The Morning Call
December 31, 2009

Top 10 Lehigh Valley classical performances

By Steven Siegel and Philip A. Metzger , Special to The Morning Call

Every year, after undertaking the onerous task of enjoying some of the Lehigh Valley's rich classical music offerings and reporting on them, we select 10 or so which we recall with particular fondness. We can't attend every concert, and if we had our list might be different. But we hope this list, presenting in chronological order, will evoke your fond memories, and build up anticipation for the coming season.

1. Satori is the Lehigh Valley's chamber music repertory group. This means that it assembles musicians for the particular pieces to be played. As a result, there is plenty of variety in a Satori performance, but never so much as the January opener. The program included Stravinsky's Octet for Winds, Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and Schubert's Octet for Winds and Strings. In fact, these works were complicated enough that Don Spieth, former Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra conductor, was pressed into service as a conductor. Things were indeed together, and beautifully so. (Jan. 16)

2. The Pennsylvania Sinfonia Orchestra's concert titled ''Best of Barber'' might just as well have been called ''Best of the Sinfonia.'' The program opened with Haydn's Symphony No. 88 to which conductor Allan Birney gave a rich, luscious sound that preserved the detail of every note. Carmit Zori was the featured soloist in Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, which simply oozed romance and passion. In between the two full-orchestra works was the Suite for Strings by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, a wonderfully accessible piece of austere beauty. (March 7)

3. Hearing soprano Deborah Voigt sing Broadway melodies at Foy Hall was like watching Brünnhilde take off her armor and step into a nightie. Behind that steely, Wagnerian voice lies surprising tenderness and intimacy. Her recital, titled ''American Songbook'' was the opera diva's interpretation of popular American tunes made famous by Julie Andrews, Barbara Cook and others. Sounding as sweet as Andrews, yet more assertive, Voigt's fiery blasts of vocal power left no doubt that she could, at any time, put the armor back on and go to war. (March 18)

4. What a wild ride it was when violinist Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg gave a fiery performance of Astor Piazzolla's tango-infused ''The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires'' with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. She approached every sensuous glissando and lascivious bump and grind with passion, rocking back and forth, grimacing and grunting. Orpheus may not have a conductor, but in this concert at Lafayette College's Williams Center, there was no question who was in charge. (March 23)

5. Veteran pianist Peter Frankl closed the Muhlenberg College piano series with a program that centered on Robert Schumann's ''Fantaisiestucke'' in which one finds passion, repose, irony, wit and even, perhaps, philosophy. Frankl exhibited a range of expressiveness that was both astonishing and necessary. Haydn, Chopin and Janacek rounded out the program. (April 3)

6. They're not your mother's string quartet, with their electronically amplified instruments and rock-star hairdos. Yet what ETHEL proved at their Williams Center concert is that, wired or not, they are one fine group of musicians. ''Arrival,'' a piece written especially for the quartet by Brazilian composer Marcelo Zarvos, typified their unique sound. Vigorous and charged with energy, it combined bluegrass elements with hints of Celtic tunes and folk material. If Dvorak was to write his own version of ''Orange Blossom Special,'' this is what it might sound like. (Sept. 4)

7. Musikfest is not a venue in which classical music predominates. Yet the twice daily sessions this year from Monday through Friday were an opportunity to explore a variety of chamber music repertoire. And the 10 programs were of the most consistently high quality in recent memory. From fine local ensembles such as the Ravel Trio or the Gabriel Ensemble to the virtuosic spirit of the Bay Street Brass Works (the group's tuba player is not to be believed) and much more, Musikfest set a standard for itself which one hopes it will maintain. (Aug. 4-8)

8. The music of Felix Mendelssohn opened the Chamber Music Society of Bethlehem's season at Foy Hall, as lovingly played as if the spirit of the composer himself was present. At least he was in namesake. The Mendelssohn String Quartet, in a program that also included of works by Bartok and Beethoven, played all with reverence, beautiful phrasing and passion. (Sept. 13)

9. Rarely has a concert opened with such an explosive work as Canadian composer's appropriately named ''Frenergy,'' given its Pennsylvania premiere at Symphony Hall by the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Diane Wittry. In fact, the entire program was explosive, with piano soloist Eduardus Halim proving to be an unexpected master of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto in a thoughtful, finely detailed performance. The program closed with a beefy and full-bodied performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4, in all its solemn majesty. (Nov. 8)

10. Guitarist Eliot Fisk is certainly sui generis -- in a category which he alone occupies. As he demonstrated as soloist with the Pennsylvania Sinfonia, no one plays with more power or energy, or, for that matter, variety of instrumental color. And no one is less afraid to take chances. His performance of Rodrigo's ''Fantasia para un Gentilhombe,'' written for Andres Segovia, was a model of vitality. And in one of several encores, Fisk nearly let one of Bach's cello suites, transcribed of course, run away from him. (Nov. 21)

Philip A. Metzger and Steve Siegel are freelance writers.