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Our classical hosts share the Best Albums and Experiences of 2023

Ermonela Jaho as Violetta in Verdi's 'La Traviata' at The Metropolitan Opera.
Jonathan Tichler
The Metropolitan Opera
Ermonela Jaho, left, in La Traviata at The Metropolitan Opera

In a year that has brought its fair share of darkness, the world of classical music — in concert and on record — provided a beacon of light and hope. 2023 offered a bumper crop of brilliantly performed, freshly conceived, and richly captured classical music to experience in Philadelphia and beyond. From debuts by astounding up-and-comers to probing performances by seasoned hands, here are a few of our favorites.

Mike Bolton

Album: Michael Spyres, Contra-Tenor

We thrill to virtuosic performances by violinists, pianists and others. What about singers? Tenor Michael Spyres’ technical virtuosity is such that he plays his voice like an emotionally intense instrument. His stratospheric high notes, sepulchral low notes, outrageously difficult vocal jumps, and breathtaking flexibility will thrill you as well. The album’s repertoire concentrates on Baroque and Classical eras, and is filled with delightful arias you’ve never heard before, either.

Experience: Ermonela Jaho in La Traviata at The Met Opera

Soprano Ermonela Jaho started her career in Philadelphia, and is known as one of the most intense artists before the public today. The go-to Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata for well over a decade, she finally brought her acclaimed interpretation to the United States this past January at The Metropolitan Opera. It was worth the wait! The Albanian kunst diva gave an emotionally honest, musically supple performance dedicated to the music and drama. She even brought new life to a simple phrase like, “Oh!” It was breathtaking, and justified her reputation as the best Violetta of the current generation.

Meg Bragle

Album: Hallé Orchestra and Roderick Williams, A Shropshire Lad

Roderick Williams is one of this generation's finest baritones and a generous colleague. As it turns out, he is also a wonderful composer who made orchestral arrangements of many of his favorite songs from 20th century English repertoire. His singing, combined with the Hallé Orchestra under the direction of Sir Mark Elder, is a real gem.

Experience: Haydn Creation at the Carmel Bach Festival, Grete Pedersen

A thrilling opening to her tenure at the Carmel Bach Festival, Grete Pedersen led the Carmel Bach Festival Orchestra, Chorus and soloists in Haydn’s epic Die Schöpfung. Haydn’s musical depiction of the creation story is a touchstone in the repertoire, and this performance reminded me why it is one of the best loved works in the repertoire.

Zev Kane

Album: Der ferne Klang — Orchestral Works & Songs by Franz Schreker

This collection of orchestral music by Franz Schreker is named for his most famous work, the 1912 opera Der ferne Klang. In English, this translates to “The Distant Sound,” and in many respects, the title couldn’t be more apt. Schreker’s shape-shifting harmonies are distinctly hard to place, at once rooted in the past — the fertile intellectual climate of early 20th-century Vienna that produced his contemporaries Schoenberg, Klimt, and Freud — and pointing to still-to-be-visited future, where forceful tonality and ethereal dissonance live in peaceful coexistence. The sure-handed conductor Christoph Eschenbach navigates the Berlin Konzerthaus Orchestra through Schreker’s vast spectrum with skill and daring, guided by curiosity and passion for the vision of this oft-overlooked composer.

Experience: Opening Night at The Philadelphia Orchestra

The Philadelphia Orchestra began its 124th season in a haze of uncertainty, with the musicians’ union and management in the midst of a tense, months-long contract negotiation. On opening night, however, not even a grace note of ambiguity could be heard in Verizon Hall. Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra delivered a performance of singular assuredness and drive, a cri de coeur for the unique qualities that makes this institution so special. In the concert’s first half, Yo-Yo Ma, classical music’s ultimate diplomat, brought melting poignancy to Shostakovich’s bleak, politically-charged First Cello Concerto. Equal charisma radiated from the performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances that followed; 82 years after the Orchestra premiered it under Eugene Ormandy, the piece remains perfectly form-fit to the group’s gushing virtuosity, a showcase for its white-hot complement of principal winds and the unrivaled burnish of its strings.

