23 for ’23: Composers and performers to watch this year

This new class of artists is changing the sound of classical music

Incoming Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Jonathon Heyward outside the Gaillard Center in his hometown of Charleston, S.C. (Gavin McIntyre for The Washington Post)

You’ve heard it all before. Classical music is dead. It’s one of our culture’s most enduring variations on a theme: that classical music is dying, or aging, or rusty or, at the very least, dusty.

It’s irritating but understandable — no art form seems more proud of its past, nor more reticent to show you its “new stuff.” On concert programs, living composers are often tucked in between the dead ones and expected to thrive. On classical radio, they seem to vanish into thin air. And on the national stage, rising classical talents struggle to be heard — no matter how big their voices.

If, like plenty of other people, you’ve ever strained to experience “classical music” as a form of contemporary art, this list may help. Included here (in no particular order) are 23 composers, performers and artists whose music directly engages and eagerly embraces the realities of the world around them. Their music addresses climate change and the natural world; the push and pull of identity; the pain, ecstasy, dizzying speed and quickening evolution of everyday life; the here and the now.


Jonathon Heyward

The 2021 departure of Marin Alsop left the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a bit of an identity crisis. Who could carry this charismatic orchestra — resurgent, but not without its institutional wobbles — into its next era? In July 2022, the answer to who would be the BSO’s 13th music director arrived in the form of Jonathon Heyward, chief conductor of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Herford, Germany (which he will lead until his term expires in 2024). Now 30, the Charleston, S.C., native is making plans to relocate from Folkestone — a small seaside town outside of London — to Baltimore, where his five-year contract begins in the 2023-2024 season.

It’s a little early for Heyward to speak of his programming plans for the BSO, but paramount to his tenure will be the inclusion of living composers and the maintenance of the orchestra’s strong connection to the local community — a carry-over from the intimate relationship of the Philharmonie and its listeners.

In May, Heyward will kick the tires with the BSO and offer a sneak peek of his sensibilities, leading a string of dates with pianist Khatia Buniatishvili playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 alongside Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” and a piece by British composer Augusta Read Thomas (May 4-7). A second program (May 19-21) will highlight Xavier Foley’s double bass concerto “Soul Bass,” alongside Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” symphony and work by another living British composer, Grace Evangeline Mason. jonathonheyward.com.


Juhi Bansal

An inventive, exciting negotiation of sound energizes the music of composer Juhi Bansal. The 38-year-old, raised in Hong Kong and now based in Los Angeles, composes orchestral works that interlock Hindustani and Western classical traditions. In 2021 for the New York City-based Prototype Festival of new opera, she released “Waves of Change,” a digital short inspired by the story of the Bangladesh Girls Surf Club that weaves the vocals of Ranjana Ghatak and soprano Kathryn Shuman atop Timothy Loo’s sawing cello. Most recently she premiered “Love, Loss and Exile (women’s poems from Afghanistan),” a song cycle composed from anonymous landays (i.e. poems) penned by Pashtun women. You can hear her management of color and light on full display in “Songs From the Deep,” a surging chamber work for the Oregon Mozart Players. In the coming year for Beth Morrison Projects, Bansal will complete “Star Singer,” an opera with librettist Neil Aitken inspired by Asian and Polynesian mythology, as well as two album-based projects: “Women’s Stories” (with Ghatak) and a collaboration with cellist Jake Charkey. juhibansal.com.


Gabriel Cabezas

The 30-year-old cellist is a member of yMusic — with Nadia Sirota (highlighted in our inaugural “21 for ’21” list) and Rob Moose (’22 list) — and a prolific soloist with an ear for the new. An impressive at-home recital during the pandemic in 2020 found him giving smart, sensitive and muscular readings of works by Alyssa Weinberg, Gabriella Smith, Jessie Montgomery, Nico Muhly and (not to worry) Bach. With Smith (see below), Cabezas recently collaborated on “Lost Coast,” a smoldering Sirota-produced album-length meditation on the Bay Area wildfires of 2019, a concerto adaptation of which he’ll debut with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on May 25. On Feb. 5, Cabezas comes to the Phillips Collection with Owls, a new string quartet featuring violinist Alexi Kenney, violist Ayane Kozasa and cellist-composer Paul Wiancko (’22). gabrielcabezas.com.


