The Year in Music: North America

By Leslie Kandell

Europe played musical chairs last year—now it’s America’s turn. Operas spawned by films. Is New York City Opera really back? Carnegie Hall celebrates 125 years by commissioning 125 pieces. Mostly Mozart at 50.


2017 Muscial America The Year in Music: North America

Gianandrea Noseda goes to Washington’s National Symphony


The Metropolitan Opera appointed Montreal-born Yannick Nézet-Séguin as its music director, beginning in the 2020 season. But in 2017, the 41-year-old conductor and pianist becomes its music director designate, and is already involved in production planning. He will begin with two productions a year and work up to five, while keeping his day job, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, at least through 2025-26. James Levine, now music director emeritus, is to conduct one or two productions a year there.

Between Nézet-Séguin and the newly appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden, we need pronunciation pointers—unnecessary for Alan Gilbert, whom van Zweden succeeds. At the Met, start with “yah-NEEK nay-ZAY say-GHEN,” and if that’s a struggle, just call him Yannick, as his Philadelphia fans do. The name of the Dutch conductor, coming to the New York Philharmonic from his position as music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, is pronounced “Yahp van ZVAY-den.” The vigorous, intense 55-year-old is to ease into the post after Gilbert leaves in 2017, arriving at full capacity in time to appeal to donors for the (hoped for) $360 million renovation of Lincoln Center’s newly renamed David Geffen Hall, to be completed in 2021.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is very interested in the goings and comings of its music director, Andris Nelsons, who withdrew on short notice from his contract at the Bayreuth Festival. His mystifying statement read, “Owing to a differing approach in various matters, the atmosphere at this year’s Bayreuth Festival did not develop in a mutually comfortable way for all parties.” No longer at Bayreuth, he spent more of August at Tanglewood, leading the Ninth Symphonies by Mahler and Beethoven, and two acts of Aida, starring his wife, soprano Christine Opolais. As he begins a five-year contract at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in the fall of 2017, maybe the BSO will see more of him.

As Christoph Eschenbach steps down from the National Symphony Orchestra, its new leader is to be Gianandrea Noseda. Known for his mastery of Russian and Italian works, Noseda has been quoted as saying that his goal is for audiences to hear music with a sense of wonder. At the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Music Director Jacques Lacombe was succeeded by the dynamic Xian Zhang (pronounced “Shen Jahng”). The daughter of an instrument maker, she was brought to the New York Philharmonic by Lorin Maazel in 2002, where she was associate conductor of the orchestra from 2005-09.

Susanna Mälkki accepted the position of principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It’s another rung on her upward climb, which included her Met Opera conducting debut in late December, leading the company premiere of L’Amour de loin (2000) by another Finnish woman, Kaija Saariaho.


“Replay” is a new on-demand service of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, with approval from Leonard Slatkin, its forward-looking music director. All visitors to the site can access—using categories if desired—two- minute HD clips of over 100 concerts from Orchestra Hall. Annual fund supporters can listen to full programs at will. Selections lean toward American contemporary. This virtuous undertaking inspired another first—a bequest from Marjorie S. Fisher—of $5,000 to each of the 78 fulltime orchestra members, who must surely be thinking that there is a god.

Celebrating its 125 years, Carnegie Hall looked to the future by commissioning 125 pieces. An orchestral, chamber, solo, and film polyglot, the project embraces commissions including The Monster Harp by Hannah Lash, with the American Composers Orchestra, Zohar by Jonathan Leshnoff, with the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus, Magnus Lindberg’s Accused: Three Interrogations for Soprano and Orchestra, for the Cleveland Orchestra, and Masaot/Clocks Without Hands by Olga Neuwirth for the Vienna Philharmonic.

The San Francisco Symphony highlighted American composers in the year of their landmark birthdays: John Adams at 70, Steve Reich at 80, the late Lou Harrison at 100. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas brought out a new semi-staging of Mahler’s Das klagende Lied, and also led the premiere of Bright Sheng’s overture to Dream of the Red Chamber.

