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The Good, The Bad And The Sad: A Year In Classical Music

Paul Max Tipton in Odyssey Opera's production of "Patience; or, Bunthorne's Bride." (Courtesy Kathy Wittman/Ball Square Films)MoreCloseclosemore
Paul Max Tipton in Odyssey Opera's production of "Patience; or, Bunthorne's Bride." (Courtesy Kathy Wittman/Ball Square Films)

What an odd and complicated year this was -- even in the world of classical music.

Wonderful musical events were almost overshadowed by painful news items. The arts have been under attack. Heroes were toppled by scandal with few replacements lining up. I don’t have much insight. I wish I could be cheerier. But I’m grateful more than ever for the enlivening ability of great art — great music-making — to bring hope and joy.

Saddest Story: The Fall Of James Levine

This year couldn’t have ended on a more painful note, with the precipitous fall from grace of America’s greatest living classical musician. James Levine has been accused of sexual misconduct with teenage boys some 30 years ago and in the current rush to judgment has been found guilty by the press and in public opinion. The New York Times’ chief classical critic, who believes the allegations (which Levine has denied), wondered if he should throw out all his beloved Levine recordings. His answer was no, but he was going to move them to a back room.

One of the most moving musical events of the year was Levine conducting Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” on a Metropolitan Opera Live in HD telecast in October. Mozart’s last comic opera has some serious moments in it, in which the lovers are ritually tested. It’s some of Mozart’s most sublime music, though it’s often treated as “let’s get it over with so we can get back to the comedy.” But Levine gave it the gravity it requires and lifted the whole performance into something magisterial and profound.

If his sexual power plays with young men prove to be true, he must surely suffer the shame and humiliation that has been heaped on him. This is a heartbreaking conclusion to reach about someone who has given us so many of the deepest spiritual experiences that come with great art. It tears us apart. What else could it do?

Company Of The Year: Odyssey Opera

Archibald “The All-Right” Grosvenor, performed by Paul Max Tipton, surprises Patience, portrayed by Sara Heaton. (Courtesy Kathy Wittman/Ball Square Films)
Archibald “The All-Right” Grosvenor, performed by Paul Max Tipton, surprises Patience, portrayed by Sara Heaton. (Courtesy Kathy Wittman/Ball Square Films)

In 2017, Odyssey Opera offered works by such rarely performed composers as Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Alexander von Zemlinsky and Norman Dello Joio, and equally rare works by such known quantities as Donizetti and Tchaikovsky. And even its biggest hit of the year was a visually dazzling and hilarious production of one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s least-often produced operettas. “Patience; or Bunthorne’s Bride” is a literary satire of the 19th century Art for Art’s Sake movement, and it had an unforgettable performance by Aaron Engebreth as the pseudo pre-Raphaelite poet Bunthorne, who feigns literary effeteness in order to win the woman he loves (he fails).

“Patience” was the culmination of last season’s “Wilde Opera Nights,” a series of staged and concert operas inspired by Oscar Wilde and his world. This season, “Trial by Fire,” the running theme was Joan of Arc and the Hundred Years' War. It began with a powerful concert version of Tchaikovsky’s grand and gorgeous “Maid of Orleans,” with Kate Aldrich magnificent in the title role. Then came one of Donizetti’s most obscure yet still infectiously tuneful works, “The Siege of Calais,” followed by American composer Norman Dello Joio’s grim “The Trial at Rouen,” originally produced as a 1956 NBC Opera telecast, but never before performed live on stage.

Upcoming are “Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher” ("Joan of Arc at the Stake"), a “dramatic oratorio” by Honegger, and “Giovanna D’Arco,” a rare early opera by Verdi — which I’m particularly looking forward to in this Verdi-poor town. Bravos to Odyssey and its artistic director, Gil Rose, for sticking to its mission to deliver works we are likely to hear only on the coldest day in hell.

Other Opera Of Note

Our biggest opera company, Boston Lyric Opera, has had a peripatetic season, beginning with a disappointing “Tosca” at the Cutler Majestic. (Isn’t it cheating to reduce one of the most famous endings in all of opera — the heroine jumping to her death from the ramparts of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo — to the soprano shooting herself in the throat?) This was followed by a superb production at the Cyclorama of a musically tepid new work, Julian Grant’s “The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare,” an opera about grave-digging and murder that should have had us squirming with delight and horror like “Sweeney Todd” rather than just squirming.

Thanks to the enterprising Guerilla Opera for commissioning a terrific new opera by Andy Vores, “Chrononhotonthologos,” a deliciously inventive musical version of an 18th century political farce by Henry Carey, which ends with Vores’ beautiful and stirring setting of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” I attended the dress rehearsal, so maybe I shouldn’t mention my frustration with the silly production itself. But musically it was a knockout.

