Best of the decade: Classical music

HIGH NOTE: Juan Diego Flórez.
HIGH NOTE: Juan Diego Flórez. (Karin Cooper - Karin Cooper)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Anne Midgette
Sunday, December 27, 2009

Digital revolution. It was the catchphrase of the 2000s, and it affected classical music as much as any other medium. Downloads brought the classical recording industry to its knees and rendered the standard format of the $25 CD an endangered species by decade's end. But downloads also led to a wider consumption of classical music. Artists found that there was less advantage to an affiliation with a major label, and went out and made recordings on their own -- from classical stars such as violinist Gil Shaham to the pianist Simone Dinnerstein and other free agents. Institutions learned to sell tickets on their Web sites, and the Metropolitan Opera broke ground with its live HD broadcasts, a new way to bring high-class classical music to a wider audience. And while YouTube created a symphony orchestra, its real service lay in making a treasure-trove of great recordings available to a young audience.

The best

1. A new downloading service from Apple called iTunes, introduced in 2001, was at the forefront of the digital revolution and dealt one of several death-blows to the recording industry. One casualty: Tower Records, 1960-2006. R.I.P.

2. The composers' collective Bang on a Can morphed from outsiders to leaders in the field, setting the tone for a new generation of "alt-classical" musicians who find it perfectly normal to mingle rock, pop, world music and electronica with so-called classical influences.

3. Peter Gelb arrived at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006, and, love him or hate him, the general manager created a buzz around the house that had been absent for too long, particularly with live opera broadcasts to movie theaters around the world.

4. Venezuelan Wunderkind conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had musicians and audiences eating out of his hand with his talent, charisma and symbolism of hope for the future.

5. "On the Transmigration of Souls" wasn't his best piece, but this 9/11 commemoration won John Adams the Pulitzer Prize and cemented his place as the decade's reigning contemporary American composer, whose activities include: curating new-music festivals, writing a memoir and creating much-discussed works such as the opera "Doctor Atomic."

6. Recessions didn't stop the construction of fancy new concert halls: Miami's Adrienne Arsht Center (2006), Segerstrom Hall (2006) in Orange County, Calif., Dallas's Winspear Opera House (2009), Philadelphia's Kimmel Center (2001), and, best of all, Frank Gehry's 2003 Fisher Center at Bard College and Disney Hall in Los Angeles.

7. Almost 40 years after his right hand was incapacitated by focal dystonia, the pianist Leon Fleisher gave a two-handed recital at Carnegie Hall in 2003.

8. The tenor Juan Diego Flórez and soprano Anna Netrebko were among the bright lights of an opera world that was left dimmer, or less glitzy, by the death of Luciano Pavarotti in 2007.

9. In 2001, the latest edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians appeared, 29 volumes strong. In 2005, Richard Taruskin brought out his staggering, brilliant, opinionated Oxford History of Western Music.

10. Germany's guard changed when Simon Rattle became leader of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002, and Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier took control of the festival of their great-grandfather Richard Wagner in Bayreuth in 2008.

The worst

Opera improved on its glitz factor thanks to HD broadcasts and tabloid publicity, but lost sight of its artistry. Administrators and critics fostered the wholly erroneous notions that singers of the past couldn't act and singers today could; while the jet-set demands of the international lifestyle fostered hothouse careers: the next great hope comes along, wins acclaim, oversings and fades from sight. The tenor Rolando Villazón became a poster boy for opera in the 2000s: not, alas, for his huge talent, but for singing his voice to shreds.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company