High Notes And Clams: The Best And Worst Of Classical 2013

Sarah Joy Miller as Anna Nicole Smith in Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage, the final production from the New York City Opera, which closed its doors for good this fall. (Stephanie Berger )

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." That could be the annual mantra for the classical music world. It has been predicted to crumble for decades, just as optimists continue to point to positive trends. This year is no different. Despite two ugly black eyes — the death of the New York City Opera and the continuing, bitter stalemate between the Minnesota Orchestra's (locked out) musicians and management — terrific music is being made by marvelous artists. Here we offer a short list of the best and worst of 2013. Let us know what we missed in our comments section, on Facebook and through Twitter.

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James Levine Returns To The Met

He's back. Sidelined for more than two years by a variety of stubborn health issues, James Levine returned in September to conduct Mozart's Così Fan Tutte, his 2,443rd performance, at New York's Metropolitan Opera. The company has been his musical home for more than four decades. New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote: "I don't think I've ever heard a more vibrant, masterly and natural performance than this Così Fan Tutte."

Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Inspiring Turnaround

From the ashes of a crippling musicians' strike in the 2010-11 season, which left the DSO in precarious financial straights, the orchestra has rebuilt itself into a vibrant organization. Offering incisive, critically acclaimed performances and a smart package of outreach initiatives (live webcasts, neighborhood concerts) the DSO has balanced its budget for the first time since 2007 and has a 10-year, $300 million fundraising plan. The orchestra's prowess, under music director Leonard Slatkin, was on display at Carnegie Hall in May with two extraordinary concerts (one featuring four Charles Ives symphonies), the first performances the group has given at Carnegie in 17 years.

Joyce Di Donato Battles Bullying

Aside from possessing one of the most expressive, technically assured voices in opera today, Joyce DiDonato is an outspoken supporter of LGBT equality. This summer, the international opera star dedicated one of her Santa Fe Opera performances to the memory of Carlos Vigil, the gay New Mexican teen who left a devastating suicide note after being repeatedly bullied at school. Vigil died July 16.

American Opera Alive, Big And Small

There was much to be hopeful about for American opera in 2013. Last January, Sumeida's Song, an "intensely dramatic" chamber opera by Mohammed Fairouz received its premiere in a 100-seat theater in Manhattan, riding the trend that smaller can be better. Also that month, The Perfect American, Philip Glass' surreal account of Walt Disney's final days, debuted in Madrid. Mark Adamo's "biblical Broadway/opera hybrid" The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, took the stage of the San Francisco Opera in June. In September, that company also staged the premiere of Dolores Claiborne, an adaptation of Stephen King's novel by the under-appreciated Tobias Picker, whose score was called the best of his five operas by one critic. And in October, the revised version of Two Boys, by Nico Muhly (the youngest composer to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera) finally made its Met debut.

Symphonic Stability

Amid all the bad news, some symphony orchestras are doing just fine, thank you. In March, the San Francisco Symphony settled its troublesome strike (which regrettably torpedoed an East Coast tour) in less than a month. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra reports record-breaking fundraising for three years in a row, plus record ticket sales. The New York Philharmonic has just inked a new contract that gives musicians "modest wage increases" and runs through 2017. Musicians of the LA Philharmonic are also getting a little salary bump (Dudamel gets a big one, due to increased activity). The Philadelphia Orchestra, with its new, vibrant maestro has emerged from bankruptcy. In Atlanta, the orchestra appears to be thriving (despite major concessions musicians accepted in 2012) and the Cleveland Orchestra has just reported a balanced budget for 2013, a year that also saw record gifts to the ensemble's Annual Fund.

National Youth Orchestra of the United States

More than just the nation's swanky concert venue, Carnegie Hall (specifically its Weill Music Institute) created a new youth orchestra. NYO-USA is a program for the country's most talented teens, who rehearse each summer under a star-studded faculty, then hit the road to perform in various concert halls around the world. In July, with conductor Valery Gergiev, the orchestra played in Washington, Moscow and London. This summer David Robertson takes the group across the country with violinist Gil Shaham.