A scene from Thomas Adès’ “The Exterminating Angel.” (Courtesy Met Opera)
A scene from Thomas Adès’ “The Exterminating Angel.” (Courtesy Met Opera)

The recent opera that’s getting — and deserving — the most attention is Thomas Adès’ “The Exterminating Angel,” based on Luis Buñuel’s chillingly claustrophobic satirical film about a high-society party, which for no explicit reason the guests are incapable of leaving. I’m grateful to the Met for including a new work on its Live in HD series. An illuminating article about the production by Geoffrey O’Brien in The New York Review of Books underlines one of the drawbacks of watching live opera on a movie screen, where a number of the key moments he discusses were either invisible or just didn’t register on me.

A few years ago, I saw John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” both at the Met and in a movie theater, and I thought the movie theater telecast was much better because the camera-work actually compensated for staging so unfocussed it was difficult to follow in the opera house. In the Adès, I missed too much of the action to have an opinion about the production itself. I was a little let down by what seemed generic contemporary opera writing in the first act, but as the situation horrifically worsened, the music seemed to become more compelling and original and began to sound more like Adès at his best (there’s a scintillating female trio about the makeshift toilet). The ending is quite grand, but from O’Brien’s description, it sounds like it was even more stunning at the Met than in the movie theaters.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra's Year

The major story about Boston’s major musical organization is still its music director, Andris Nelsons. And much as I would like to like him as much as most of the audience seems to, I feel consistently let down. Should it not drive me crazy that he keeps resting one hand on the railing behind him? Doesn’t conducting with both hands give a director more flexibility, more control over the rhythm and dynamics of the entire orchestra? Nelsons apparently sees no need to divide the first and second violin sections, which would allow a more spacious “stereo” effect, but would surely require him to conduct with both hands. His widely praised and Grammy winning recordings of Shostakovich have seemed to me merely adequate backups to the truly inspired and more pointedly inflected Russian recordings of yore.

Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Sept. 22, 2017. (Courtesy Michael Blanchard/BSO)
Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Sept. 22, 2017. (Courtesy Michael Blanchard/BSO)

Two new pieces were among the year’s highlights, George Benjamin’s unsettling and seductive “Dream of the Song,” with the unsettling and seductive countertenor Bejun Mehta, and Sofia Gubaidulina’s Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Bayan, both co-commissioned by the BSO.

One of the worst BSO events of this year was the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto Nelsons led last spring with industrial strength violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. But the performance I enjoyed most was the a repeat of the Tchaikovsky, this time with the appealing American violinist Gil Shaham — colorful, tender, lyrical and, when flamboyance was required, plenty flamboyant! This time Nelsons and the orchestra seemed completely at one with the soloist. Why was this performance so much better than the earlier one? It was followed by a pedestrian run-though of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, so I can only conclude that Shaham had a major hand in keeping the concerto rhythmically, lyrically and dynamically alive.

The BSO, mostly under James Levine, has presented all six of John Harbison’s symphonies. But it’s been almost six years since they’ve played any of them. So it was a treat this year to hear Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic in a riveting performance of Harbison’s compelling and original Third Symphony.

Concert I Most Regret Missing

A personal conflict forced me to miss the single concert I was most looking forward to. The Celebrity Series of Boston was presenting a rare appearance (her first here in some 30 years) by the 76-year-old Argentinian supernova pianist Martha Argerich (playing Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto under Sir Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia of Rome). Argerich is almost as famous for her cancellations as for her performances. But she didn’t cancel. She even played an encore -- a four-hand duet with Pappano from Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite.” The reviews were ecstatic, and I heard more feedback about how thrilling it was and more people asked me either what I thought of it or why they didn’t see me there than about any other musical event of 2017.

Recordings: The Year Of The Box Set

The most exciting recording releases of the year were surely some of the big box sets. Sony released a 63-disc set celebrating the 175th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic, our oldest major orchestra. It begins with the very first NY Phil recordings, made in 1917. Josef Stránský, who six years earlier replaced Mahler as music director, led a group of players in Ambroise Thomas’ delightful “Raymond” overture and an abbreviated version of the Largo from Dvořák’s “New World” symphony -- maybe the orchestra’s major commission, and played from a score undoubtedly annotated by the composer himself. (The NY Phil may have played the world premiere, but the Chicago Symphony recorded this same movement nearly a year earlier.) The most recent recording in the set is Kurt Masur leading Yo-Yo Ma in a live Dvořák Cello Concerto from 1995. There are marvelous recordings by all the NY Phil music directors between Stránský and Masur, including Willem Mengelberg, Arturo Toscanini (a stunning live performance of the Beethoven Fifth), John Barbirolli, Artur Rodziński, Bruno Walter (technically “music adviser”), Dimitri Mitropoulos, Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein (25 discs!), Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta and Masur.

Next August marks the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, but celebrations have already begun. There’s an excellent 100 CD “Leonard Bernstein: The Remastered Edition,” which unfortunately repeats a good deal of what’s in the NY Phil box. I’m especially happy this set includes several of Bernstein’s Broadway shows, including the original cast recordings of “West Side Story,” “Candide,” and the long-out-of-print “Peter Pan” (1950), starring Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff, for which Bernstein wrote some charming songs and other incidental music. There’s also the marvelous studio re-creation of his first musical, the ever-fresh “On the Town.”

