A classical year: The high notes of 2011 in Northeast Ohio

Cleveland Orchestra
The Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis

Last year was a good year for classical music in Northeast Ohio. Sure, our local institutions faced challenges and in some cases made sacrifices, but they also accomplished a great deal, even as the economy languished. Indeed, with 2011 drawn to a close, it's harder to whittle down the list of highlights than it is to recall problems needing to be addressed. Here are a few of the performances and musical developments colleague Donald Rosenberg and I most enjoyed covering.

Cleveland Orchestra: Severance Hall and Blossom Music Center resounded with great music. Music director Franz Welser-M st concentrated on Mozart, Strauss and Stravinsky, usually with illuminating results, and numerous players took brilliant turns as soloists. Both venues also hosted a cavalcade of musical dignitaries, including violinists Julia Fischer, Nikolaj Znaider and Leonidas Kavakos, pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Yuja Wang, and conductors Ton Koopman, Alan Gilbert, Fabio Luisi and Marin Alsop. Each left a bold impression, and must return. -- Zachary Lewis

Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra: Cleveland's premier training orchestra raised its profile by several notches in 2011, celebrating its 25th anniversary with a special alumni reunion concert, undertaking such major works as Respighi's "Pines of Rome" and Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, presenting a world premiere, and making plans for its first international tour, including visits to Prague in the Czech Republic and Vienna and Salzburg, Austria. Artistically, too, music director James Feddeck said his band of 100-plus teenagers grew by leaps and bounds. -- Z.L.

Miro Quartet: Standards for playing chamber-music are higher than ever these days, as the Miro made evident during its program of works by Haydn, Glass and Brahms in November for the Cleveland Chamber Music Society. Founded at Oberlin College in 1995, with members formerly on the faculty at Kent State University, the ensemble is now faculty string quartet-in-residence at the University of Texas at Austin. Lucky Texas. The Miro's concert here was a festival of refinement, drama and adventure. -- D.R.

Apollo's Fire: What a rewarding year 2011 was for music director Jeannette Sorrell and her Cleveland Baroque Orchestra. Along with local performances of such compelling programs as "Plaine & Saucy: Tunes From the British Isles," "Love and Rage: Opera Fireworks by Handel & Vivaldi" and "Sacrum Mysterium: A Celtic Christmas," the period-instrument musicians made an acclaimed tour of the United States, Canada, Spain, France and Portugal. More enticements are on the way, including Mozart's "The Magic Flute" in March. -- Donald Rosenberg

Dylana Jenson: The story of the remarkable American violinist, who struggled to sustain a concert career after a loaned Guarneri del Gesu was abruptly taken away from her decades ago, came close to home in March, when Jenson played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with CityMusic Cleveland. The performance was one to cherish -- deeply expressive and elegant -- and a sign that we're in for another vibrant experience when she returns in March to team with CityMusic in Brahms' equally beloved Violin Concerto. -- D.R.

Gordon Square: In one of the most encouraging developments of 2011, Cleveland's Gordon Square Arts District emerged as a full-fledged destination for classical music. Musicians in and around the Cleveland Orchestra extended their wildly successful series of performances at the Happy Dog tavern, and the two institutions expanded their popular audience-exchange program. Classical Revolution concerts also kept things hopping, and the neighborhood was featured in a PBS special. Stay tuned for more good news this year. -- Z.L.

"Italian Masterworks": They've been neighbors for decades, but the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Museum of Art collaborated for the first time in the spring, mounting a fascinating series of three concerts at Gartner Auditorium that explored 400 years of Italian music and drew attention to the museum's visual-art collection. It was an experiment that simply must be repeated. No offense to either institution, but "Italian Masterworks" proved that sometimes two heads really can be better than one. -- Z.L.

Les Delices: Debra Nagy's early-music ensemble, which is devoted to works of the French Baroque, continued its rise in Cleveland's musical firmament with a series of pleasurable programs. "Myths & Allegories," filled with selections based on Homer's "The Odyssey," introduced a wonderful young soprano, Clara Rottsolk. Most of the music presented in a second program, "Age of Innocence," was obscure, but oboist Nagy and her period-instrument colleagues made everything sound momentous, even on the most intimate scale. -- D.R.

Opera rarities: Audiences in Northeast Ohio in the fall had the pleasure of encountering three operatic works beyond the standard repertoire. Opera Circle revealed Karol Szymanowski's "King Roger" to be a sumptuous and fantastical creation. The delights of Jules Massenet's "Cendrillon," an enchanting version of the Cinderella story, were delineated by the Cleveland Institute of Music Opera Theater, while the Oberlin Opera Theater savored the mirthful complications in William Bolcom's "A Wedding." -- D.R.

Outreach: Young people received two musical gifts last year, large donations by area philanthropists enabling the Cleveland Orchestra to offer free or discounted tickets The first, by the Maltz Family Foundation, resulted in free tickets for children under 18 to performances at Blossom Music Center. The second, from Sarah and Alexander "Sandy" Cutler, created a more robust student-discount program at Severance Hall. Meanwhile, the orchestra and music director Franz Welser-M st continued appearing at Cleveland-area schools. -- Z.L.

Peter Takacs' Beethoven cycle: One of the greatest challenges a pianist can face is performing all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas. Takacs, a professor at the Oberlin Conservatory, took the challenge a massive step further by recording the entire cycle, which was released in 2011 on Cambria Master Recordings. The performances illuminate Beethoven's unpredictable and breathtaking journey from wizardly Classicist to transcendent risk-taker. The 11-CD set is a supreme achievement for Takacs and a gift to listeners who value artistic profundity. -- D.R.

Touring: The Cleveland Orchestra spent a lot of time in planes and buses in 2011. But was it was time well-spent. Besides strengthening bonds with Miami, the ensemble launched a partnership with Indiana University, took New York's Lincoln Center Festival by storm with Bruckner, and made the most of a snow day in Ann Arbor, Mich., by presenting an impromptu concert at a pizza shop. Perhaps most importantly, it also laid the foundation for a possible residency in Paris. -- Z.L.