The second New York Philharmonic Biennial took over its hometown the way Wagner’s Ring cycle periodically takes over Seattle. The music, curated under the discriminating eye of Esa-Pekka Salonen, composer-in-residence, was either brand new or new to New York, and the Biennial was expanded from the first, to 28 events in major Manhattan and Brooklyn venues (including museums), with 12 partners.

In Vancouver the Allegra Chamber Orchestra, a new group comprised entirely of women, made its debut, pledging to promote the work of women composers.


Composers have found unpleasant subjects for opera plots by considering films, recent history—and other operas. In March 2015, the Minnesota Opera introduced The Manchurian Candidate, by Kevin Puts, with a libretto by Mark Campbell, based on John Frankenheimer’s creepy 1962 film (based on a 1959 novel by Richard Condon) about the Korean War, and dealing in mind-messing. The Shining (who can forget Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film, based on Stephen King’s 1977 novel?) by Paul Moravec, libretto also by Campbell, was a scary sold-out hit in May 2016. The talented Michael Christie conducted the Minnesota Opera Orchestra in both.

Fort Worth Opera marked its 70th season with a festival including David T. Little’s JFK, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek. It was followed by two one-act chamber operas that had received staged premieres in 2014 at Fargo Moorhead Opera in North Dakota. They are based on horror stories by Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive by Jeff Myers (from Poe’s The Premature Burial) and Embedded—moved forward in time by composer Patrick Soluri and librettist Deborah Brevoort, and now centered on a middle-aged television anchorwoman.

Speaking of premature burials, soprano Kathleen Battle, unceremoniously dismissed from the Met in 1994, was scheduled to return there in November, spreading magic diva dust, in a recital of spirituals.

New York City Opera is back, too, sort of. Its chamber opera Fallujah, by Canadian rock drummer Tobin Stokes and Iraqi-American librettist Heather Raffo is about Marines in the Iraq War. Its premiere at Long Beach Opera was praised by the Los Angeles Times for “bringing awareness through heightened emotion.” It also played City Opera Vancouver and Palm Beach. Harold Prince will direct Bernstein’s Candide. The company’s season closes with the New York premiere of Péter Eötvös’s 2006 Angels in America, based on the 1993 plays by Tony Kushner.


For the 50th anniversary of Mostly Mozart, the public domain was commissioned from David Lang, composed for orchestra and a pickup chorus of a thousand, give or take a couple of hundred, on Lincoln Center Plaza. (Audition = show up for a rehearsal.) The audience, milling through the singers, was equally large. Homage to Mozart (Yes! the festival remembers him) included The Illuminated Heart, a group of staged scenes from his operas, and a conducting appearance by the insightful René Jacobs.

The Spoleto Festival dived into Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess, with an evocative set showing Charleston buildings, a scrim suggesting wrought-iron gates to create a feeling of past life, and related tours and events exploring the culture of Catfish Row and its interaction with Charleston’s white population.

Tanglewood and Aspen Festivals both featured a program by the Emerson Quartet for its 40th anniversary. Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music honored the late composer Steven Stucky, who had coordinated it before his unexpected death. Juilliard’s Focus! Festival focused on “Milton Babbitt: A Centennial Celebration.”

James Levine returned to Ravinia, leading an inspired performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, his career breakout piece there in 1971. 

Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria? 1858-1924? That’s Puccini. (Who knew?) Leave it to Leon Botstein to plan a two-week Bard Music Festival called “Puccini and His World.” Botstein usually highlights lesser-known composers, but always provides lesser-known facts and historical context to delight info junkies.