A Gaggle Of Great Anniversaries

The classical music world (especially NPR and its member stations) loves to celebrate big, round-numbered anniversaries — and this year we had a bumper crop. In May, Wagner turned 200. Love him or hate him, the man changed the music world forever. A week after Wagner, May 29 marked 100 years since the infamous premiere of Stravinsky's raucous Rite of Spring. We invited fans to create their own Rite videos and supplied an audio Stravinsky cheat-sheet for curious neophytes. It was a big year for Verdi, too. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra celebrated the king of opera with a live video webcast of the Requiem on the composer's birthdate, Oct. 12. In November, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, it was Benjamin Britten's turn to be feted, with, among other things, a house concert in Brooklyn, not far from where the composer lived for a short time.

Andris Nelsons In Boston

In 2011, after the ailing James Levine resigned, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was left without a music director. For months, classical geeks like me were perusing the guest conductor lists on the BSO website, listening to performances and quizzing insiders. My money was on the terrifically talented 34-year-old Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, who on May 16th this year was officially named the BSO's 15th music director. He takes over, in the 2014-15 season, an orchestra already in terrific shape technically. Nelsons favors bold, fresh interpretations. It'll be interesting to see how he will lead the Boston players in terms of repertoire and sound during his initial 5-year contract.


Perhaps the most maddening blow this year was the loss of the New York City Opera. Famously dubbed "The People's Opera" by NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia back in 1943 when the company opened its doors, the company provided a spunky, more affordable alternative to its bigger brother, The Metropolitan Opera, by championing American works (The Crucible, The Ballad of Baby Doe, Susannah, Lizzie Borden) and nurturing young unknown singers such as Beverly Sills, Plácido Domingo and David Daniels. The company's last, pitiable gasp after years of precarious finances was a campaign to raise a paltry $7 million. What does it say about the arts in America when nobody stepped up to the plate to bail NYCO out?

Minnesota Stalemate

Need a lesson in how to destroy a world-class orchestra? Spend a while digging into the bitter battle between the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and its management, who locked them out of their concert hall Oct. 1, 2012. Several of the orchestra's top musicians have fled, as did Aaron Jay Kernis, head of the organization's Composer Institute. And then, after a months-long threat to resign deadline came and went, Osmo Vänskä, the orchestra's revered music director, also bid farewell. The musicians have been performing sporadically (and successfully) in other venues, and there's talk of breaking completely with management to create an entirely new orchestra with a different managerial and financial structure. Alas, the gridlock continues with no end in sight.

Brooklyn Philharmonic On Life-Support

The 60-year-old orchestra, known lately for its adventuresome programming and its neighborhood concerts in Brighton Beach and Bedford-Stuyvesant, has gone silent. The group's last concert, with R&B singer Erykah Badu, was in June. Reportedly, no staff remains and the contract for its artistic director, Alan Pierson, has not been renewed. The organization's board reports it is desperately seeking cash to keep the orchestra from folding completely.

Symphonic Misogyny

Women in classical music is a perennial issue for discussion, but this year it got especially ugly, thanks to the loose lips (minds?) of several male conductors. Bruno Montovani, who also heads the Paris Conservatory, said the majority of female students would not be interested in becoming a conductor, a job he considers incompatible with family life and one which requires a lot of physical effort. Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko offered that musicians respond better when they have a man in front of them because a pretty girl on the podium can be distracting. And veteran Yuri Temirakanov told a Moscow-based paper, "The essence of the conductor's profession is strength. The essence of a woman is weakness." Enough said.

Where Are The Classical Albums On The Classical Billboard Chart?

Should we feel disheartened that on the year-end 50 top-selling classical albums Billboard chart there is not a single recording that features a traditional classical musician performing traditional classical music? Andrea Bocelli grabs four slots, the operatic pop trio Il Volo has five, the Piano Guys take three, while a group of Benedictine Nuns is good for two positions. The closest we get is a Christmas album by the Dutch waltz maven Andre Rieu (at No. 6), mandolinist Chris Thile playing Bach (at No. 30) and Plácido Domingo singing pop songs (at No. 39). If you are looking for the real thing, try this list, which includes albums by The Latvian Radio Choir, composer Caleb Burhans and violinist Isabelle Faust.

The Russian Protests

The President Putin-supported anti-gay legislation in Russia, which restricts discussion of homosexuality, has spilled into the concert halls — especially those were conductor Valery Gergiev is performing. Gergiev and Putin are close friends, which led to protestors at Gergiev concerts in New York and London. It's also led to variously shaded opinions about the famously powerful conductor from critics such as Alex Ross and Mark Swed.

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