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Classical Picks of the Year

And the Best Schnoz of the Year goes to…

The six most memorable music events of 2010 included three New York premieres of operas long overdue for exposure, all with a specifically Jewish connection.

‘The Nose’

Picked by every critic, “The Nose” won this “year’s best” face-off hands-down. The Metropolitan Opera’s first production of Shostakovich’s 1928, over-the-top romp on Gogol’s classic story was a breathtaking, risk-taking adventure. The nose-thumbing score bristles with attitude, including wild shifts of technique and tone. Conductor Valery Gergiev brilliantly managed to get the Met orchestra and singers to ride this roller coaster while hanging on for dear life.

Gogol’s story manifestly resists dramatization, so South African artist William Kentridge faced quite a challenge for this, his Met debut as director and designer. His antic vision — half-Constructivist and half-Dada — had distractions across every vertical and horizontal inch of the stage. Normally so many disparate gambles would careen apart into a shambles, but here was the exceptional success. Kentridge’s opening gambit was to have the shadow of a slowly turning machine appear to be flying apart with pieces reaching the far edges of the stage-screen, only to coalesce into a stunning line-drawing portrait of Shostakovich. That wildness and precision embodied the whole show.

The director’s personal investment extended even more notably to the eponymous proboscis. Running disembodied and deliriously through every dimension of the Met’s huge stage space were giant papier-mâché and projected film versions of Kentridge’s own extravagantly hooked Jewish schnoz.

Everything about this dazzling production — Shostakovich’s score, the superb voices of the largely Russian cast, headed by Paul Szot, the inventive set and costumes also by Kentridge — all had these multiple versions of his schnoz poking in and out. Seats were unobtainable for the completely sold-out run, and scores of exiting patrons were heard exclaiming “Dada lives!” Yes, it does. At the Metropolitan Opera, yet.

Der Ferne Klang’

Polymath conductor and Bard College President Leon Botstein has made it his life’s mission to revive forgotten musical works. While all his performances are interesting, not all are memorable. Here, he struck the purest, rarest gold. Franz Schreker’s proto-feminist 1909 opera turned out to be exactly what Botstein claimed: one of the greatest operas of the 20th century and a seminal influence on others, including Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck.”

Schreker’s death was hastened by the rising Nazi movement hounding him as a “degenerate artist,” and after the war he was forgotten. This Bard Soundscape Festival production was the shockingly belated American premiere. Botstein conducted Schreker’s complex late Romantic score masterfully. The American Symphony Orchestra clearly loved performing this music and sounded magnificent throughout.

‘Le Grand Macabre’

A survivor of the Shoah, Hungarian composer György Ligeti died only four years ago, in 2006, but he is already recognized as one of the greats. This, his only opera, a manic meditation on life on the edge of death, was composed in 1977 (and revised in 1996). It is frequently performed in Europe, but had to wait for Alan Gilbert, the new music director of the New York Philharmonic, to show — for the first time in New York — that it was possible to mount the opera in a concert hall. The singers were all spectacularly good, and Gilbert managed to get the orchestra fired up to play the music beautifully. A totally sold-out run, for very good reason.

‘Pelléas et Mélisande’

This deeply odd opera, in which Maeterlinck’s murky symbolism is illuminated by Debussy’s almost sentient score, became numinous when conducted by Simon Rattle at the Metropolitan Opera. The score is quicksand for conductors unless they manage to focus the ever-shifting, subtle changes in color that are vital for this music. When properly realized, the music exquisitely depicts the feelings and shifts in the characters’ inner states, while the characters themselves are in a radical state of ignorance. Jonathan Miller’s production wrong-headedly applied some Freudianism, in an attempt to clarify the deliberately ineffable Maeterlinck, but Rattle and the superb cast were so centered in Debussy’s magical musical realm that the ineffable was made manifest anyway. The Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, is to be congratulated once again for bringing more, and different, great conductors to the Met than in recent history.

‘The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse’

After an embarrassing dearth of musical offerings recently, 2010’s Lincoln Center Festival roared back to life, aided by the collaboration of Alan Gilbert. Kudos to him and the orchestra for their committed performances of this composer’s ferocious mid-20th-century modernist works.

Varese was in love with the promise of technology and science. This hyper-self-critical composer wanted his music to “explode in space.” His small oeuvre meant that his complete “explosions” were containable in two concerts, but the music broke all the other boundaries. The terrific, Chicago-based collective, International Contemporary Ensemble, handled most of the more intimate works in the first program. Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic ecstatically traversed the massive orchestral outbursts “Ameriques,” “Arcana” and “Nocturnal” in the second, as well as the pioneering all-percussion “Ionisation.”

‘L’Incoronazione di Poppea’

Any production of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1643 opera is worthwhile, but Juilliard’s amazing performance by students from their new Historical Performance program — performed on period instruments and idiomatically conducted by Harry Bicket — was simply overwhelming. A lusty “celebration” of the depravity of Nero’s Rome, this astonishing work, from the very beginnings of the operatic form, follows the sexual and political intrigues as Nero propels Poppea toward coronation. Their concluding love duet, one of the most beautiful in the history of opera, is all the more poignant for the audience, knowing that Nero will murder Poppea within the year. With only minor exceptions, this was a great, riveting performance.

Raphael Mostel is a composer based in New York City who frequently writes for the Forward. His website is


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