1. Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Symphony Center: The brilliant French pianist took inventory of 20th Century piano music in a unique marathon recital-cum-discussion 20 pieces, some famous, many unfamiliar, spanning the first stirrings of modernism to the eclectic 1990s. Few other pianists could have dreamed up such a boldly varied agenda or brought it off at such an inspired level.
3. Soprano Dawn Upshaw at Ravinia: Park Forest's gift to the world of song and opera brought reassuring evidence that the song recital is not dead it simply needs singers of Upshaw's vocal beauty and expressive intelligence to make the medium everything it can be. Upshaw's fresh-scrubbed sincerity and limpid vocalism made an ideal match for the Martin Theatre's confiding intimacy.
4. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Claudio Abbado conducting, Symphony Center: The Berliners may have disappointed Chicago when they changed their program from Mahler's Seventh Symphony to Beethoven's Sixth and Seventh in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. But their Beethoven performances were a joy to jaded ears. They told of a great orchestra under the firm command of a musician here leading his farewell tour with them who has succeeded in adapting their venerable musical traditions to the modern era.
5. Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Center: One of the world's finest Wagner orchestras and a leading Wagnerian conductor finally met at the summit of the composer's musico-dramatic art. If some of the singing fell short, Barenboim shaped long phrases with flexibility, authority and urgency. The orchestral work was of a quality most Wagner lovers despair of hearing more than once in a lifetime. And Waltraud Meier made an impressive, even moving Isolde. In sum, an experience greater than its considerable parts.
6. Piotr Anderszewski at Mandel Hall: Making his Chicago recital debut on extremely short notice, the phenomenally gifted Polish-Hungarian pianist more than lived up to his glowing notices. Tackling one of the most daunting works in the piano literature, Beethoven's "Diabelli" Variations, he offered an interpretation at once deeply personal, full of imagination and alive to the essence of late Beethoven. Anderszewski (who appeared on the University of Chicago Presents series) was far and away the year's most exciting discovery.
7. Britten's "Billy Budd" at Lyric Opera: This was everything opera can and should be but seldom is. To honor the 50th anniversary of the work's world premiere, Lyric came up with a powerhouse of a new production that brought out the very best in the large cast, the design team and the orchestra under Andrew Davis. David McVicar's staging grappled with the disturbing moral issues at the core of Britten's version of the Melville novel in a way that stirred the soul and conscience. The young American baritone Nathan Gunn was born to sing Billy, and he was wonderfully supported by his colleagues, including Kim Begley as the conflicted Captain Vere and Samuel Ramey as the villainous Claggart.
8. Kirov Orchestra, Valery Gergiev conducting, Symphony Center: The peripatetic Russian maestro has built his globe-hopping ensemble from the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg into a superior group of players, and their all-Prokofiev program was an often thrilling demonstration of spontaneous musical combustion. The musicians pressed horsehair to strings and forced air through reeds and tubing as if their lives depended on it. If there were a few rough edges, so what? Seldom has Orchestra Hall heard orchestral playing so intensely committed.
9. Humperdinck's "Hdnsel und Gretel," Lyric Opera: Director Richard Jones' dark yet wickedly funny take on the Brothers Grimm stripped the German Romantic opera of its gingerbread sentimentality but made us consider its serious subtext through adult eyes. Unlike many revisionist productions, this one worked wonderfully well from beginning to end, thanks not least to Mark Elder's sympathetic conducting and a splendid ensemble effort by the singers, including Alice Coote and Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz, perfect in the title roles.
10. Furtwaengler's Symphony No. 2, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Barenboim conducting, Symphony Center: The belated American premiere of conductor-composer Wilhelm Furtwaengler's magnum opus (1947) sharply divided audiences and orchestra members. Some found it a long, bloated bore packed with undistinguished ideas. Others, like myself, were fascinated by the music's developmental logic and found the symphony call it German Romanticism's dying gasp worth hearing for all its obvious flaws. In any case, Barenboim got more out of the score's swollen rhetoric than any interpreter past or present.