Classical stars deliver standout sets at year-end

Fri Nov 30, 2007 5:33pm EST
 
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By Anastasia Tsioulcas

NEW YORK (Billboard) - A bevy of bright vocal stars have been lighting up the classical landscape as 2007 nears its end.

Leading the way: perennial superstar mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli and her album "Maria," a fascinating and painstakingly researched project that celebrates singer Maria Malibran, the 19th-century Spanish singer who served as a muse to a generation of bel canto composers. The album includes eight world premiere recordings from such composers as Giovanni Pacini and Malibran's father, Manuel Garcia, along with such evergreen picks as "Casta Diva" from Bellini's "Norma."

Bartoli is a longtime favorite among opera fans. What's particularly interesting about this release from a sales standpoint, however, is that "Maria" went to the top of Billboard's Classical chart without Bartoli doing any U.S. touring in support of the release. While it's typical in most other genres for artists to tour behind their albums, the practice is still, surprisingly enough, a rarity among classical and operatic artists.

Following in Bartoli's chart wake (and, as of late, still behind Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon's successful "Duets" album on DG) has been a clutch of promising young artists who are quickly making their presence felt. Among them: 36-year-old German soprano Diana Damrau, whose "Aries di Bravura" (released November 6 on Virgin Classics) encompasses works by Mozart, Salieri and Vincenzo Righini. Not to be left out is the delightful 27-year-old Australian-born soprano Danielle de Niese and her Decca debut disc of Handel arias. For quite a long time, tenors ruled the sales and media roost; could sopranos be the hot tip in 2008?

Speaking of young and on fire, the hottest conductor in classical music, 26-year-old Gustavo Dudamel, is back on the Classical chart with not one, but two, releases: Mahler's Fifth Symphony and Beethoven's Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7. Dudamel and his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra -- the topmost rung of Venezuela's incredible countrywide music education program, or El Sistema, as it is fondly and familiarly known -- just returned from a stunning U.S. tour that wowed audiences and critics alike.

Dudamel's freshness, passion and electric energy have captured the ardor of listeners well outside of traditional classical music circles; this writer can't recall the last time that so many colleagues who specialize in other genres like pop, jazz and world eagerly asked after a classical artist's projects.

That affection is certainly reciprocated; for his part, Dudamel's own musical loves encompass the salsa and merengue he grew up with, along with such classical composers as Shostakovich and Strauss whose work he played as a violinist in El Sistema himself.

The orchestra's members are all players younger than 26, with most of them raised in deep poverty and with the specters of crime and drugs all around them. They play every note (from Bartok to Bernstein) like they mean it in a way that no other orchestra today can match. Many of the great "professional" ensembles across the world today would do well to take lessons from these young Venezuelans.

Reuters/Billboard