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The best classical music of the year spoke straight to our hearts. 

1999 Critics Choice: Playing to the Heartstrings

The highest goal of a classical musician, especially as we approach a new era, is to dissolve the audience's preconceptions and speak straight to our hearts. Richard Stoltzman's Dec. 1 performance for Virginia Commonwealth University's Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Concert series represented the best of what a classical musician can aspire to do. His offering was not so much a traditional recitation, but a panoramic view of the full spectrum of tone colors and percussionlike qualities the clarinet can produce. No one communicates with an audience as jovially as Stoltzman; his animated delivery even encouraged listeners to laugh and murmur expressions of delight during the pieces. A brilliant interpreter of contemporary music, Stoltzman utterly entranced us with his unexpected encore, a transcription of Gershwin's melancholy "Second Prelude." The clarinet seemed to melt away; we were convinced he was singing.

Oddly, another of the year's best performances was delivered by a clarinetist. As part of the "Welcome Summer Recital Series" at St. James's Episcopal Church on June 16, Larry Combs, principal clarinet with the Chicago Symphony, excelled in Debussy's "Premiere Rhapsodie for Clarinet and Piano." On June 9, under the banner of the same concert series, harpsichordist Robert Edward Smith gave Richmonders a rare opportunity to hear electric, almost electronic bursts of sound from this underused instrument. After this concert, I was tempted to throw out all of my piano recordings of Bach and replace them with harpsichord renditions.

The commanding Guarneri String Quartet performed its last concert in Richmond with all of its original members on Oct. 2 as part of VCU's Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Concert series. After this season, cellist David Soyer will not travel outside of the Northeast. The Guarneri deserves its patina of venerability — listening to its interpretations is like downloading a textbook on chamber music playing. This goodbye was a historic concert, not to be missed.

But sorry, Guarneri, as much as we love and will miss you, the best performance by a string quartet this year was delivered by the St. Petersburg String Quartet March 30 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The robust bow technique of these artists set the walls to vibrating. Their rendition of the Shostakovich's "Quartet No. 2" was mind-alerting.

Ruth Laredo's presence on the Richmond classical scene is a treasure. One of the grand-dames of the piano, Laredo joined with members of the Shanghai Quartet in a sparkling, intimate version of Mozart's Piano Concerto, K.449 at the Modlin Summer Music series at the University of Richmond June 15.

The best idea for classical music programming came from pianist John O'Conor, who performed works by great pianist/composers and their students down through the ages, connecting the music of Hadyn all the way to the 20th century, ending in an encore composed by one of O'Conor's own teachers. For the price of a movie and popcorn, a minicourse in the history of Western art music was had Feb. 6 at VCU's Mary Anne Rennolds
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