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Best classical music of 2021: Noseda reunites with the NSO, ‘Fire’ lights up the Met

(Joanne Lee/The Washington Post; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Marty Sohl/AP; iStock)

The return of live performances in 2021 after 18 months of shuttered halls and scattered orchestras was enough to disabuse any critic of their crankier faculties.

After such a long and fraught silence, I’m not gonna lie: Everything sounded amazing. It may take a few months for my critical nails to grow back to full talon status, but that’s not to say that the weird blur of 2021 didn’t have some clearly discernible musical highs.

The pandemic shook every end of cultural life and, in doing so, gave composers, musicians and institutions alike fresh impetus to examine the very foundations of the art form. This year was the first step in putting the house back together, and addressing some urgent repairs in the process.

The return of Noseda and the NSO

The pandemic offered scant opportunities for Gianandrea Noseda and the National Symphony Orchestra to spend quality socially distanced time together. When they did, it was usually in reduced form, and for an audience of video cameras and faraway streamers. And maybe it’s because I started this Washington Post gig just two days before covid crumpled up every calendar on Earth, but the reunion of the NSO and its maestro has sounded especially sweet. To close the year, Noseda will lead the orchestra in pieces from Handel’s “Messiah” as well as Bach’s “Magnificat.”

'Fire Shut Up in My Bones'

Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons’s operatic adaptation of Charles M. Blow’s 2014 memoir tore the roof off the Metropolitan Opera when it reopened to the world in September. “Fire” was the first opera by a Black composer to reach the Met stage in the company’s 138 years, and Blanchard seized the historic moment with a score suffused with the sound of his and Blow’s native Louisiana. With its trenchant exploration of race, sexuality, masculinity and trauma, “Fire” felt like a fresh start for American opera in more ways than one.

With debut of ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’ at the Met, a watershed moment for American opera

'Only an Octave Apart'

No other show sent me ping-ponging between uncontrollable giggles and mask-dampening blubbers. Sung by powerful countertenor (and “Akhnaten” star) Anthony Roth Costanzo and cabaret luminary (and one half of Kiki & Herb) Justin Vivian Bond, this exuberant, irreverent game of genre hopscotch tickled the tears out of audiences at its St. Ann’s Warehouse premiere in September. The show, from director Zack Winokur and music director Thomas Bartlett, employed a minimalist set, a chamber orchestra, some fabulous fashions and the bottomless (so to speak) talents of its two stars to persuade high and low to become BFFs. They fused pop hits with grand arias (“Dido’s Lament,” meet Dido’s “White Flag”) and threaded together parlor songs and disco hits. They even learned all the words to “Waters of March,” which really ought to count for something. A studio album is due out in late January, and the duo will appear with the New York Philharmonic on Jan. 27-29 as part of Costanzo’s “Authentic Selves: The Beauty Within” series.

Randall Goosby

One of the most intriguing young talents in my January “21 for 21” watch list, 25-year-old violinist Randall Goosby had a stellar year atop an impressive debut album for Decca. “Roots” gathered new works (such as Xavier Foley’s “Shelter Island”) alongside newly discovered pieces (including a pair of Florence Price’s “Fantasie” works) and undersung composers who factored heavily into Goosby’s development, including Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and William Grant Still. In the spring at the Kennedy Center Honors, he delivered the third movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in a soaring tribute to honoree Midori. Goosby sounds perfectly at home and positively on fire in any era.

Opera Philadelphia Channel

With more than half the year lost to the great indoors, every end of the classical world had to innovate new ways to survive. And considering the circumstances, much of the music that emerged from this international intermission was quite good! (And, to be honest, the classical world probably sorely needed this shove into the digital realm.) Especially compelling this year was the rise of the opera short — portable, powerful concentrates of an art form put on hold. My favorites came from the Opera Philadelphia Channel, which produced inventive, evocative realizations of new opera works. These included new pieces from composer in residence Tyshawn Sorey, Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw, and “21 for 21”’ pick Angélica Negrón — whose short, “The Island We Made,” starring drag star Sasha Velour, was especially beautiful. Another highlight, David T. Little’s “Soldier Songs,” was just nominated for a Grammy for best opera recording.

If classical music keeps one thing from the pandemic, let it be the opera short

Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deustche

The chirps and beeps of several cellphones from the pockets of rusty concertgoers may have had me a touch on edge at tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch’s October performance at the Kennedy Center. But the pair outlasted every battery in the house with their powerhouse celebration of lieder — a modest-seeming little thing that extended into eight encores for an insatiable house. Drawing heavily from the duo’s long history of recordings together, including this year’s “Freudvoll und Leidvoll” — a phenomenal collection of seldom-heard songs by Liszt — Kaufmann and Deutsche demonstrated that good things do indeed come in small packages. Lots and lots and lots of them.


The Met’s second premiere production of the season was a bold statement on two fronts. Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin has recently voiced a commitment to bringing more new operas to the Met stage (Brett Dean’s “Hamlet” arrives in May), and “Eurydice” was the second in the span of two months. And the opera itself — based on a buoyant, poetic libretto by Sarah Ruhl — felt like an announcement of the arrival of composer Matthew Aucoin, whose score captured the mythic grandeur and pithy wit of the play while also showcasing his own mastery of orchestral color.