The Pulitzer Prize, which embraces jazz as well as classical, was awarded to saxophonist Henry Threadgill, for In for a Penny, In for a Pound, featuring his quintet, Zooid—which stretches the boundaries of jazz, with no reference to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. The Grawemeyer went to Hans Abrahamsen for the 2013 Shakespeare-based song cycle let me tell you, to a text by Paul Griffiths. The Polar Music Prize went to Cecilia Bartoli and Swedish producer Max Martin, and the Praemium Imperiale to Gidon Kremer. Julia Wolfe, a co-founder of Bang on a Can and recipient last year of the Pulitzer Prize in Music, won a MacArthur “genius” grant. Kate Soper won the Virgil Thomson vocal music award, and the Charles Ives Opera Prize went to composer Lewis Spratlan and librettist James Maraniss for Life is a Dream. The Georg Solti conducting award went to the rising assistant conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Karina Canellakis—good pick.

Carnegie Hall awarded its Warner Prize to the German violinist Augustin Hadelich. A 21-year-old South Korean pianist, Seong-Jin Cho, won the Chopin Competition, while the Cliburn Amateur winner was Thomas Yu from Calgary, a 38-year-old periodontist.


Tippet Rise Art Center, in Fishtail, near Montana’s Beartooth Mountains and also Yellowstone National Park, opened in June. Nestled in nature, it has a 150-seat music barn, an acoustical shell, and important sculptures on loan from the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum. The donors (of an undisclosed sum), Cathy and Peter Halstead, plan more structures for the 11,500-acre ranch. Pianist Christopher O’Riley organized the first season.

Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, formerly Avery Fisher Hall, is due for a complete renovation, and fingers are crossed that the Philharmonic’s new music director and the at-deadline-still-unnamed new Lincoln Center president (to succeed the abruptly departed Jed Bernstein) will generate the excitement to make enough millions to complete the project.

Billionaire Ronald O. Perelman, who departed as chairman of the Carnegie Hall board within a year amid hard feelings, pledged $75 million to revive languishing plans for a performing-arts hub at the World Trade Center.

Construction on BAM Strong, the project to connect the  Brooklyn Academy’s three spaces, is ongoing, with a scheduled completion date of 2017. It includes permanent art galleries and new patron amenities.


“Cleota, a house servant, is in love with Mando, overseer on the plantation where they live. The voodoo queen, Lolo, is jealous and....” Clearly an opera plot, and Voodoo, by H. Lawrence Freeman for the Negro Grand Opera Company, neglected since 1928, was performed at Columbia University’s Miller Theater. The score turned up among Freeman’s papers, which his family had donated to Columbia. The music was not well reviewed, but its discovery and performance were praised.

At age 26, Stravinsky wrote Funeral Song to honor the passing of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. After a single performance, it remained unpublished until this year, when a St. Petersburg librarian turned up the parts.

This year’s overwrought political scene made it a neat time for the pianist Ursula Oppens to perform The People United Will Never Be Defeated, an arresting hour-long protest piece by  

Frederic Rzewski. Oppens performed the premiere in 1975, and played it again in Brooklyn to honor the composer’s rare visit to New York.

In a library outside of Prague, a savvy musicologist discovered missing parts from The Czech Lute, a 17th-century religious work that anticipates The Magic Flute. The scholar Michael Beckerman compared the discovery to finding a completed version of Mozart’s Requiem. • 


In 2016 and late 2015, the music world lost composers Pierre Boulez, Peter Maxwell Davies, Ursula Mamlok, Elizabeth Swados, Steven Stucky, John Eaton, John Duffy, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Isao Tomita, Leslie Bassett; conductors Kurt Masur, Neville Marriner, Gilbert Kaplan, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Robert Page, Gregg Smith, Elena Doria; pianists Seymour Lipkin, Luis Batlle; violinist and conductor Joseph Silverstein; sopranos Phyllis Curtin, Patrice Munsel, Maralin Niska, Denise Duval, Mattiwilda Dobbs; tenor Johan Botha; countertenor Brian Asawa; Stravinsky amanuensis and conductor Robert Craft, baton maker Richard Horowitz; archivist Robert Tuggle; biographer Robert Gutman; bassist Jane Little, who performed regularly with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for 71 years.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CVNA, American Record Guide, Berkshire Eagle, and other publications.