Best of classical music in 2022

In a powerful comeback year, highlights include a George Floyd requiem, Michael Tilson Thomas at the Kennedy Center and a stunning David Geffen Hall

(David Milan for The Washington Post; Daniel Schwartz; Elman Studio)

After two years of pandemic-induced uncertainty, the world of classical music sprang back to bustling life in 2022. Opera companies returned with packed seasons; orchestras re-emerged at full force; choruses regained their numbers and their strength; and an updraft of optimism seemed to energize the classical landscape. My favorite musical experiences this year were a mix of grand spectacles and small pleasures, beloved old favorites and arresting new works. The following picks barely scratch the surface of the fabulous music I heard in Washington and beyond, their “best”-ness strictly a factor of where they sit in my memory. But each is evidence of an art form that’s alive, well and changing before our ears.

1

‘Lucia di Lammermoor’

In 2022, two of my favorite operas at the Metropolitan Opera were Shakespearean derivatives thrust into modernity: Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn’s scathing take on “Hamlet” and Graham Vick’s unhinged staging of Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” But it was Sir Walter Scott who provided the source of my favorite production of the year. The slow-whirling surrealist carousel of Simon Stone’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” — led by a soaring (and blood-soaked) Nadine Sierra — tested the limits of the tale and the dimensions of the stage. By the end, Lucia, her nondescript Rust Belt town and the audience were all in pieces.

2

Britten’s ‘War Requiem’

Eight months later, I’m still haunted by the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s titanic 60th-anniversary performance of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem.” In April at Boston’s Symphony Hall, Sir Antonio Pappano led the BSO, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the Britten Children’s Choir and a power trio of soloists: tenor Ian Bostridge, soprano Amanda Majeski and baritone Matthias Goerne. As images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine flooded American news, the performance felt like a refusal to grant abstraction to the carnage of war — a direct hit.

3

Michael Tilson Thomas

After announcing his diagnosis of an aggressive form of brain cancer and stepping down as music director of his own New World Symphony, conductor and composer Michael Tilson Thomas paid a visit to Washington for a two-week residency with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. His introductory program of American music — from Carl Ruggles, Aaron Copland and himself — was a delight, but his second turn at the podium was sublime. Joined by the Choral Arts Society of Washington, Thomas and the NSO climbed the colossus of Mahler’s five-movement second symphony (i.e. “The Resurrection”). It was a thrill ride, with memorable performances from mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, soprano Jacquelyn Stucker and an incandescent orchestra.

4

‘Only an Octave Apart’

Every year should open with something as bubbly as Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo’s opera-inspired cabaret show (or cabaret-inspired opera revue), “Only an Octave Apart.” The show, which I saw at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, might at first seem like a spread of operatic hors d’oeuvres, but this dynamically talented duo serves something far more nourishing. With music from Purcell, Bowie, Bizet, the Bangles and a long guest list of others, “Octave” offers an aggressively charming peek behind the facades of form, as well as an up-close-and-personal experience with two effervescent performers.

5

New David Geffen Hall

You’d be surprised what $550 million can get you in New York City these days: like a concert hall that doesn’t sound like it was designed for bingo. The newly (and entirely) overhauled David Geffen Hall has already accomplished seemingly impossible feats: It was completed ahead of schedule and within budget. And its design — rich, undulating wood surfaces and seating that envelops the stage — makes for a far more engaging experience. But what will be most exciting over the coming year is hearing the New York Philharmonic settle into its new home and realize its fresh potential.

6

Reinventions of the requiem

This year saw the premieres of two spectacular reinventions of the requiem — each taking familiar liturgical structures and applying them to trenchant calls for racial justice. In March at Strathmore, the National Philharmonic in partnership with the Washington Chorus presented Adolphus Hailstork’s colossal “A Knee on the Neck,” composed in memory of George Floyd. And in May at the Kennedy Center, the Choral Arts Society of Washington presented the East Coast premiere of Damien Geter’s “An African-American Requiem,” a response to police violence against Black Americans, modeled after Verdi’s formative “Requiem.” The former was a showcase for mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, tenor Norman Shankle and baritone Kenneth Overton; the latter a star turn for commanding mezzo-soprano Karmesha Peake.

7

‘A Wicked New Look’

One of the most unique — which is a gentle way of saying deeply weird — evenings of the year was the PostClassical Ensemble’s “A Wicked New Look,” which presented a captivating concert at the Kennedy Center of miniaturized Mahler favorites custom-cut to accommodate the lowing, glowing bass trombone of classical experimentalist David Taylor. Under conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez, the ensemble wryly turned the composer’s natural and psychological landscapes inside out, with Taylor’s trombone lending the music something between sonic slapstick and brute pathos.

8

Lost music brought to life

This was a great year for belated discoveries in American music — many of which might better be described as unjust exclusions. This included jewels of lost music from Black composers: Ithaca College Symphony Orchestra premiered Florence Price’s 1930 “Song of Hope,” for chorus and orchestra; the BBC Philharmonic premiered music from Canadian composer Nathaniel Dett’s 1912 “Magnolia Suite”; and the Yale Philharmonia, with guest pianist and scholar Samantha Ege, brought Helen Hagan’s “Piano Concerto in C Minor,” at long last, to life. And lest we forget, a dusted-off swatch of a young Leonard Bernstein’s lost string quartet also delighted Washington-area listeners.

9

‘In the Salons of Versailles’

At the buzzer of 2022, the D.C.- and NYC-based Opera Lafayette offered a seance at the Kennedy Center with the spirit of Madame de Pompadour for “In the Salons of Versailles.” Soprano Emmanuelle de Negri joined harpsichordist Justin Taylor, violinists Jacob Ashworth and June Huang, violist Isaiah Chapman, and cellist Serafim Smigelskiy for an endearing chamber party in three acts, exploring music by Rameau, Pergolesi, Mozart and de Mondonville. Consider this pick a pushpin to remind you to keep an ear on Opera Lafayette come spring, when it presents Pergolesi’s “La Servante maîtresse” and premieres of Rameau’s “Io” and de La Garde’s “Léandre et Héro.”

10

Encore

And as we’re celebrating memories, a final ovation of gratitude to just a few of the talents we lost this year, including composers George Crumb, David Froom, Paavo Heininen, Toshi Ichinayagi, Harrison Birtwhistle and Ned Rorem, as well as the critic Terry Teachout.

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