Highlights from Baltimore's 2016 classical music scene

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
All in all, 2016 wasn't a bad year for classical music in Baltimore.

As 2016 draws to a close (not a minute too soon for some of us), I'm reminded of the year's classical music highlights in Baltimore.

The most unusual event for me came early in January, when the Peabody Institute hosted the ambitious New Music Gathering.

At a program devoted to works embracing theatricality, Tenth Intervention presented shirtless pianist Adam Tendler in a performance of Nathan Hall's "Tame Your Man" with the careful assistance of leather-clad "bondage artist" Jack Parton.

You don't easily forget a piano piece like that -- it's bound to leave a lasting mark. The music proved of variable interest, but the playing had expressive potency. And the visuals -- Tendler kept getting physically, um, restrained even as as he kept the piece going at the keyboard -- sure were, um, gripping. Call it 88 Shades of Grey.

A keyboard, under totally normal circumstances, also figured in one of the last memorable performances I heard in '16 -- Helene Grimaud's December recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. The first half of her program explored a wonderful, wide-ranging assortment of repertoire related in one way or another to water.

Grimaud, who will be back in town during the New Year as guest artist with the Baltimore Symphony, offered remarkably refined technique and insightful phrasing. Her recital also included a muscular account of Brahms' Sonata No. 2  and a couple of radiant Rachmaninoff encores.

Speaking of the BSO, the ensemble had quite a strong year. No question that the performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 6 in November was the ultimate stand-out. Music director Marin Alsop was at her most inspired, the orchestra at its most powerful.

There was much to be said, too, for BSO programs that featured great choral works:

-- an electric Brahms Requiem led by Marks Stenz, with the responsive University of Maryland Concert Chorale and top-drawer soloists Eric Owens and Lisette Oropesa (March)

-- a highly sensitive and involving account of the Verdi Requiem with Alsop, Choral Arts Society of Washington and one heck of an ardent solo quartet: soprano Tamara Wilson, mezzo Elizabeth Bishop tenor Dimitri Pittas and bass Morris Robinson (June).

Another standout of 2016 came in May from Concert Artists of Baltimore, when Edward Polochick led the ensemble in William Bolcom's big, bracing, eclectic Symphony No. 3.

And getting back to Shriver Hall, that was the scene for the world premiere of the super-lyrical Chamber Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Baltimore-based Jonathan Leshnoff. Violinist Gil Shaham and The Knights gave the score a terrific lift-off.

Thanks to Shriver Hall Concert Series, we also got an imaginative recital in March from silken-toned soprano Nicole Cabell; the program was capped by radiant spirituals.

And how nice it was to find Cabell back in Baltimore in November for an exquisite performance of Ravel's "Sheherazade" with the BSO, led by Nicholas Hersh. The conductor wrapped up that program with another uncommon treat -- all of Act 2 of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet score, given a fresh, energized spin.

The year proved important for the welcome re-emergence of Lyric Opera Baltimore, however briefly. The company's production of "Romeo et Juliette" in May had a lot going for it, especially the youthful, believable, vocally eloquent leads -- tenor Jonathan Boyd, soprano Sarah Joy Miller -- and the supple conducting of Adam Turner. Was this Lyric Opera's swan song? If so (no activity has yet to be announced for 2017), it was a classy one.

One more for the road -- Aaron Jay Kernis' Second Symphony, delivered by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra with Alsop on the podium. An incendiary performance of an unabashedly polemical piece about the horror of war and its toll on lives, morals and values. This 25-year-old score was all too terribly relevant for 2016.

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