Chen Yihan

The 28-year-old composer, a doctoral student at Princeton University, creates strikingly beautiful soundscapes that extend between and beyond notions of Western and Eastern. Pre-pandemic orchestral pieces like “Spiritus” and “Dust” hinted at a composer honing a voice of unique lightness. But his most recent works teem with surprising textures and ideas. With Min-Xiao Fen (on pipa, ruan, qin and vocals), lighting designer François-Thibaut Pencenat and composer and sound designer Howie Kenty (a.k.a. Hwarg) he created “Don’t You Know?” a multimedia concert based on the poetry of Li Qingzhao. Most recently, he finished recording “ƎHOHE” — a work based on a poem by the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai for a new album by violinist Julia Glenn. He’s also completed “Fireward Feast,” an orchestral work commissioned by the China National Centre for the Performing Arts. With Delong Wang and Norvin Tu-Wang, he’s also composed a score (performed by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra) for Hou Yong’s forthcoming film, “Manifesto.” yihanmusic.com.


Steph Davis

At 23, the Boston-based nonbinary composer and marimbist is already engaged in deep explorations of acoustic and historical resonance. A crisp, controlled performer, Davis brings bright humanity and expressive depth to contemporary pieces, like Steven Snowden’s frenetic “Through the Looking Glass” and Steven Mackey’s contemplative “See Ya Thursday.” But they’ve also created thoughtful, captivating arrangements of spirituals — a “Deep River” of thrilling depth, for instance — and composed evocative original works, such as the Harriet Tubman-inspired “I go to prepare a place for you.” In October, they will give a concert with violinist Che Buford at the Newark Museum of Art in collaboration with visual artist Adama Delphine Fawundu, performing Tania León’s “De Color” and Davis’s own arrangement of George Walker’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. Their solo marimba album of composers of African descent will follow in winter 2023. stephdavismusic.com.


Xavier Foley

The composer and double-bassist from Kansas City, Mo., comes to the Phillips Collection on Feb. 26 to play a program of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 (a transcription for double bass) couched in a selection of his own solo compositions — many of which you can hear on his well-stocked YouTube page. Foley, 28, is wonderfully inventive, with a musical voice that finds dancerly depth in his instrument. On March 11 and 12, he will join Santa Fe Pro Musica under conductor Mei-Ann Chen for the world premiere of a work for double bass and string orchestra. On May 19-21, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform his concerto “Soul Bass” (premiered last year with the Atlanta Symphony under guest conductor Jonathon Heyward). This summer he’ll premiere work at the Grant Park Music Festival and Cabrillo Festival. youtube.com/@XavierFoley.


Pala Garcia

“A violin is a touchstone of many culturally held beliefs about authenticity, preservation, mortality, our own bodies and their relationships to material objects,” Pala Garcia writes about her forthcoming debut solo album on New Focus, an exploration of her own instrument (via the music of composer Peter Kramer). The 37-year-old Brooklyn-based violinist, educator (at Juilliard School’s Music Advancement Program) and new music advocate has an artistic practice that extends into the practice of art. As the violinist of Longleash, a new music trio that includes keyboardist Julia Den Boer and cellist John Popham, she also helps helm the Loretto Project, a week-long composition residency in Kentucky that includes the Pathways Initiative, a high school composition workshop addressing issues of gender justice and representation. palagarcia.com.


Brittany J. Green

The Durham, N.C.-based composer and educator is a creative force of attention-seizing versatility. She can light up expansive orchestral landscapes (like the churning primordial soup of “In the Beginning”) or dig deep with vivacious chamber works such as “Against/Sharp,” a bracing exploration of Black identity inspired by Zora Neale Hurston, to be performed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Contemporary Ensemble on April 12. Green, 32, has also recently delved into multimedia projects, including the short film “Thresh and Hold,” a collaboration with poet Marlanda Dekine and filmmaker Mahkia Greene that Green salts with grainy textures and dots with pulsing electronics. This year, the American Composers Orchestra will perform her “Rencontres for Orchestra,” and she’ll premiere works with chamber ensemble Kamratōn, horn player Parker Nelson, Wachovia Winds and saxophonist Jack Thorpe. brittanyjgreen.com.


