Classical music critic

Orchestras face off

It's a turbulent time for American orchestras, and the revolving door of orchestra management was active this year. Deborah Borda, who helped turn the Los Angeles Philharmonic into the country's most exciting orchestra, took over at the New York Philharmonic, and Simon Woods of the Seattle Symphony, was announced as her L.A. successor. That leaves San Francisco, the Minnesota Orchestra and others looking for administrative heads. The Philadelphia Orchestra recently paused its ongoing search to say that it can't find anyone to run it but will keep looking. And that's not even counting the music director searches.

Gianandrea Noseda began his tenure as the National Symphony Orchestra’s music director. (Stefano Pasqualetti )

New beginnings in Washington

Eighteen months after he was announced as the National Symphony Orchestra's next music director, Gianandrea Noseda took over this fall with a burst of energy; Gary Ginstling moved in from Indianapolis to partner with him as the orchestra's new executive director. The Washington National Opera announced that the conductor of its stunning 2016 "Ring," Philippe Auguin, would not be renewed as music director, but that Timothy O'Leary, who has put himself on the map at the Opera Theater of St. Louis, would be the next general director.

HANDOUT IMAGE: Edward Parks Steve Jobs) and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus at a dress rehearsal of ‘The R)evolution of Steve Jobs.’ (Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)

Left Coast opera

The year's biggest opera premieres came from California. San Francisco-based Mason Bates, the Kennedy Center's composer-in-residence, gave the Santa Fe Opera a popular and critical hit with "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs," even if a few voices dissented. And the team responsible for "Nixon in China," John Adams and Peter Sellars, teamed up yet again for "The Girls of the Golden West," which premiered at the San Francisco Opera.

The Terrace Theater interior after its renovation. (Scott Suchman)

Building for the ages

As classical music institutions feel shaky, they try to take refuge in the stability of physical buildings — if they can. The Kennedy Center will probably need at least another year for its extension, currently under construction, but its Terrace Theater reopened on time and in good shape in October. Meanwhile, the New York Philharmonic shelved its ambitious, $500 million plans to revamp the auditorium now known as Geffen Hall — leaving Deborah Borda to solve the perennial problem of its poor acoustics.

Sing, memory

It was a striking year for musical memoirs. The American market got "Instrumental," the explosive memoir by the pianist James Rhodes depicting his addiction and mental illness in the wake of sexual abuse as a young child. Marcia Butler's lyrical, poetical memoir, "The Skin Above My Knee," hewed closer to the popular Amazon show "Mozart in the Jungle" — the real-life tribulations of a freelance oboist in New York, with plenty of sex and drugs. In "The Encore," Charity Tilleman-Dick told her story of surviving two double lung transplants — and maintaining a singing career. And John Mauceri wrote a readable, approachable book about conducting, "Maestros and their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting," that managed to be as informative for aficionados as for newcomers.

Raise a glass

Classical music loves anniversaries, and this year marked two big ones for two American institutions: the Metropolitan Opera, whose Lincoln Center home celebrated its 50th with a gala in May, and Leonard Bernstein, whom the Kennedy Center started feting this season in advance of what would have been his 100th birthday in 2018.

National Symphony Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach leads the NSO at the first of three concerts in Russia earlier this year. (Scott Suchman for the National Symphony Orchestra)

Cultural diplomacy

The NSO made a quick trip to Russia to honor its late music director, Mstislav Rostropovich — its first visit to that country since Rostropovich himself led the group in Red Square before a crowd of 100,000. This year, though, it was the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev that won the international PR offensive with a "Concert for Unity" at Washington National Cathedral, in the name of international friendship — but closed to the general public, and some journalists.

Women of the year

As more people start to notice and bemoan the relative lack of music by women in the nation's concert halls, a tipping point is coming into sight. Du Yun's Pulitzer Prize win for her memorable opera "Angel's Bone" meant that four of the last eight winners have been women; and my list of the 35 leading female composers was my most-read story of the year. But, I noted, the classical music world still has a long way to go before it achieves anything like parity.


The world bid goodbye to the directors Frank Corsaro and Peter Hall; the singers Nicolai Gedda, Kurt Moll and Roberta Peters; the harpsichordist Zuzana Rusickova; the violinist Paul Zukofsky; the conductors Jeffery Tate and Georges Pretre; the broadcaster June LeBell; and the longtime clarinetist of the NSO, Loren Kitt. As for stage farewells: The soprano Renée Fleming left it open whether she was actually retiring from opera, but her final turn in "Rosenkavalier" at the Met was certainly presented as a kind of valedictory.

Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia with Martha Argerich performing at The Kennedy Center. The group received four standing ovations. (Jati Lindsay )

Great performances

The real reasons we care about any of this are the performances that enrich our lives — such as Joyce DiDonato's outing in "Ariodante;" Opera Philadelphia's brand-new blanket-the-zone opera festival; Barbara Hannigan's luminous song recital; and the great Martha Argerich, illuminating Prokofiev's third piano concerto.

Read more of our picks for the best of 2017: