The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Best classical music of 2020: The Met Opera’s nightly streams, ‘Blue,’ ‘Wagnerism’ and more

(Illustration by Luke Lucas for The Washington Post)

“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time,” John Cage wrote. “There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”

Hear that, covid-19? You can clear every calendar, cancel every concert, close every hall and scatter every orchestra into isolation — and you did — but it’s going to take a lot more than some stupid virus to silence the music. Hubristic germ! What have you got to say for yourself?

I think you’re muted. Nope, still muted. It’s the little microphone icon, lower left. Oh, nevermind.

The point is that against every imaginable and available odd, composers and performers persisted, pandemic notwithstanding. They found new ways to connect despite their disconnection; forged new forms and turned the virtual into the actual; and, stream by stream, just about wore out my nice headphones.

It took an alchemy of inspiration and desperation, but once they got settled in at home, artists and institutions treated 2020’s void of uncertainty as something more like a blank canvas. Hard times produced some beautiful music — though much of what struck me as the “best” of 2020 was more conceptual or gestural: broad strokes, bold ideas and broken habits.

And while my ranking for this strangest of years assumes the form of a standard top-10 list — all bets are off in 2020. Feel free to follow another of Cage’s koans: “Begin anywhere.”

If you could describe 2020 in one word, what would it be? Tell The Post.

1. Metropolitan Opera’s nightly opera streams

It’s hard to imagine a realm of the arts harder stricken by the pandemic than opera — an art form that at its grandest (i.e. on the Met stage) involves the coordinated, close-quartered efforts of thousands — not counting the audience. (You know, that thing we once were?) The survival of the Met not only required rough furloughs and salary cuts, but also demanded a strategy for the impossible: building an audience while cutting programming. The “Met Stars Live in Concert” series of pay-per-view recitals has provided a comforting change of virtual scenery, but its ongoing free “Nightly Met Opera Streams” — now approaching week 40 — have drawn a captive audience of millions with deep dives into the archives, lush “Live in HD” offerings and quarantine-burning theme weeks on everything from “Family Drama” to Wagner. Speaking of whom . . .

2. ‘Wagnerism,’ by Alex Ross

Slow reader here! So I wasn’t part of the initial blast of praise that greeted the arrival of “Wagnerism” — New Yorker critic Alex Ross’s comprehensive, cross-disciplinary survey of the vast shadow cast on culture by the controversial, consequential composer. Readers who let Ross lead them anew through the 20th century in 2007’s “The Rest Is Noise” will find familiar comforts in his sure guidance and musical prose. But they’ll find dazzling new dimensions in his scholarship, as adept with large swaths of history as attentive to small crannies of expertise. (Gift-givers beware: You’re gonna need a bigger stocking.)

3. Zoom

I said what I said! There is no doubt we’re all Zoomed out. This year, I put in more than enough hard screen time watching Zoom operas, Zoom operas for kids, Zoom choirs, Zoom classes, Zoom rehearsals, recitals, symposiums and a few late nights at some virtual nightclubs I’m pretty sure were in violation of several terms of service, so to speak. No, with its iffy synchronicity and glitchy acoustics, Zoom was no replacement for the real thing (i.e. life), but the mass hacking of this wonky corporate conference-call software into an ersatz platform for the arts was inspiringly resourceful — and often deliciously subversive.

4. Víkingur Ólafsson, ‘Debussy/Rameau’

The versatile Icelandic pianist’s hither-and-yon exploration of the French impressionist and his lesser-known (and surprisingly simpatico) baroque forebear is a study in harsh relief — minus the harsh bit. Ólafsson coaxes unexpected textures from each composer into a gorgeous composite that blurs the century between them in a sequence that feels like a guided meditation. Heavenly stuff.

5. Lisa Bielawa

As long as I’ve been aware of composer Lisa Bielawa, I’ve admired her eagerness to dismantle the usual dynamics holding composers, performers and audiences in place and repurpose them to create completely new structures. In normal times, Bielawa would assemble hundreds of people for highly spatialized public performances for her “broadcast” compositions. The covid-19 crisis put an end to that, but the imposed isolation and lost connections pushed Bielawa into an entirely new practice — such as “Broadcast From Home,” made entirely from sung testimonials from people across the country coming to grips with the first months of the pandemic. When we listen back for music that also serves a documentary purpose for this dreadful stretch, Bielawa’s will remind us how we got through.

6. ‘Blue’

Composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson wrote the best new opera that barely anyone saw. There were only eight performances of “Blue,” a sparely drawn portrait of a Black family of three in Harlem torn into a family of two, which doubles as a wrenchingly poetic study of how systemic racism filters down like a poison into everyday American life. Had “Blue” a stage in 2020, it would have spoken/sung directly to the parallel crisis of racial justice that raged in the wake of the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and other Black Americans. Tesori and Thompson have created a timeless work, which only contributes to its tragedy: No delay is likely to blunt its urgency. Speaking of which . . .

7. Baby steps

One of the strange side-effects of the pandemic was that in its mass nixing of virtually any form of assembly that wasn’t virtual, it also cleared a space where calls for racial equity and increased diversity and opportunity could resonate anew and actually, finally, reach some ears. 2020 was the year American classical institutions at long last seemed to hear what was happening outside of the concert hall, with organizations at every level (including the Kennedy Center) pledging overdue, concrete action into their plans for reemergence. Will these efforts stick? With pressure, they may. Check back here next year.

8. Igor Levit

If the blur of 2020 gave us anything like a rock star in the classical realm, certainly it was Igor Levit. The German-Russian pianist/activist/accidental spiritual influencer was the hardest working man on Twitter, offering dozens of live-streamed recitals from his home piano that drew millions of listeners — especially through those rough first few weeks (that now feel removed by a few decades). Yes, I may have issued a fatigued, shark-jumping sigh when he submitted some 15 hours of his life to a live stream of Satie’s “Vexations” (which, okay, fine, yes, bravo), but Levit’s contribution to our collective sanity this year did not go unappreciated. In sound and spirit, he embodied the beauty of carrying on.

9. Car horns

Did any other single sound on Earth undergo a more complete semiotic switcheroo this year than the modest car horn? Once the unmistakable go-to nonverbal expression of vehicular exasperation, prolonged honks can now count as blasts of celebration or even (gasp!) consensus. Leaning on the horn in 2020 was a way of leaning on each other, and in the ongoing chaos of this year, it somehow qualified as beautiful music. Who could have heard that coming?

10. A moment of silence

Hold for “4’33’’.”

Loading...