This year will be remembered musically for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's tour of the Far East. The concerts the BSO and music director David Zinman gave in Korea, Taiwan and Japan over a four-week period got better and better. In Japan particularly, where the BSO gave 14 concerts in 18 days, the orchestra scored an almost unprecedented triumph.
It went to Japan as an unknown orchestra, one that Japanese audiences almost certainly regarded as merely a backup group for superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma. But by the end of the second of their concerts in Tokyo's Suntory Hall, Japan's premier classical music venue, the BSO and Zinman had themselves achieved stardom.
This was a remarkable accomplishment. The Japanese, while among the world's most sophisticated audiences, usually reserve enthusiastic approbation for orchestras from such places as Berlin, Vienna and Chicago. But these hard-to-please listeners went wild for the BSO, and subsequent Japanese reviews called the orchestra the discovery of the decade, rating its concerts superior to those recently given by the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics.
What the BSO does with this triumph remains to be seen. One hopes it capitalizes upon it by returning to Japan, renewing domestic touring, making additional records and becoming as celebrated in its native country as it deserves to be. But one also cannot help remembering the scenario that followed the BSO's almost equally successful tour of Europe and the Soviet Union in 1987, when the orchestra blew an opportunity to seize greatness with a paralyzing six-month strike.
Some of this listener's other favorite memories from the year about to be concluded:
* Best Piano Performances. In eight days early this fall, this listener heard three magical performances: Nelson Freire's Brahms Second Piano Concerto with the BSO and Zinman; Alexander Toradze's Prokofiev Fifth Concerto with the Kirov Orchestra of St. Petersburg and conductor Valery Gergiev; and an all-Beethoven recital by Richard Goode.
Freire's achievement was to take a great concerto that every great pianist plays and to perform it so transcendentally that he made this listener forget almost every other performance he's attended since he first heard Sviatoslav Richter play the piece almost 35 years ago.
Toradze took a work usually regarded as only fitfully interesting and played it with such imagination and superheated virtuosity that he made one believe the concerto was major Prokofiev.
Goode again revealed himself as this country's finest interpreter of the Viennese classics. His performances of five Beethoven sonatas so absorbed the listener that one all but forgot the presence of the pianist himself.
* Best New Work. This was Richard Danielpour's Concerto for Cello, which received an incandescent performance last October Yo-Yo Ma, the BSO and Zinman. This passionate, vividly colored work had a strong Jewish flavor and sometimes sounded almost cantorial. It not only suggested Bloch's famous "Schelomo," but also -- at times -- seemed to surpass it.
* Best Performance by a Cellist. In a single evening, the inimitable Ma was an utterly persuasive advocate for the Danielpour, gave an emotion-drenched performance of the Elgar Concerto, and then went on to play the over-exposed Dvorak Concerto with freshness and enthusiasm. It blew the wax out of listeners' ears.
* Best Performance by a Violinist. This listener heard a generous helping of big-name fiddlers this year -- Shlomo Mintz and Kyung-Wha Chung among them -- but the most moving was a young violinist named Elissa Lee Kokkonen, who performed the Beethoven Concerto with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and its music director, Ann Harrigan.
Kokkonen scaled this summit of the repertory fearlessly and made one share her delight and excitement at the view it offered.
* Best Performance by a Visiting Orchestra. Baltimore's proximity to Washington and New York allows one to hear many celebrated orchestras, but the one that most completely captured this writer's interest was the Oslo Philharmonic, which visited the Kennedy Center last month with its Latvian music director, Mariss Jansons.
Compared to groups such as the Philadelphia Orchestra or the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Oslo may be a provincial ensemble. Nevertheless, the performances Jansons led of Strauss' "Don Quixote" (with cello soloist Truls Mork) and of Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique" made one feel inside, rather than outside, the music.
* Best Operatic Performance. Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos" is not an easy opera to put across, but the Washington Opera's production last January was pure magic. Beautiful sets, insightful direction, wizardly lighting and solid singing made it among the best musical experiences this listener has ever had in a theater.
* Best Chamber Music Performance. In Columbia's Candlelight Series, the Ying Quartet -- three brothers and a sister still in their 20s -- played Janacek's Quartet No. 2 with youthful passion and intensity, then performed Beethoven's great C-sharp Minor Quartet with mastery and insight that made one feel as if one were eavesdropping upon the composer's innermost thoughts.