using both expert and amateur performers, operagoers got to experience something sincere and unique—an expertly performed work that brought together musicians and singers of all ages from throughout the community. In addition to demonstrating the brilliance of Britten and showcasing the expressive bass of Arthur Woodley and mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood, the opera was fun and made for an enchanting evening.
5. Vespers of 1610 – The sleeper hit that ended the year was Marigny Opera House’s mid-December production of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. Combining the talents of the intrepid New Resonance Orchestra (conducted by Francis Scully), 13 singers (led by gifted soprano Mattea Musso), and nine dancers (choreographed and directed by Diogo de Lima), the masterwork of early music came to life in the Marigny to sold-out crowds. If the performance proved anything, it was that the classical arts aren’t just for the time-honored organizations in the city. New Orleans has much to look forward to as the Church of the Arts continues its ambitious programming into the next year with multiple dance performances and New Resonance’s spring premiere of a song cycle by local composer Tucker Fuller.
6. Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 – November 12 marked an awkward moment in the classical arts community, when two world famous string quartets performed shows at the same time in different venues. The CAC presented Kronos Quartet while Friends of Music hosted Pacifica Quartet at Dixon Hall at Tulane University. Concertgoers who chose the latter program were fortunate to hear one of the best Crescent City performances of the year as Pacifica offered a flawless rendition of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor. The Russian composer’s oeuvre, especially the exacting chamber pieces, are not easy to pull off, and Pacifica progressed confidently from one movement to another with great fluidity and expertise.
7. Frank Bridge’s Lament for Two Violas – In October, Musaica Chamber Ensemble’s first program of their eighth season began with a magnificent execution of Frank Bridge’s Lament for Two Violas, featuring local musicians Bruce Owen and Ila Rondeau. Bridge was a British composer who was perhaps most famous for mentoring Benjamin Britten. His work for two violas showcases how much he would influence young Britten. The duet soared under the capable hands of Owen and Rondeau, showing just how moving the viola can be.
8. Britten's Phantasy Quartet – The final concert of this year’s Birdfoot Festival was slightly different from the first two nights, being presented with a little more formality and more distance between the performers and audience. This did not affect the performances, however, with two works marking some of the best of the festival and 2013. Their rendition of “Phantasy Quartet,” was one of the first Britten pieces performed this year, highlighting the composer’s range but also local oboist Jaren Philleo’s virtuosic abilities.
9. Ravel’s Piano Trio – Featuring Danny Driver again on piano, Birdfoot artistic director and violinist Jenna Sherry, and cellist Calab van der Swaagh, the performance of the impressionistic work by French master Maurice Ravel, left many in their seats silently swaying with their eyes shut. Passionately moving as they performed, it appeared that all three musicians became one with the music. When they finished, an older woman sitting in the back could barely contain her enthusiasm, screaming “Bravo!” which kicked off the standing ovation from the rest of the audience. If Birdfoot is able to generate the same enthusiasm in 2014 as they did this year, chamber music lovers will have much to look forward to.
10. Barber’s Violin Concerto – Opening their current 2013-14 season, the LPO was joined by master violinist Gil Shaham for an expert performance of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. The performance was a fine example of what audiences could expect from the new season: the LPO in fine form, presenting a version of a work that audiences may not be too familiar with, and doing so with grace and élan. Attendees were so moved after each movement, they burst into applause, despite tradition prohibiting such action. A standing ovation ended the performance, and Maestro Prieto insisted that the soloist do an encore, starting a tradition of his own for the next several concerts.