Mark Pinto

Album: Michelle Cann, Revival

The revival of interest in Florence Price’s music has been truly impressive, and well-deserved. Surely her piano works can find no more sympathetic interpreter than Michelle Cann, Eleanor Sokoloff Chair in Piano Studies at the Curtis Institute. Her passionate, soulful, and deeply felt performances on this recording elucidate the extraordinary craftsmanship, emotional intensity, and distillation of the African American experience that Price imbued in these works.

Experience: John Williams’ Film Night with the Boston Pops

On a clear August evening, my wife and I shared the lawn just outside the Music Shed at Tanglewood, in Lenox, Mass., with 17,000 other picnicking concertgoers — easily the largest crowd we’ve ever been with for an orchestra concert. Many in the crowd wore apparel emblazoned with “Music by John Williams” and other references to his famous scores; they were primed. What impressed me the most was the love and rock-star treatment these folks gave to the 91-year-old Williams, expressed in the whistles, cheers, extended applause, and general roars of appreciation that followed each of the works he conducted.

John T.K. Scherch

Album: Yvonne Lam, Watch Over Us

Violinist Yvonne Lam’s excellent new record is a crossover (my designation, not hers) in which none of the quality is stripped away in order to reach multiple audiences. For those more accustomed to classical music, it’s modern while being neither harsh nor derivative, and for those coming from elsewhere, it’s not far removed from a collection of experimental electronic pop. It’s a great example of where modern classical music and the indie sphere can meet (and should more often), but the venue is a tent, not a silo — no initiation required.

Experience: Opera Philadelphia, 10 Days in a Madhouse

An ideal new opera experience: my wife and I park our bikes around the corner, say hi to the composer (Rene Orth) on the way in, the intimate house is packed, and the show opens with a blast of music that some audiences surely believe has no business in an opera house. But it perfectly fits the context of the story, which still has modern resonance after more than a century. It’s verismo, but the reality depends on any one character’s perspective — kind of like how reality is presented today.

Dave Tarantino

Album: Orchestre Symphonique De Montréal and Rafael Payare, Mahler Symphony no. 5

There are hundreds of commercially available recordings of Mahler’s 5th Symphony. However, this album found a way to bring depth and clarity to this work that I have not heard in quite some time. It’s an exciting performance, and indicative of a new era for this orchestra. It’s definitely a recording worth listening to in one sitting all the way through.

Experience: Dalia Stasevska conducts Sibelius' Symphony no. 5, Verizon Hall

This was one of the most emotional performances I have been to in several years. The Philadelphia Orchestra connected with conductor Dalia Stasevska on a deep level. They truly followed her every move of the baton and she was able to get a distinct depth to the sound. The breathtaking ending to Sibelius’s 5th Symphony sent goosebumps down my spine.

Melinda Whiting

Album: The Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet: The Complete Columbia Album Collection

In the WRTI music library, there’s a shelf where new releases live for a few weeks before joining the main stacks. Recently I was startled to spot a big box from CBS/Sony there — a treasure of musical memory. In the 1950s and ‘60s, when The Philadelphia Orchestra was rapidly becoming the world’s most recorded orchestra, its first-chair woodwind players were as celebrated as its lush string section. They formed a quintet, and over two decades recorded a broad expanse of the wind quintet repertoire, from Mozart to Nielsen to Hindemith to Barber. For decades these were the only recordings of some of this music. Sadly, with the advent of CDs, when classic orchestral performances were reissued by the hundreds, most of the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet’s output languished in the vaults. Now the whole corpus is back for the enjoyment of fans of woodwind chamber music.

Experience: Opening Night at The Philadelphia Orchestra

Like many who adore live music, I felt an immediate sense of loss in March 2020. All of a sudden, what had been lifeblood was fraught with perceived danger. Though artists found ways to make music online, it was a long time before audiences were allowed to share their space — to feel the full electricity of communion with music made in the moment. Slowly this prohibition eased and audiences returned. But it wasn’t until Sept. 28 of this year that I felt the surge of excitement of a major musical event, a packed hall, and everyone primed with anticipation of a communal experience. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s opening night offered all this plus a transcendent performance: a sparking fanfare from Philadelphia’s own Jennifer Higdon, rendered with delight by an orchestra peppered with her personal friends. Yo-Yo Ma was back to share an eloquent Shostakovich concerto. And there was impassioned Rachmaninoff, his Symphonic Dances written especially for an earlier generation of this storied ensemble. Live music had well and truly returned, and restored us all.