It’s the time of year to look back on the highlights of the 2012 musical season. There were quite a few, actually, an astonishing number for a state the size of Maine. But as they say, Maine is the place where talented New Yorkers go when they graduate.

We’ll start out with the biggest surprises. First prize goes to a magnificent rendition of Mahler’s Third Symphony by the combined forces of the Portland Youth Symphony, the Southern Maine Symphony Orchestra, the women of the University of Southern Maine Chorale, the Southern Maine Children’s Choir and mezzo-soprano Teresa Herold, all under the direction of Robert Lehmann. 

Normally, one would be gratified by a largely student orchestra merely getting though this massive work, which lasts about 100 minutes without interruption. This performance, however, was not only professional but also moving emotionally, especially the sixth movement, “What Love Tells Me.”

Hearing old war horses become colts again is always surprising. But pianist Andrew Russo and the Portland Symphony Orchestra, while revealing never-before-heard beauties, made the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 sound positively modern, emphasizing the ferocity that the composer’s mentors so deplored.

The same freshness of approach graced the acclaimed PORTopera production of “Madama Butterfly,” in which artistic director Donna Vaughn dared to portray Cio-Cio San as anything but a victim. Typical was an unusually long break in the action while the heroine waits all night for Pinkerton, her rigid pose supported only by the orchestra and her steadfastness making her the only noble character in the opera (except perhaps for Sharpless, who should have declared his love a lot sooner).

A brand new opera, “The Summer King” by Daniel Sonenberg — composer in residence at USM — was previewed during the Back Cove Festival of Contemporary Music with four well-written and melodic arias. The opera is based on the tragic life of Josh Gibson, a catcher and home-run king of the Negro Leagues who might, if not for alcohol and bouts of madness, have been the first black player to join Major League Baseball. I hope soon to see the entire opera.

There were many striking performances of little-heard contemporary music which, to this listener at least, made it thoroughly enjoyable as well as thought-provoking.

The first that comes to mind is the DaPonte String Quartet’s interpretation of Berg’s “Lyric Suite,” in which the 12-tone method proves ideally suited to painting images, from domestic bliss through children’s games to nightmares.

Another was Hindemuth’s “The Death of Death” at the Portland Chamber Music Festival, and a third was percussionist Evelyn Glennie’s performance of Askell Masson’s 1982 Konzertstuck for Snare Drum and Orchestra. Most people in the audience were unaware that they were listening to 12-tone music, being too hypnotized by the speed, volume and incredible polyrhythmic playing of Dame Evelyn. 

And we can’t leave out the world premiere, at the Salt Bay Chamberfest, of Roger Zare’s “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” inspired by Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.

One particular vocal group, the Vox Nova Chamber Choir, stands out in memory for its amazing performance of “Four Poems by Garcia Lorca” by  Finnish composer  Einojuhani Rautavaara. That was at Bowdoin College’s Studzinsky Recital Hall, where there was also some great Bartok played during the Bowdoin International Music Festival.

The most memorable soloist was pianist Imogen Cooper, who came to Merrill Auditorium under the auspices of Portland Ovations.

I wondered what made her performances of Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, Chopin and Beethoven so mesmerizing, and settled on “richness.” Everything she played, from a chord to a cadenza, seemed to have a full orchestra behind it, while the inner voices wove some sort of magic carpet.

Here’s hoping 2013 will be even better.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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