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Monday, Jan. 3, 2000

It's not an easy trick to pick one out of 108 for best of year


It is time once again to look back over some of the most significant events of the previous year, 1999.

I reviewed 108 concerts during the last 12 months, more performances than the typical music lover attends in one year. Still it is simply not possible to hear more than a few of the 4,000 or so performances of symphonic music offered every year in the capital region.

My initial list included all those which struck me as being particularly memorable -- 22 serious contenders. The makeup of this list has changed during the past decade in an important way, a testimony to Japan's musical maturity: Virtually all the best performances 10 years ago were given by foreign artists and ensembles visiting from abroad. Now this is no longer true.

Here in my judgment are the 10 most outstanding performances I heard, in alphabetical order. Any of them could be seriously considered for best concert of the year.

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Ken'ichiro Kobayashi doubled all of the winds for "Ma Vlast" and essayed a comfortable, rounded sonority from the full orchestra. The distant atmosphere of the opening was splendid with the barely heard playing of the eight horns. Proceeding smoothly and surely from one historical episode to the next, Kobayashi wove a spell.

Montreal Symphony Orchestra

Despite the rigors of the road, Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra produced that special sound for which they are renowned. Dutoit paid particular attention to in Dvorak's Symphony "From the New World." The precision and polish might not have registered on the average listener, but the tautness of the performance made the "New World" sound, well, like new.

National Symphony Orchestra

The National Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin punched out the overture to "Candide" very brightly, in brash American style. Slatkin's big-toned performance of Dvorak's G-major symphony was laced with clear, larger-than-life dynamic increments. Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" was an ear-opener, seeming to take on a new dimension of interest, understanding and insight.

New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra

Seiji Ozawa kept the tempo and excitement flowing, shaping the music like a wizard. The NJP players brought to Gershwin's "American in Paris" an authentic American style. In the Bruckner, Ozawa maintained the primacy of the strings and highlighted the soloists beautifully. No one makes the New Japan Philharmonic sound the way Ozawa does.

NHK Symphony Orchestra

Under Charles Dutoit, the NHK Symphony Orchestra has taken on a new character, new faces, new repertoire and new versatility. The concertos by Stravinsky, Poulenc and Barber were refreshing to hear and intriguing to the mind, and the orchestra sounded relaxed, balanced and comfortable. They seemed to find even more comfort, humor and expressiveness in Prokofiev's Fifth. NHK Symphony Orchestra

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski drew from the NHK Symphony Orchestra some sumptuous playing. Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra proved to be a fascinating composition of angular motives, pungent harmonic progressions and variegated orchestration, with a strong personal voice. The ensemble discipline was exemplary. I cannot remember the NHK sounding so lustrous or the detail work so enchanting.

Saito Kinen Festival Opera

Berlioz's dramatic legend "The Damnation of Faust," Op. 24, was staged as a magnificent opera. Ozawa's selection of soloists was, as always, exemplary. The production made spectacular use of a four-level stage, scrims, screens and optical imagery, not to mention ropes, pulleys and other devices straight out of kabuki, with gnomes, sylphes, salamanders and wills-o'-the-wisp. A feast of music, an enticing spectacle, a night at the opera.

Tokyo Symphony Orchestra

Kazuyoshi Akiyama turned out a definitive performance of Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder." A myriad effects were drawn from the many-hued palette of sounds, insinuating the illusory notion of rainbow music. The unceasing flow of melody and counterpoint and the sonorous cannonades from the choruses were tender and thrilling by turns, giving new meaning to the concept of thunderous climax. The Tokyo Symphony maintained trenchant intonation and tight response to the clear baton work.

Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra

The Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich under David Zinman sounded very clear in a myriad details. Entrances, accentuations and instrumental coloration all seemed calculated to fuel the organic development of the inner musical line. The perfectly judged pianissimos were so compelling they reduced the audience to stillness. The solo and accompaniment were fused together in a composition which, like a great painting, could be appreciated no matter how near or how far one might stand from it.

The best of the best

For the best of the best, I was most struck by Riccardo Muti last spring in his three performances with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Svelte sound and a sunny glow graced the Mozart symphonies, the Schubert and the fertile selection of buoyant beauties from the pen of the waltz king, Johann Strauss. The music was expressive, gracious, focused, intimate and polished -- a great Italian conductor leading great Viennese musicians.

Muti drove Shostakovich's huge jagged rhythms with athletic intensity and resolution. Schumann's C-major symphony was pulsing, glowing and relaxed; the scherzo was held back just enough to seem sparkling and vivacious. The adagio was operatic, emoting in extroverted nuances. Even Mozart's often-performed G-minor symphony seemed fresh to the ear, and the music of Johann Strauss sounded so fresh, so perfectly put together, so joyously (and so perfectly) tossed off, the evening seemed to have hardly started and it was already nine o'clock.

What is it about music?

It's one of the priceless things that enriches life, and makes it beautiful and worthwhile.

The last year of the 1,000-year-old millennium has arrived at last, another musical year filled with the greatest number of great concerts of any city in the world. Enjoy.

E-mail Robert Ryker at ryker@gol.com

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