As we near the end of 2020 I thought it would be only fair to bring back some memories of a few live concerts that took place during the first three months of the year. I believe I would have included these in a BEST OF YEAR list of mine even if we had had a normal 2020. So, here we go with our list of 2020 favorites:

For an evening of French and Russian music on January 22, Miami’s Knight Concert Hall proved acoustically bright and pleasing. French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the soloist in Saint-Saëns’s Fifth Piano Concerto, nicknamed ‘Egyptian’ because of its exotic 1896 brushes with what passed in Paris as Near Eastern music.

With Juanjo Mena as the perfect partner, Thibaudet immersed himself in the concerto, with nonpareil Gallic elegance and dazzling virtuosity, eliciting a well-earned ovation. For the second half, Mena offered Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in Ravel’s 1922 orchestration, accompanied by the New World Symphony’s own commissioned animated film — now humorous, now naïve, now macabre — which reflects how Mussorgsky was inspired by the paintings of his friend, Viktor Hartmann.

The NWS strings delivered perfect sweet-tart Slavic moments when called upon, the woodwinds whimsically excelled and the brass produced an unabashedly bright tone that was ideal. All along the young-yet-insightful members of the orchestra gave a gutsy, rousingly energetic reading that both Mussorgsky (and Ravel) would have loved.

The Immaculata Chamber Players included in their January 26 concert at their home base in Cincinnati’s Mt. Adams as good a reading of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Quartet no.2, aka The Joke, as this listener remembers. It took more than just a little courage to program Anton Webern’s impenetrable Five Pieces for String Quartet in between Haydn and Schoenberg, but the audaciously daring group took on Webern’s emphatically atonal set of miniatures playing them with respect and precision. After intermission the Immaculata musicians took us into a renewed acquaintance with Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, here given in its original chamber orchestration for a string sextet.

Throughout the entire program the eight participating musicians played with technical prowess and intense commitment to the music, embracing it with a cool brain and a warm heart, just the way Haydn, Webern, and Schoenberg would have wanted.

Over two hundred years have gone by, and this year being the one when we celebrate Beethoven’s 250th Happy Birthday, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra stepped up to honor the Master with a two-part, two-day Beethoven Fest.

The CSO gave as an opening an exquisite rendition of the Pastoral Symphony, which was followed by Dorothea Röschmann’s memorably extraordinary singing of Beethoven’s concert aria Ah! Perfido. Pianist Inon Barnatan gave a noble reading of the Piano Concerto no. 4 before the Beethoven-saturated audience and artists took a break. At the top of the second half Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 received yet another A+ delivery from the CSO musicians, led by the indefatigable Louis Langrée. The concert continued well into the early evening with the May Festival Chorus clamoring to the Heavens in a shattering delivery of the Sanctus from the Mass in C. The finale was, as in 1808, Beethoven’s seed for what would eventually become the final movement of his Ninth: the Choral Fantasy, with all the evening soloists and the May Festival Chorus playing up a storm and singing for all their worth the words of the work’s unknown poet: “Welcome the gift of Art, all you blessed souls! When love and strength combine the grace of God is yours to have!”

Rafael de Acha