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Looking back on a year of great music

Chuang On New Year's Eve, it's fun to take stock of the old year. In my case that can mean looking back on the wonderful concerts I have witnessed. I don't like to call them the best concerts of the year, because certainly there were marvelous performances I didn't get to. But I decided I would come up with my own Top 10. What a pleasant pastime that was, coming up with them. Here they are, in chronological order:

1. March 2008: Remember the Orion Quartet playing on the Slee Beethoven Quartet series, how good they were? The slow movement of the "Serioso," so moving. And the way they ended Op. 132 -- so exciting, bringing the crowd to its feet.

2. March 2008: The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra turned out a tribute to Viennese Late Romanticism that was both beautiful and bittersweet. On one hand you had a glittering performance of the suite from "Der Rosenkavalier." On the other, I can't forget the soprano -- I just looked up her name, Cristina Nassif -- wiping a tear away as she finished singing "Where the Beautiful Trumpets Sound," from Mahler's "Knaben Wunderhorn" songs. That song about a woman whose dead sweetheart comes back as a ghost always makes me cry, and it was a thrill to hear it live and to see that the singer felt the same way.

3. July 2008: That gorgeous Gershwin program at Artpark with the BPO, powerhouse pianist Kevin Cole and those two great singers, Alison Buchanan and Leonard Rowe, singing "Porgy and Bess."

4. August 2008: Russian pianist Alexander Ghindin whipped the sleepy Chautauqua Amphitheatre into a frenzy with the Rachmaninoff Second. People were still talking about it days later.

5. September 2008: I loved, from beginning to end, Harvard pianist and musicologist Robert Levin's weeklong visit to UB. He and his wife, Ya-Fei Chuang, gave a fantastic two-piano and four-hand recital, absolutely superb. That is Ya-Fei Chuang in the picture above. She is a heck of a pianist. But what really sticks with me is Levin's highly improvised take on Mozart's A Major Piano Concerto, K. 488. I just sat through it with my mouth open! Levin's lecture on Mozart improvisation, too, was fascinating and eye-opening.

6. October 2008: The violinist Chee-Yun's sensuous and lovely recital on the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series was the absolute height of charm.

7. A few days later in October: Cabaret pianist Michael Feinstein's concert at UB's Center for the Arts was an unexpected treat. I went not expecting much and came away bowled over -- by his sly sense of humor, his witty playing and his devotion to the Gershwin, Berlin and the rest. So much fun.

8. October was full of great music! Late in the month, pianist Jeremy Denk gave one of the best recitals ever on the Tick series -- which is saying a mouthful -- when he played Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" and Schubert's final sonata on his way to Carnegie Hall. His assured virtuosity and his engaging personal style made this concert a hit with both novices and connoisseurs.

9. I had never heard the Buffalo singing group Vocalis before and their Christmas performance at the Karpeles Manuscript Library was a delight. Such a beautiful setting! Plus they gave out mulled wine at intermission! How often does that happen?

10. Tony Bennett's concert at UB's Center for the Arts to benefit the Ronald McDonald House gave us a memorable glimpse of a consummate showman. He is a pro in the best sense of the word.

Wow, that was fun! If you have any concerts from '08 you remember with special pleasure, I would like to hear about them.

Meanwhile, here's to the Top 10 concerts of 2009. I wonder what will be on next year's list!

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

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