Joy Guidry

In 2022, the 27-year-old nonbinary bassoonist and composer released “Radical Acceptance,” an album that moves freely between gauzy ambiance, scraping jazz and uncompromising solo missions to the edges of the instrument’s voice. Like 2020′s “Darkness Is a Myth,” it’s packed with searching, searing music that one moment can scratch at the speakers and the next hang in the air like an unspoken thought. On Jan. 28, JACK Quartet will premiere Guidry’s string quartet “What Are DSL’s?” alongside new works by Njabulo Phungula, X. Lee, Andrés Guadarrama, Amy Brandon and Michele Cheng. On March 24 at RedCat in Los Angeles, Guidry will debut their evening-length show “Radical Self Love.” On March 30 at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival, they’ll join DJ and composer King Britt and cellist Seth Parker Woods for a performance of Britt’s “Moksha Black.” guidrybassoon.com.


Leah Hawkins

The powerful Harlem-based soprano and recipient of this year’s Marian Anderson Vocal Award is fresh from a big 2022. Hawkins, 32, debuted in the lead of “Ariadne auf Naxos” with Arizona Opera; as the Foreign Princess in Pittsburgh Opera’s “Rusalka”; and as “Adriana Lecouvreur” with Baltimore Concert Opera (now Opera Baltimore). Later this month, she’ll make her role debut singing “Tosca” with Opera Memphis (reprising it with Santa Fe Opera in August), and in April will sing Musetta in the Metropolitan Opera’s spring production of “La Boheme.” In the 2023-2024 season, she’ll appear as Louise/Betty Shabazz in Anthony Davis’s “X: Life and Times of Malcolm X” at the Metropolitan Opera and Seattle Opera. She’ll give her Marian Anderson Vocal Award Recital on Feb. 12 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. leahhawkinssoprano.com.


David Hertzberg

This spring, Hertzberg heads from Los Angeles to Washington for a term as musician in residence at Dumbarton Oaks. Over the course of the pandemic, he released album versions of two of his operas, “The Wake World” and “The Rose Elf.” And while operas seem to be something of a comfortable wheelhouse, Hertzberg’s voice finds impressive variety in his orchestral pieces, chamber symphony, and cantata for high soprano and orchestra. While at Dumbarton, Hertzberg, 33, will continue work on “Grand Hotel,” a “beastly, sprawling fugue-of-a-thing” commissioned by experimental Los Angeles opera company the Industry. He’s also working on “HQ,” a “symphonic monodrama” inspired by “the strange life and death of America’s Premiere Picture-Man.” davidhertzbergmusic.com.


Lucie Horsch

The 23-year-old Amsterdam-based recorder phenom just released “Origins” on Decca Classics — a fleet-fingered global tour of music arranged and transcribed for the instrument that traumatized so many of us in grammar school. On YouTube and her Instagram, her ease with gleaming, articulate readings of Handel (with fellow master recordist Charlotte Barbour-Condini) and Vivaldi (with her father, cellist Gregor Horsch) dazzles. But she sounds as settled playing Romanian folk via Bartók and transcriptions of Stravinsky as she does digging into bops by Charlie Parker and the tangos of Astor Piazzolla — and somehow, so does the recorder. luciehorsch.com.


Jens Ibsen

The San Francisco composer will present his opera “Bubbie and the Demon” on Jan. 21 at the Kennedy Center as part of the Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, but that’s only his most recent turn there. With twin sister Yasmina, Ibsen, 27, contributed to the Kennedy Center’s ongoing Cartography Project initiative last March, composing music and a libretto for “Pretty Girl,” inspired by Nia Wilson — the 18-year-old Oakland, Calif., girl killed in 2018 by an assailant on a BART train.

Kennedy Center’s ‘Cartography Project’ aims to map the future of classical music

His is an expansive palette of sound and inspirations — see “Overdrive,” a timbrally conflicted “prog metal song for string quartet,” and “Mukhannath Songs,” an often-wrenching song cycle inspired by mukhannathun, i.e. “gay, queer, and gender nonconforming men and trans women in the early Islamic period who are absent from the Qu’ran and the Hadiths.” In the 2023-2024 season, San Francisco Symphony will premiere a piece as part of Ibsen’s winning the 2022 SF Symphony/SF Conservatory’s Emerging Black Composers Project Prize. jensibsen.com.


