A look back at the top stories, trends and memorable performances in the field of classical music.
Pop goes the orchestra: In December, the country star Taylor Swift gave $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony, in part because of her admiration of their CD of John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece “Become Ocean.” It was the latest manifestation of a years-long trend that indicates that while orchestras may be struggling for relevance in the world at large, they’ve lost none of their cachet among pop artists who still see them, in the words of the singer-songwriter Ben Folds (who played his own piano concerto with the NSO in December), as “the artistic symbol of civilization.” Now if orchestras could only figure out how to collaborate with them a little more effectively.
Musical chairs: In May, the Berlin Philharmonic’s deliberations over its next music director had the classical music world on the edge of its seat — only to come up inconclusive (Kirill Petrenko got the nod, months later). Meanwhile, the music directors of two big American orchestras — Christoph Eschenbach at the National Symphony Orchestra and Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic — announced their impending departures, meaning new music director searches at those organizations. But while the hottest music directors get even hotter — Andris Nelsons, at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, announced he’d be spreading himself even thinner by taking over the Leipzig Gewandhaus as well, and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Yannick Nézet-Séguin was named Musical America’s Musician of the Year — how many other conductors are there who fit the current climate’s shifting requirements for a successful music director?
Redefining a national monument: The Kennedy Center’s new president, Deborah Rutter, seems to be doing her best to shake up an organization that has long been representative of a kind of elevated middlebrow taste. Her artist-centric philosophy has already led to some significant shifts in programming, including the announcement of the center’s first composer-in-residence in February (Mason Bates officially assumed his role this fall). In January, the center and Washington Performing Arts announced that the Carnegie Hall-based festival of American orchestras formerly known as Spring for Music would be reborn, as the Shift Festival, in DC. In practice, innovations weren’t without their bumps; Jason Moran’s skateboard festival didn’t draw the hoped-for crowds, and the night when Ben Folds played his piano concert with the NSO is best forgotten.
Anti-social media: the pianist Valentina Lisitsa got her 15 minutes of fame when her earthy and graphic tweets about Ukranian and Russian politics led the Toronto Symphony to cancel her appearance. Another 10 minutes or so went to Jonas Tarm, the young composer who wrote a piece including an excerpt from a popular Nazi song who refused to discuss it with the New York Youth Symphony and then, when it canceled the work as a result, took to social media to cry censorship. What at first seemed an illustration of artists’ effective use of Twitter against lumbering big organizations, for better or worse, ultimately demonstrated that Twitter is a volatile and often misinformed tool, but a useful one to be able to play with in the 21st century.
Blackface, black faces: The Metropolitan Opera opened its season with an “Otello” in which the title role was not made up to look like a person of color. There was much debate about the merits and dramatic limitations of abolishing this “blackface;” but in fact, the real issue in opera is about how companies hire, or don’t hire, artists of color — and much of the discussion about this issue seemed to be taking place between white people. When black artists discussed the subject, their first question seemed to be whether stage makeup in “Otello” constituted “blackface” at all.
Havana nocturne: The announcement of normalized relations with Cuba ushered in a veritable horse race to see which orchestra would be the first to perform there. The Minnesota Orchestra broke the tape in May; the ensuing months have seen a number of American performers in Cuba and Cuban performers in the United States, from jazz artists to choruses to a glittering concert by the Cuban National Orchestra, led by Marin Alsop and featuring Lang Lang, in October.
Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim,” a breathtaking bounty of Sondheim homages by a cross-section of living composers; David Lang’s off-kilter, compelling patchwork “the difficulty of crossing a field;” Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Unremembered,” an ambitious Gothic song cycle with a wide range of techniques instrumental, vocal and electronic; Andrew Norman’s electric, eclectic “Play,” which has been making the rounds for a couple of years as a new-music event to watch; and the pianist Igor Levit’s magisterial box set juxtaposing three sets of variations: Bach’s Goldbergs, Beethoven’s Diabellis, and Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Shall Never Be Defeated.”
It’s all about the music: The year’s memorable performances include, in no particular order, Herbert Blomstedt’s radiant Beethoven “Eroica” with the National Symphony Orchestra; John Eliot Gardiner’s exuberant period “Orfeo;” Stephen Hough’s solo recital for Washington Performing Arts; Laura Kaminsky’s thoughtful opera “As One” at Urban Arias; Lang Lang’s Grieg concerto with the NSO; Anne Sofie von Otter’s quirky and delightful recital at the Library of Congress; the phenomenal Marliss Petersen’s final “Lulus” at the Metropolitan Opera; Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony in Mason Bates’s new “Anthology of Fantastic Zoology” and an unforgettable performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth; and, above all, “Appomattox” at the Washington National Opera.
Stars of tomorrow: Two performances of memorable beauty from rising singers were the tenor Issachah Savage’s rich singing in Wagner’s nearly-forgotten “Rienzi” with the National Philharmonic and the countertenor John Holiday’s remarkably mellifluous Caesar in “Cato in Utica,” at Glimmerglass and with Opera Lafayette.
“Rienzi” pleases at Strathmore.
Glimmerglass season shines with strong vocal performances.
Farewells: In 2015, Washington bid farewell to Norman Scribner, conductor and founder of the Choral Arts Society; Gerald Perman, founder of the Vocal Arts Society; Heinz Fricke, the longtime music director of the Washington National Opera; Charlotte Holloman, a soprano and long-time voice teacher at Howard University; and Diana Engel, who co-founded the Levine School of Music.
The music world also mourned the passing of the conductor Kurt Masur; the pianist Aldo Ciccolini; the tenor Jon Vickers; the composers Gunther Schuller, Ornette Coleman, John Eaton and John Duffy; the soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs; the opera singers Oleg Bryjak and Maria Radner (who were on board Germanwings Flight 9525 when it crashed in the Alps); and Margaret Juntwait, the radio announcer who was the voice of the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts for 10 years. And many others.
Coda: Since the best articles don’t always coincide with the best performances or most important events, here are some of my own Top 10 articles from 2015 that I didn’t already link to above.
The National Symphony Orchestra’s forte for falling flat.
Pianos: Beyond the Steinway monoculture.
“Written on Skin” and the problem of new opera.
How not to behave: Manners and the classical music audience.
Review: Mastering the art of entertainment: Renée Fleming in recital.
Review: Tenor Ian Bostridge in “Winterreise.”
And so another volatile year draws to a close. What were your classical-music highlights in 2015?