This was the year in which economic news was the grimmest in more than 50 years and the scarcity of funds has been scaring arts institutions.
Saving money is the reason the Peabody Opera Theater decided to stage its fine "Marriage of Figaro" without props; and getting money is why the Baltimore Symphony asked its visionary former board president Buddy Zamoiski to resume his presidency after a two-year absence.
But do you want the good news or the bad news first? The good news, of course! So here it is. (Apres ca, le deluge!) Despite facing a bankruptcy-threatening $1 million debt in a horrible economy, the Baltimore Opera Company resurrected itself. When the fiscal year ended last August, the company found itself in the black for the first time in years.
And the BOC was also responsible for two of the year's brightest events. One of them was Verdi's "Don Carlo" -- a stunning production designed by those two crazy boys from Buenos Aires -- director Roberto Oswald and designer Anibal Lapiz -- who were responsible for the same company's wonderful "Salome" two seasons back. The other splendid BOC event was a !B "Madame Butterfly" that starred Yoko Watanabe in a performance that was as dramatically intelligent as it was beautifully sung.
The bad economic climate also did not keep BSO music director David Zinman from concluding the symphony's 75th anniversary season in grand style. The piece was nothing less than Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand," and though the three sold-out performances used only about 500 singers and musicians -- the largest number ever on Meyerhoff Hall's stage -- nobody was complaining.
Other outstanding BSO events were an "Emperor" Concerto in which pianist Nelson Freire gave the performance of this listener's lifetime; a performance of Haydn's Symphony No. 104 that confirmed belief in Zinman and the BSO as the best Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven team in the land; and a Bruch Violin Concerto in which soloist Nigel Kennedy came on stage dressed like a clown -- baggy pants, floppy pointed shoes and a spiked haircut -- and proceeded to play like a king.
Other noteworthy events included a thoughtful and moving Bach "St. Matthew Passion" that was performed by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and music director Tom Hall; a piano recital last month by that 80-year-old wunderkind, Shura Cherkassky, in which the pianist displayed enormous craft, tremendous variety of touch and a perpetually singing tone; and a November song recital by Dawn Upshaw that filled Shriver Hall with glory made by the most beautiful of all musical instruments.
And now -- saving the worst for next-to-last -- the events that this listener hated.
A composer he likes is Christopher Rouse -- but Rouse's "Karolju," a piece of Christmas choral music, was to the spirit of the season as a visit to the Epcot Center is to taking a world tour.
Andre Watts' performance of Brahms' B-flat concerto was the loudest and most vulgar this listener has ever heard. No one can excuse Watts -- when he's good or when he's bad -- of being a faceless virtuoso. This was Brahms for the heavy-metal set.
But if Watts was a complete -- if tasteless -- master of the notes, Phillipe Bianconi could barely play them. This young pianist's technique and sense of rhythm were so inadequate to the Schumann Concerto that the poor piece emerged from the Frenchman's performance as if it had been mugged.
And, finally, attention must be paid to something really sad -- the passing of three of this century's pianistic giants: Rudolf Serkin and Claudio Arrau (both born in 1903) and Wilhelm Kempff (b. 1895). All three men had been in ailing health for years but each had enjoyed long and gloriously fullfilled careers.
The best of '91 . . .
* Nelson Freire's "Emperor" Concerto. Ask almost any pianist who his or her favorite pianists are and Freire's almost always on the list. The reason why is profoundly poetic and exciting performances like this one.
* Shura Cherkassky's piano recital. With his bald pate, wizened face and a grin that suggests he's about to crack a scatological joke, Cherkassky looks like your favorite crackpot uncle. That's also exactly the way he plays and there's never a dull moment.
* Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's performance of Mahler's "Symphony of Thousand." It was big, big, big and long, long, long. I never wanted it to end.
* Yoko Watanabe was a wonderful Madame Butterfly in the Baltimore Opera Company production because everything she did -- from the way she poured tea to the way she sang -- unforgettably evoked the character.
. . . and the worst
* Andre Watts' Brahms B-flat Concerto. Sometimes the guy is genuinely a great pianist but on too many occasions -- and this was one of them -- he plays the piano as if he were a lifetime NRA member threatened with a gun ban.
* Philippe Bianconi's Schumann Piano Concerto. The worst professional performance I've heard in several years. Just about any Peabody student could have played it better.
* Christopher Rouse's "Karolju." This guy's a terriic composer when he's feeling mean and depressed. But on this occasion he got into the Christmas spirit and . . . peeuuuuuw!