Elijah McCormack

The 28-year-old trans male soprano, based in Trumbull, Conn., arrived on my radar the last half of 2022, offering stunning performances of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” with the Washington Bach Consort, Handel’s “Messiah” with Ensemble Altera and “St. John Passion” with the Dallas Bach Society. He premiered the role of Bell* Cohen in Benjamin P. Wenzelberg’s “Nighttown” — an operatic recasting of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” In 2023, he’ll make debuts at Seraphic Fire’s Enlightenment Festival (Feb. 23-26) and with Ars Lyrica Houston (May 13), as well as additional engagements singing with Ensemble Altera and the Crossing. elijahmccormacksoprano.com.


Ben Melsky

Melsky is harpist and executive director of the Chicago-based Ensemble Dal Niente. His eponymous 2019 album is a restlessly inventive collection of new repertoire for harp by Wang Lu ('21), Tomás Gueglio, Igor Santos and others. A mix of effortless chops and concerted fearlessness energize his performance of such works as “Demente Cuerda” by Hilda Paredes and “Anima” by Igor Santos. And with the 26-member Dal Niente, he’s helped bring exciting new ensemble works to life. In 2023 this will include premieres by Michelle Lou, Tomás Gueglio, Nicole Mitchell, Louis Goldford and Wang Lu. This fall, Melsky, 37, and the ensemble will release recordings of Roscoe Mitchell and Nicole Mitchell, with guest saxophonist Ken Vandermark as well as a new collection of work by Andile Khumalo, followed by new recordings of work by Carola Bauckholt and George Lewis in spring 2024. benmelsky.com.


Finola Merivale

The Irish composer, 35, recently released her debut album “Tús,” which makes furious, invigorating use of New York City’s Desdemona string quartet. “Do You Hear Me Now,” for instance, barges in like a tornado of barbed wire before slowly, systematically undoing itself. The entire album is a wild ride, but I’ve also thrilled over random bits and pieces I’ve found online, such as “Ihvustú,” a percolating percussion piece, and experimental vocal works including “Dóthanach den Damhsa Táim.” In 2023, Merivale’s virtual reality community opera, “Out of the Ordinary/As an nGnách,” which premiered at Dublin Fringe Festival last September, will be toured around Ireland. An EP of “des os” for saxophone and electronics (with saxophonist Catherine Sikora) will be released later this year, as well as a recording of “Falling Flameswith Jessie Cox and Isabel Lepanto Gleicher. She’ll also begin work on a large multimedia piece for Warp Trio. finolamerivale.com.


Paul Novak

The Chicago-based composer shows impressive range and a restless energy. He composes lithe, elastic vocal pieces (like “birds, the binding of,” composed with poet Ira Goga for Quince Ensemble), vibrant orchestral works (“as the light begins to drift”) and evocative études for string quartet (“almostdances,” written for Quatuor Diotima). I’m especially fond of “a string quartet is like a flock of birds,” a spellbinding set of meditations for string quartet in nine interlocking movements, written for the Kinetic Ensemble. Novak, 24, will premiere a piece composed for Chicago-based dance company DanceWorks Chicago with choreographer Marc Macaranas and poet Victoria Flanagan on March 24. On May 1, he’ll debut a piece for Sandbox Percussion and the vocal ensemble Ekmeles. And on May 20, he’ll premiere an art song commission as part of Lynx Project’s Amplify Series, which pairs composers with primarily nonspeaking autistic poets. paulnovakmusic.com.


Ben Roidl-Ward

The Chicago-based Roidl-Ward, 30, is the solo bassoonist of Ensemble Dal Niente, principal bassoonist of the Chicago Sinfonietta and artist-in-residence at Northwestern University’s Bienen Institute for New Music. He just released his debut solo album, “Axis Mundi: New Works for Bassoon,” featuring performances of diverse works by Liza Lim, Luis Fernando Amaya, Tania León, Mathew Arrellin, Tom Kelly and José-Luis Hurtado that share intense physicality and presence through Roidl-Ward’s attentive performance. In late spring, he will release “Moonhead,” an album of original solo works created in collaboration with visual artist Ben Llewellyn. And on May 7 at Elastic Arts in Chicago, he’ll present a concert-length, collaboratively composed bassoon trio with Dana Jessen and Katherine Young. He’ll appear with Ensemble Dal Niente as part of Frequency Festival on Feb. 26. benroidlward.com.


