Classical music’s top ten highs and lows of 2012

Shake it up, baby: It was a year of change for classical music institutions in Washington. Francesca Zambello was named artistic director of the Washington National Opera (finally!); Neale Perl was nudged out of his post at the head of the Washington Performing Arts Society. Leon Major retired from the University of Maryland’s Opera Studio, which he made a quiet powerhouse of interesting work. Gerald Perman turned over the helm of his Vocal Arts D.C. to Peter Russell, and Norman Scribner made way for Scott Tucker at the Choral Arts Society — another step in an ongoing sea change in Washington’s choral landscape.

Opening the Cage: Washington marked the centennial of John Cage’s birth in September with a citywide festival that gave eager audiences an intensive, even unprecedented dose of his music, demonstrating that even if you don’t care for Cage, there’s a lot more to his music than 4’33” of silence.

(Courtesy of Cornell University Glee Club) - Scott Tucker, new music director of the Choral Arts Society.

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The rise of new music: It’s not just the Cage festival; formerly conservative Washington is increasingly making room for contemporary music. Highlights included the Arditti Quartet at the Library of Congress in April; the International Contemporary Ensemble playing Michel van der Aa in the Phillips Collection’s living composers series in May; So Percussion’s scintillating November concert in the Atlas’s excellent new music series; and the Maryland Opera Studio’s festival of Dominick Argento. Add groups such as the Verge Ensemble, the 21st Century Consort (which did some wonderful programming this year), and the National Gallery ensembles; throw in a Kennedy Center Fortas commission such as David Lang’s “Love Fail” (November); and you’re looking at an actual contemporary scene, with something for every taste.

Peaks of tradition: But let’s not slam tradition; this year also offered “old music” at its best. Herbert Blomstedt once again showed how to illuminate traditional repertory playing Beethoven and Strauss at the NSO in February. At the University of Maryland in May, students memorized the entire score of Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” so that they could move around the stage while (beautifully) playing the music. The Takacs Quartet offered a quietly stunning evening of Schubert, Britten and Shostakovich at the Library of Congress in November; Yefim Bronfman shone at Strathmore in March. And the National Symphony Orchestra’s “Fidelio,” during its Vienna-Prague-Budapest festival, was one of its finest performances of the year.

Valleys of shadow: The worst disappointments come from artists who can do and have done better. Vadim Repin offered a bizarrely under-inspired performance at Strathmore in March; Natalie Stutzmann presented subpar singing in the “Wesendonck-Lieder” (Wagner) with the NSO in October. The soprano Angela Gheorghiu offered a short and nerve-wracked concert for the WNO in March. The Castleton Festival in Virginia, which started so well, now seems to have no idea what it wants to be, as evidenced by an odd season including a subpar “A Little Night Music” in July. A special Bronx cheer to the well-meaning Decca commemorative box set of the Solti “Ring,” which includes the complete libretti and book by John Culshaw, but printed in such tiny type as to make them barely readable.

On the record: Some of the year’s standout recordings included Jeremy Denk’s Nonesuch debut disk that paired the Ligeti etudes with Beethoven’s Op. 111; Joyce DiDonato’s commanding “Drama Queens,” a compendium of regal 17th- and 18th-century repertoire on Virgin; Andras Schiff’s revisiting of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” for ECM; Isabelle Faust’s completion of the Bach sonatas and partitas on Harmonia Mundi; and Derek Bermel’s engaging “Canzonas Americanas” on the label New Amsterdam Records, which was hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy in October and now needs all the help it can get.

Prize song: Kevin Puts won the Pulitzer Prize for his opera “Silent Night,” which had its premiere at the Minnesota Opera and comes to Philadelphia in February. The $100,000 Grawemeyer Award went to Michel van der Aa for his cello concerto cum film/theater project “Up-close.”

A century of modernism: We’re now celebrating centen­nials of works that some still regard as “new.” This year saw the 100th anniversaries of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” (which Eighth Blackbird memorably performed at the Terrace Theater in April), and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (which the Baltimore Symphony played in June).

In memoriam: Classical music lost some giants this year. The baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose name was synonymous with German art song for a couple of generations of Americans, died in May; in November, we lost the 103-year-old composer Elliott Carter, who resolutely danced to the beat — or multiple beats — of his own drummer. And Evelyn Lear, who after a long career became a beloved Washington-based teacher, mentor, and eternal diva, passed away in July.

Spirit of dis-chord: Orchestral labor disputes and lockouts were the saddest trend of the early 2012-13 season. Stalemates in contract talks canceled concerts by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra through December; the Indianapolis Symphony, after a couple of weeks of silence, negotiated a temporary truce that will keep them playing through February; the Atlanta Symphony musicians, after weeks of lockout, reluctantly accepted huge cuts in salary and season to take place over the next two years. Bad management, or a sign that orchestras are growing too expensive for their dwindling audiences to support? The NSO, supported by the Kennedy Center, has no such worries — instead, it had its first tour to South America in decades.

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