A few weeks ago, Michael Laws penned a depressing, tatty little column in the Sunday Star-Times lambasting what he described as the arts fraternity.

Opera was dismissed as "loathsome caterwauling performed by fat freaks" while those who enjoy classical music were summed up as "having a taste for dead composers and fussy fingering". According to Laws, we all admire musicians "for the same reason that groupies grope rock stars".

If it wasn't so downright silly, there would be cause for concern. And, if one was to worry, Auckland's 2004 concert season has furnished ample evidence as to why we should dismiss Laws' ravings as utter balderdash.

The Auckland Philharmonia once again provided the core of the city's music-making this year, setting off with the magnificent Angela Brown in Strauss and Wagner and signing off this weekend with its popular Not a Silent Night concerts.

In between, the high points included Reger's little-heard Serenade Opus 95, conducted by Werner Andreas Albert, and a number of memorable concerts under the batons of Marco Zuccarini and Stephen Smith.

In June, Miguel Harth-Bedoya brought us not one, but two works by Osvaldo Golijov and the Argentinian composer's Three Songs might well have been written for the transcendent soprano of Patricia Wright.

The NZSO opened its year with a drab evening of Schubert but, within 24 hours, made amends with some magnificent Mahler and, a day after that, John Psathas' Piano Concerto, showing the inimitable style that gained the Wellington composer his commission for the Athens Olympics.

The NZSO purse can purchase glittering soloists and we had them in a doe-eyed, sleek-toned Hilary Hahn, as well as soulman Steven Isserlis who made the Dvorak Cello Concerto spring anew from his strings.

Pianist Stephen Hough dished up Saint-Saens with more than one camp twinkle in his fingers and then, a week later, launched his solo recital with 13 rapt minutes in the twilight world of the Alban Berg sonata.

Superstar status was accorded to Lang Lang and Jonathan Lemalu and they justified it. If the Chinese pianist's wilful ways, especially with encores, were not for everyone, Lemalu combined a gorgeous voice, easy platform manner and an occasionally wicked sense of humour that makes one impatient to see him grace the operatic stage in this country.

Chamber Music New Zealand kept us up to date with the best on the international circuit, giving us the Jerusalem and Takacs quartets, not to mention the Vienna Piano Trio, who were also coaxed to include a New Zealand work on the programme.

CMNZ's bravest venture, in April, presented Wellington's stroma ensemble, who mixed Ross Harris, George Crumb and Messiaen, losing nothing in audience numbers and gaining cheers all round. In fact, Harris' At the Edge of Silence and his later Labyrinth for tuba and orchestra, premiered by the NZSO in November, suggest he will deliver a few surprises during his current term as resident composer with the Auckland Philharmonia.

On the local scene, the New Zealand Trio celebrated its new association with the University of Auckland and gave us a succession of New Zealand composers throughout the year, although they have yet to display the assurance with some of the traditional repertoire that they managed for Michael Norris' exhilarating Dirty Pixels.

Michael Laws might be surprised to know that the NBR New Zealand Opera managed a whole season without any "loathsome caterwauling". This year opened with a perky Elixir of Love that deserved more approbation and support than it received, and continued with a riveting Rigoletto. On the debit side there was a misconceived portmanteau Cosi fan Tutte that tested both audience and cast, and a curiously lacklustre Carmen.

In the meantime when can we expect another New Zealand work, capitalising on the 2003 success of Michael Williams' The Prodigal Child?

Mozart's Idomeneo, mounted in July by Auckland Chamber Orchestra and Auckland Opera Studio, around the expansive tenor of Simon O'Neill, showed an initiative the national company could well look to.

Finally, our city would be immeasurably poorer without the smaller ensembles - 175 East's one Auckland concert was cunningly built around "Night of the Mini-scores", a breathless succession of 30-second barbs and beauts.

Auckland Chamber Orchestra played Ives, Haydn and Zagni with bracing commitment in its last two concerts and, in October, Bach Musica reminded us just why we should have the chance to revisit Monteverdi's Vespers every few years.