Favorite Performances of All Time

As some of you know from reading a previous blog, I keep track of every concert and opera that I go to in a spreadsheet. I have information going back to about 1989. My temptation in picking my favorite performances of all time was to go back to look at the spreadsheet to jog my memory. Then I thought that would be cheating. After all, if it doesn’t pop into my head it couldn’t have been that good right?

So here they are off the top of my head (with performance details added after peeking at my spreadsheet) in no particular order…

Le Sacre du Printemps – Igor Stravinsky
London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican – London
Riccardo Chailly, 23 March 2000

At age 30 I had never heard this piece before. I knew the lore behind the riotous premiere of the work but had never heard the piece. Well, I was blown away. The front row of the balcony at the Barbican put me pretty close to the LSO and it was stunning. Also heard Salonen and Cleveland do it at Severance Hall in 2004 to similar effect.

The Dream of Gerontius – Edward Elgar
Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Opera House – Munich
Zubin Mehta, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Dennis O’Neill, Rene Pape, 10 June 2002

This performance was so spot on it was amazing. Despite the German “t” at the end of words like “god” and “lord”, the chorus was muscular and beautiful all at the same time. The soloists were also wonderful, Rene Pape was filling in for Thomas Quasthoff–I was disappointed that TQ wasn’t going to be there until RP opened his mouth. What a voice. The brilliance of this performance was reinforced when I heard a sloppy, lackluster performance by the NSO here in DC later that same year.

Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand) – Gustav Mahler
Minnesota Orchestra/Gothenberg Orchestra, Midsummer Festival – Bloomington, MN
Neeme Jarvi, June 1988

This performance got terrible reviews (“Heat Deals Death Blow to Mahler”) but it was incredible for me because I was in the mammoth chorus. It was held outside in a giant tent as part of the short lived Midsummer Festival. Too bad about the bad acoustics and heat, everything else was right – Jarvi, two orchestras, soloists and choruses from Sweden and Minnesota.

Symphony No. 11 (The Year 1905) – Dimitri Shostokovich
Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestra Hall – Minneapolis
Leonard Slatkin, 27 October 1990 (Hat tip to Spartacus for providing correct conductor)

One of many great nights at Orchestra Hall, but this night was special. The playing was wonderful and the place was packed. The audience was not only well behaved, but it was one of those nights where everything just feels electric–as if the entire audience was holding its breath.

Tannhauser – Richard Wagner
Metropolitan Opera, New York
Mark Elder, Deborah Voigt, Michelle De Young, Thomas Hampson, 26 November 2004
Two years earlier I went to Vienna to hear Deborah Voigt sing both soprano roles in Tannhasuer but she cancelled. Of course the Vienna performance was still good even without her, in fact it was only a shade or two less fabulous than this Met performance which was a sonic delight.

Macbeth – Giuseppe Verdi
Deutsche Staatsoper, Unter den Linden – Berlin
8 June 2002

I don’t remember who sang in this, I don’t remember who conducted…all I remember is that Lady Macbeth sang the s**t out of that role. Her voice was beautiful and powerful. The production was very abstract and she looked a bit like she was wearing one of Phyllis Diller’s feathery hats from the 60s but it was a great performance. There was a kind of runway/catwalk that followed the outer rim of the orchestra pit so Lady Macbeth was all that much closer to the audience.

War Requiem – Benjamin Britten
Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestra Hall – Minneapolis
Robert Shaw, 13 March 1998

Powerful, well-sung performance. Although I love Britten, I had a hard time warming up this work in recordings, but in person it all makes wonderful sense. The interplay of the various ensembles and texts is quite moving. One of the fun things about this performance came at the end when the choristers took their bows standing in the two aisles on the main floor. This made the usual “standing evacuation” that takes place at the front of the house during the applause impossible.

Symphony No. 2 – Gustav Mahler
Cleveland Orchestra, Severance Hall – Cleveland
Jaha Ling, 16 March 2002

I have heard this piece in concert about five times and this was definitely the best of them. One of the soloists was a little hard to hear but it didn’t diminish the power of the performance by the stunning Cleveland Orchestra in what has to be one of the most beautiful halls in America.

Holidays Symphony – Charles Ives
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Royal Albert Hall – London
Libor Pesek, 29 July 1992

This is another of those pieces that isn’t done justice on record. To hear this crazy work in person is a little mind blowing. At one point a second conductor rises from the orchestra to try and manage an orchestra within the orchestra that is playing something totally different like two separate marching bands bump coming down the same street destined for a head on collision. With Dvorak Symphony No. 9 (From the New World) and the Stars and Stripes Forever on the program, there was also a certain pride in being an American in London that night.

Rhapsody for Orchestra – Yuzo Toyama
Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestra Hall – Minneapolis
Eiji Oue, 13 May 1999

The controversial Oue at his best. Flashy, fast, and loud. This piece opened a concert and the response from the audience was so enthusiastic I seem to remember they actually repeated the piece. But to be truthful, I can’t remember if they really did repeat it or if it was just my imagination. I know I wanted them to repeat it, but I no longer remember what really happened.

Symphony No. 7 – Beethoven
Honolulu Symphony, Blaisdell Center – Honolulu
Eiji Oue, 1996 or 1997

I know Oue has his critics, and I am no fan, but this performance was truly engrossing. No doubt some would quarrel with his extremes of dynamics–especially the pianissimo–but score be damned, it was enjoyable.

4 thoughts on “Favorite Performances of All Time

  1. Drew80 June 30, 2007 / 2:35 pm

    Interesting list, Thomas.You really seem to get around!I do not believe that I have heard very many great performances. In fact, sometimes I think that I have never neard ANY great performances.Oddly, many of the finest performances I have heard were from conductors I did not necessarily expect much from, some good examples being Gunther Herbig and Manfred Honeck.However, I have never been disappointed after hearing Riccardo Chailly or Ivan Fischer or Mariss Jansons.


  2. Thomas June 30, 2007 / 10:36 pm

    For me great performances are not always perfect performances and can often sneak up on you. I think it often has to do with expectations as you say in your comment. I remember how much I should have loved Fleming in Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden but didn’t. Since then I have grown positively hostile toward her performances. But that is the story for another blog.And here is an unexpected one for you. A few years ago my partner and I drove to West Virginia to hear Voigt sing Strauss’ Four Last Songs. She was wonderful, but what really surprised me was how much I enjoyed the rest of the concert. The orchestra played really well and their version of Sibelius #2 was icing on an already fabulous Deborah Voigt cake.


  3. spartacus July 29, 2007 / 10:30 pm

    Your info was a little off on the Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 – but after 17 years I can understand a little slip. Anyway, the exact information is below. Slatkin was the conductor for #11 – not a conductor I particularly like. Skrowaczewski and Shostakovich – now that is a good combination. I’ve really come to like his conducting in recent years. He just keeps going and going.10/24-27/90Leonard Slatkin, conductorJohn Browning, PianoBarber: Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17Ravel: Piano concerto for the left handShostakovich: Symphony No. 11 “The Year 1905”11/13-16/91Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, ConductorImogen Cooper, PianoWagner: Overture and Venusberg Music, from “Tannhauser”Ravel: Piano Concerto in G MajorShostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in f minor, Op. 10


  4. Thomas July 30, 2007 / 9:12 am

    Thanks for the correction Spartacus. I’m not a huge Slatkin fan either which is probably why I didn’t equate this great performance with him…


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