Leonard Bernstein leads the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on Sept. 24, 1962. (AP)
Leonard Bernstein leads the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on Sept. 24, 1962. (AP)

The conductor also makes two memorable appearances in an indispensable box set, “Maria Callas Live: Remastered Live Recordings 1949-1964” (Warner Classics), a collection of 20 of the great diva’s live complete operas, 12 of which she never recorded in the studio. Here is the earliest complete performance of hers we have, in Verdi’s “Nabucco,” 1949. There’s also her only complete Wagner role, Kundry, in a 1950 production of “Parsifal” (sung in Italian), the only example to survive of her singing anything from this opera. Here are also four of the five productions staged for Callas by the great film director Luchino Visconti.

Bernstein sympathetically conducts one of them, Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” ("The Sleepwalker"), with Callas heartbreaking as the fragile Amina, along with Cherubini’s "Médée," with Callas at her most ferocious. Among the highlights are Callas as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth and Donizetti’s Anne Boleyn, two of her major triumphs (she later recorded excerpts from these in the studio, but never the complete operas). There are also Blu-rays of four Callas concert recitals, and the only video we have of Callas in an actual opera production, an electrifying 1964 telecast of the second act of “Tosca” from London’s Covent Garden, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, with the great baritone Tito Gobbi as Tosca’s predatory nemesis (the complete opera is included on CD).

Perhaps more for specialists than these other boxes but still fascinating is Sony’s set of the complete sessions of a landmark classical recording, Glenn Gould’s 1955 Bach Goldberg Variations, which instantly made the young Canadian pianist an international star. The sessions are on five CDs (so much work to sound so effortless!). The final release is on both CD and vinyl (with the original cover). There’s also a delightful -- sometimes hilarious -- recording of music critic Tim Page interviewing an irreverent Gould shortly after the release of his controversial 1981 re-recording of the Bach. A weighty 274-page coffee-table book includes transcripts and photos of the sessions, and there’s a big Gould poster. If you don’t want to hear Glenn Gould playing passages of Bach over and over again, this set is not for you. For those of us who’ve always loved that phenomenal recording, it’s heaven.

I just caught up with an important set of historic performances, the Warner Classics release of a wonderful 16-CD set of Adolf Busch and the Busch Quartet disingenuously called "The Complete Warner Recordings" — disingenuous because Warner didn’t exist as a record label in the late 1920s and 1930s when most of these recordings were made for the British company HMV (His Master’s Voice). Violinist Adolf Busch was both a famous soloist and chamber player, founder of the Busch Quartet, and eventually co-founder of the Lucerne Festival and Marlboro Music. His frequent chamber partner was pianist Rudolf Serkin, who also became his son-in-law. These marvelous recordings of the central classical repertoire range from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos to Beethoven string quartets to Max Reger. Among the most celebrated of these recordings are the Brahms Horn Trio, with Aubrey Brain, the greatest horn player of his generation and father of the even more famous Dennis Brain; and the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, with the great British clarinetist Reginald Kell. And most remarkable of all is the uncanny Schubert Piano Trio, No. 2 (think Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon”), one of the most chillingly beautiful chamber music recordings ever made.

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." (Courtesy Apple Corps Ltd.)
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." (Courtesy Apple Corps Ltd.)

Oh yes, there are also several sets celebrating the 50th anniversary of an album called “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by a young English group called The Beatles (Universal). The original album has now been re-mixed in stereo from the original tapes. There’s a 2-CD set with 18 alternate tracks (the very first take of “A Day in the Life” has one of John Lennon’s most poignant vocals) and a Super Deluxe box set (with a hologram cover) that includes even more alternate tracks along plus two entire CDs devoted to the recording sessions, plus a Blu-ray/DVD restoration of a 1992 documentary “The Making of Sgt. Pepper” and restored promotional films of “A Day in the Life,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” A 144-page book has an introduction by Sir (!) Paul McCartney. Who says Beatlemania is over?

In Memoriam

One of our biggest losses this year was the beloved baritone Robert Honeysucker, who could be as infectious singing Gershwin at the MFA with soprano Nancy Armstrong, violinist Daniel Stepner and gambist Laura Jeppesen, as he could be openhearted in spirituals or announcing the arrival of joy in the Beethoven Ninth, or bone-chilling in opera. In 1999, I wrote that as the jealous barge captain in the Boston Academy of Music’s production of Puccini’s “Il Tabarro,” “his aching sadness, his profound inwardness, and the beauty of his singing added up to one of the most moving performances I’ve ever seen.” One could use similar phrases about almost everything he did. He died unexpectedly, of a heart attack, at the age of 74. He was still singing beautifully and seemed as if he could go on forever. Would that could have been the case.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the composer behind "Anne Boleyn." The post has been updated. We regret the error.

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Lloyd Schwartz Twitter Contributing arts critic
Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and senior editor of Classical Music for New York Arts.

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