High notes

A year's worth of kudos from the classical music trenches

IT WAS NOT A WATERSHED year for Seattle's classical music scene—no major openings, debuts, shutdowns, or crises. All the excitement was artistic, with brilliant work coming from unexpected sources as well as from musicians with reputations for excellence. Here's what stayed with me as I look back over the year.

Best concerto performance: Seattle Symphony timpanist Michael Crusoe in Johann Carl Christian Fischer's Symphony for Eight Timpani and Orchestra played tunes and even an acrobatic cadenza on a 300-degree circle of drums (January 6).

Best chamber concert: Pianist Uri Caine's appearance with the Seattle Chamber Players featured his sometimes rollicking, often ravishing reimaginings of some of the most beautiful movements of Bach, Wagner, and Mahler, taking them as bases for improvisations as a jazzer might do with a pop standard (March 10).

Best narrator: John deLancie explicated suavely and slyly on the plot twists and horrors, from incest to self-inflicted eyeball-ectomies, woven through Stravinsky's cantata Oedipus Rex (Seattle Symphony, June 8).

Most ambitious: If the Northwest Mahler Festival couldn't quite find a thousand musicians for Mahler's Eighth, his Symphony of a Thousand, their July 16 concert still amassed impressive numbers: eight vocal soloists, 167 choristers, and 154 in the orchestra. Under the baton of Geoffrey Simon, this all-volunteer organization gave a performance every bit as stirring and overwhelming as the work requires—a symphonic monument not played in Seattle for almost 20 years.

Best new idea: A fledgling Bumbershoot for the brain, the University of Washington's Summer Arts Festival (July 18-22) brought together everything from Aeschylus to Andy Warhol, stand-up comedy to computer music, and included both excellent local musicians and out-of-town stars (John Zorn, the Kronos Quartet).

Best segue into the new century: New Music Seattle, a generous smorgasbord of what local composers are up to, included a lot of fascinating music played by Ensemble Eraz, Cornish College's Taneko, the Contemporary Chamber Composers and Players, and the Degenerate Art Ensemble (November 4).

Opera performances of the year: Vinson Cole made an ardent G鲡ld, a role beautifully suited to both his vocal and histrionic talents, in Seattle Opera's Lakm頼/I>(February/March). In Civic Light Opera's HMS Pinafore, Michael Mahoney played Sir Joseph Porter with the exquisitely patrician foppishness of a character actor in a '30s screwball comedy (November/December). And Mary Elizabeth Williams made certain that Donna Elvira was the emotional center of Seattle Opera's Young Artist's Program's Don Giovanni (see below).

Most gush-worthy performance: Gush I shall: The Seattle Opera's Young Artists Program chose Don Giovanni, Mozart's dramma giocoso for their third annual production in Meydenbauer Center (November 16). There was wit, never schtick, in Nicolette MolnᲧs direction, and compelling drama—she trusted the stage sense of Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, and the cast to play real human beings, with none of the usual stereotypes (a shrew, a dolt, an ice queen, a clown, a tart, a rube, and a Fabio) that other productions tend to fall back on. The lengthy ensemble rehearsal process—the best part of the Young Artists Program— allowed for the development of telling character detail. The show's intimate scale made simplicity a virtue overall. Donna Elvira, whose love for the Don goes unrequited, was for once not made a figure of ridicule; Mary Elizabeth Williams (see above) was left alone on stage, still emotionally ambivalent about the Don, at the opera's "happy ending," a powerfully affecting stroke. This was a performance of such intelligence, charm, and power that it's now my standard for Don Giovannis to come.

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