Looking back musically at the year brings to mind the word "prodigious." This is not because the year was better than previous ones, but simply because of the huge number of prodigies and ex-prodigies on the scene.
The truth is that all great soloists -- at least those who play the piano, violin or cello -- were once prodigies. But in the last few years (and never more than this year) it has become apparent that the classical music biz now resembles tennis, swimming and gymnastics: It is dominated by the very young. And with the rare exception of someone such as the (barely) septuagenarian cellist Janos Starker, our old masters seem to be folks around the age of 50.
Because this was a season that was dominated by such musicians as the 23-year-old pianist Evgeny Kissin and the 14-year-old violinist Sara Chang, we have decided to add new categories to the musical bests and worsts of the year: performances by a new (to Baltimore) prodigy and by an ex-prodigy.
Best performance by a new prodigy. The 14-year-old Chang is scarcely a "new" artist; she's been a major presence on the international scene since the age of 9. But her performance this fall with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra of Lalo's "Symphonie Espagnole" was the kind -- seductive, red-blooded and scintillating -- that gives veterans like the 24-year-old Midori nightmares about becoming a has-been.
Best performance by an ex-prodigy. Last January's Kennedy Center Recital by Kissin, which included a performance of Brahms' "Paganini Variations," may have been the most dazzling in the history of that treacherous piece.
Best performance by an orchestra. The vote here is for David Zinman's performance with the BSO this fall of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8. This was only the second foray by Zinman into the Shostakovichean lower depths, but it was a searching, down-to-the-bone reading of a great work, that featured remarkable solo performances by many of the BSO's principal players.
Best concerto performance. Last spring, Leon Fleisher returned to two-handed piano-playing in Cleveland when he performed Mozart's Concerto No. 12 with the Cleveland Orchestra. Fleisher hTC quit two-handed playing because of an injured right hand in 1965, only to make an unsatisfactory one-time-only appearance in 1982. But on this occasion, each finger seemed to have a brain, and every phrase in this jewel of a concerto gleamed with freshness.
Best choral performance. Nothing this listener heard approached the performances of Samuel Barber's "Prayers of Kierkegaard" and Mozart's C minor Mass that Robert Shaw conducted with the BSO and the BSO Chorus. Shaw was identified more than 50 years ago as America's greatest choral conductor; these performances proved he still is.
Best vocal recital. Such was the penetration of his interpretations that there were moments in baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky's all-Russian recital at the Kennedy Center this fall when one had to remind oneself that he was only singing. This 33-year-old Russian singer possesses strength and generosity of tone, vocal beauty and remarkable breath control that enables him to sing articulately at a heroically slow tempo at the lower limits of audible sound. Encores of Purcell and Verdi suggested that this young singer has almost unlimited potential.
Best operatic performance. An extraordinary performance of Strauss' "Rosenkavalier" from the Washington Opera beat out a fine "La Traviata" from the Baltimore Opera Company. The Washington "Rosenkavalier" was also the occasion for Helen Donath -- one of the great Sophies of the past 25 years -- to graduate into an equally fine Marschallin.
On the other hand. Truth to tell, music critics rarely hear anything genuinely terrible. That is because they almost always review professionals, and if professionalism means anything, it's competence. On the other hand, sometimes some "professionals" do not deserve the name, and if music criticism means anything, it means an occasional exercise in pure well, it rhymes with witchiness. Herewith begins this writer's annual venting of bile.
Worst performance by a new young artist. This can only be Ignat Solzhenitsyn's performance of Beethoven's B-flat Concerto with the BSO. In this reading, inexperience, lack of technique and an absence of interpretive insights competed for inattention. Why was this sleep-walking 22-year-old musician engaged by the orchestra? Could it be because someone in the upper echelons of the BSO's management is a fan of the young pianist's father, the Nobel Prize-winning author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Worst performance by a "major" artist. There's no competition for Peter Serkin's Shriver Hall recital this fall. This featured a Beethoven's "Appassionata" so awful -- unfeeling, unbelievably slow and coming-apart-at-the-seams -- that it all but beggars description.
Most boring performance by an orchestra. It's a near tie between two Wolfgang Sawallisch-led performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Sawallisch-Philadelphia Brahms Second Symphony at the Kennedy Center last spring narrowly beat out the same team's Beethoven Fourth Symphony at Meyerhoff Hall this fall. The reason: because the Brahms took an interminable 10 minutes longer than the Beethoven.