Adam W. Sadberry

The 26-year-old flutist, based in St. Paul, Minn., is intertwining his virtuosic practice with a deeply personal history. On March 10 at Merkin Hall in New York, Sadberry will present “Musical Journalism: Continuing a Legacy through the Flute,” a concert paying tribute to his late grandfather journalist L. Alex Wilson, who chronicled key events in the civil rights movement for the Tri-State Defender in Memphis. He’ll be joined by pianist Artina McCain and dancer/choreographer Ayo Jackson, and will premiere “_not running. The life of L. Alex Wilson,” a piece composed for Sadberry by Dameun Strange. On March 25, Dumbarton Concerts brings Sadberry and the Balourdet Quartet to Dumbarton United Methodist Church. adamsadberry.com.


Gabriella Smith

The Seattle composer, 31, is a force of nature — a frequent subject of her music. Her works churn with an elemental momentum (see: “Tumblebird Contrails” and the surging “Maré”). But her music also has a raw, tactile hand to it — like the grain of a wood, the curl of a shell or the pitch of a hill. Her scorcher of a quartet, “Carrot Revolution,” appeared on Aizuri Quartet’s Grammy-nominated debut, “Blueprinting.” The L.A. Philharmonic recently commissioned “Breathing Forests,” a musical reflection of the “complex relationship between humans, forests, climate change, and fire” for organist, pianist and celestist James McVinnie. And in 2023, the L.A. Phil will premiere “Lost Coast,” a concerto for cellist (and fellow ’23-er) Gabriel Cabezas, inspired by the devastating California wildfires and adapted from their collaborative 2022 album of the same name. gabriellasmith.com.


Adam Tendler

Disclaimer, disclaimer: The Brooklyn-based pianist and I have been buddies long before I ever sat at this desk, and well before I realized he’d become one of the premier interpreters of mid-century piano repertoire. I’ve seen Tendler, 40, precisely navigate the dizzying corridors of Philip Glass, the vast expanses of Morton Feldman and the writhing wrath of Frederic Rzewski. But in 2023, I’m most looking forward to the community that will spring from his music. His forthcoming Inheritances project will premiere 16 commissioned works for piano, funded by the money left to Tendler (in a manila envelope) by his father after his unexpected death in 2019. The March 11 premiere at the 92nd St. Y in New York will feature new work by Devonté Hynes, Nico Muhly, Laurie Anderson, Missy Mazzoli and a crew of alums from past editions of this list: inti figgis-vizueta (’21), Angélica Negrón (’21), Christopher Cerrone (’21), Marcos Balter (’22), Darian Donovan Thomas (’21), Mary Prescott (’21) and Timo Andres (’21). Tendler will also continue his collaboration with Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange) later this year, releasing an EP and presenting full orchestral performances of Hynes’s piano concerto for Tendler, “Happenings.” adamtendler.com.


Kari Watson

The Chicago-based composer and sound artist works “between the mediums of contemporary concert music, electroacoustic music and interactive installation work.” This means that her music can veer from bracing, tensile strings (“Three Places for String Quartet” composed for Quatuor Diotima) to a row of wired clay pots (“Ekklesia (motherboard mass),” an interactive installation with Emily Harter). But Watson, 24, also makes music with a personal stamp and a poetic depth — “Sunburnt Monoliths” is a setting of prose written by Watson’s parents, both of whom immigrated to the United States from Australia almost 30 years ago. On May 1, members of Ekmeles vocal ensemble and Sandbox Percussion will premiere “[of desire,” setting fragments of Sappho translated by Anne Carson alongside poems by composer and poet Kevin Madison. Also this April, Watson will release a recording of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago performing “Diving into the Wreck,” based on the poems of Adrienne Rich. kariwatson.com.


Bora Yoon

The sound artist, composer and performer (newly based in Portland, Ore., after 15 years in NYC) is now at work on “SPKR SPRKL” — a solo evening-length work “for wavefield synthesis, spatial audio, interactive projection design, gesture, and new music” that will premiere March 18 at the Experimental Media And Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Yoon, 42, is also working on a commission for modular experimental music group Ensemble Decipher. With librettist E.J. Koh, Yoon is developing an Asian opera titled “Handmaiden” based on the hit South Korean film by Park Chan-wook. On Feb. 4 at New York’s Kaufmann Concert Hall, she’ll join So Percussion for a premiere performance of “the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart.” borayoon.com.