Atlanta’s classical and contemporary music scene was marked in 2011 by a number of memorable events. If obliged to list a Top 5 among them, here’s what I’d choose.
1. The biggest game-changer of the year was not a performance. On February 16, the Atlanta Opera announced that it had received a staggering $9 million bequest from the late Barbara Stewart, a longtime opera board member who died in December 2010. It was the largest gift in the company’s history, with half of it designated in Stewart’s will to grow the permanent endowment. Stewart also left $1.5 million each to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the High Museum of Art. It’s a sign that Atlanta philanthropy is moving in the right direction.
2. Although pundits focused on the dance and staging, Kaija Saariaho’s carefully crafted ballet score “Maá” would have been a major event had Sonic Generator simply performed it as an unadorned concert, without the trappings. But as only the third fully mounted production ever of the Finnish composer’s 1991 ballet, this brainchild of Sonic Generator’s Tom Sherwood was also a landmark of multidisciplinary cooperation among Atlanta-based artists, performed on a transformed Symphony Hall stage. Sonic Generator, innovative choreographer Lauri Stallings and her dance company gloATL, conductor Robert Spano, Jason Freeman and his music technology students at Georgia Tech, and Symphony Hall’s astute stage technicians all contributed to a memorable production.
3. Another landmark performance was Sonic Generator’s SonicPalooza in June. Performed in the surprisingly music-friendly Galleria of the Woodruff Arts Center, this 10-hour marathon was for the city a contemporary-music event unmatched in scope since the late 1980s.
4. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s semi-staged production of “Madama Butterfly,” led by Music Director Robert Spano, closed the 2010-11 subscription season with a bang in June. It was arguably the best overall of the orchestra’s concerts that season, even if a handful of patrons complain that the “theater of a concert” concept is neither pure concert nor full opera. It is, however, a growing trend.
5. On the solo recital side of things, the local debut by French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Spivey Hall in May captured critical top billing. The program centered on the strangely exotic late piano works of Franz Liszt, with forays into Richard Wagner, Alban Berg and Alexander Scriabin thrown in. It was a bold programming move by Aimard and Spivey Hall, which ArtsCriticATL co-founder and music critic Pierre Ruhe called “a mind- and aesthetic-bending search for truth and spirituality.”