Diversity in progress
Waking up at last to the lack of people of color both on and behind the stage, classical music is attempting, sometimes clumsily, to tackle the problem. This year saw world premieres of operas about race and injustice (“The Central Park Five,” Long Beach Opera) and white cops shooting black youths (“Blue,” Glimmerglass Festival opera company, coming to Washington National Opera next year), which is good, but there was also more pigeonholing of black artists such as the tenor Russell Thomas, in WNO’s “Otello” this fall. Epitomizing the problem was the Metropolitan Opera’s lavish “Porgy and Bess.” Maybe next year we’ll see more works that truly spotlight and celebrate black culture.
Saving our orchestras, Maryland edition
The Baltimore Symphony pump-faked fans by announcing a summer season and then locking out its musicians for nine weeks, citing steep revenue losses. But the two sides managed to find a way forward, and the musicians are now playing under a one-year contract. Meanwhile, the announced demise of the National Philharmonic, based at Strathmore in Bethesda, Md., prompted hand-wringing and an 11th-hour bailout. Will it last? Stay tuned.
A vocal high
The countertenor Iestyn Davies, always a source of dazzling and thoughtful music, offered not one but two programs in Washington this calendar year: the first at the Library of Congress with the ensemble Fretwork and the second at the Kennedy Center with his longtime collaborator, lutenist Thomas Dunford.
The Met reboots
The beauty of “Akhnaten,” in Phelim McDermott’s production, marked a moment when the beleaguered and often mediocre Metropolitan Opera had a chance to turn things around. At least the company took a step toward a much-overdue housecleaning by announcing the impending departure of Jonathan Friend, the longtime casting director, who will be succeeded by Michael Heaston, formerly of the Washington National Opera.
Small is beautiful
The most creative operatic work is still happening at smaller opera companies. In Washington, the In Series, under Tim Nelson, offered some memorable small takes on big works, and Urban Arias and WNO’s festival of 20-minute operas kept going strong. In New York, the Prototype Festival presented Ellen Reid’s “Prism,” an opera about sexual harassment, which premiered in Los Angeles and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. And at year’s end, the Long Beach Opera announced that MacArthur fellow Yuval Sharon — whose company, The Industry, in Los Angeles has brought him international attention — would take over as interim director, showing the appeal small companies hold for creative artists.
Music by women
Slowly but surely, the field is waking up to the idea that 50 percent of the population deserves better representation on the concert stage. The New York Philharmonic announced its multi-season Project 19, commissioning 19 works by 19 female composers to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment. Washington got a brand-new festival of women’s music, courtesy of the Boulanger Initiative, as well as recitals by mezzo powerhouse Jamie Barton and pianist Lara Downes. Should women’s music be segregated this way? There are a lot of strong feelings on the subject, but advocacy is needed to give more people a chance to recognize the quality of what’s out there.
Weinberg, times four
A three-part series of the complete quartets by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a composer you might not have heard of, sounds like an obscure attraction. But the Phillips Collection gambled on quality and gave D.C. audiences a chance to hear the quirky Quatour Danel in a rich tapestry of work that deserves to be much better known.
People often ask: Why can’t we update old operas for our time? With “Prisoner of the State,” David Lang has done just that. He remakes Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio,” a problem child of the repertory, into a new work that hews to the original in form while underscoring its relevance to today’s society. Watching Lang blossom into one of the heavyweights of the field over the past couple of decades has been a pleasure, and his opera stayed with me and is one I look forward to seeing again.
Noseda at the NSO
When I looked back over my concert-going experiences in 2019, I found that Gianandrea Noseda’s concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra were among the ones that remained most vivid in my mind. Noseda has created a narrative at an orchestra that didn’t have one, offering hopes of better things to come.