The Year in Music: International

By Keith Clarke

Instruments without visas. The new conductor in Birmingham. Lawsuits in Seoul. The poisoned chalice at ENO. Sex and violence sells at Royal Opera’s Lucia. Andris Nelsons parts with Bayreuth and signs an exclusive contract with DG. BBC Proms waves the flag with 30 first performances, 13 world premieres.

2017 Muscial America The Year in Music: International
© KiranWest

The ever-imaginative Kent Nagano concluded his first season at the Hamburg State Opera with the world premiere of a ballet by Jo

British musicians held their breath after the U.K. voted by a small majority to leave the European Union. One arts manager summed it up as “the most disastrous and self-mutilating folly.” The fear was that artists would lose easy movement within European countries and see taxes and tariffs heading north.

One musician not enjoying easy movement within Europe was Swiss-based cellist Jane Bevan, who had bought an extra seat for her instrument to travel from Zurich to Baltimore but was refused entry to a British Airways flight because her cello did not have a visa. Equally unimpressed was violinist Cecilia Bernardini, flying from Amsterdam to London, who was forced by BA to carry an 18th-century instrument on her lap, the airline insisting that the case could not be brought into the cabin as carryon. The story prompted an online petition that attracted wide support.

Another violin in peril was a Nicholas Lupot played by Rómulo Assis, who had it knocked from his hands by energetic conductor Nuno Côrte-Real during a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in Portugal. Demonstrating that change can take time was Gloucester Cathedral Choir, established in 1539 by Henry VIII, deciding after 477 years to start accepting girls into its choir stalls.


Before the U.K.’s European referendum, the Brussels bureaucracy was in the headlines for another divorce, threatening to cut funds from the European Union Youth Orchestra. The decision was roundly condemned by the music community, and the orchestra was thrown a limited lifeline when President of the European Commission Jean- Claude Juncker found some cash in a back pocket.

Also weathering a threat was the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, which had announced closure but raised enough from a crowdfunding campaign to underwrite a 2015 season, prompting three donors to support a further three seasons. The Ulster Orchestra, which had its own struggles with the balance sheet, appointed former BBC Philharmonic General Manager Richard Wigley as new managing director.

In Birmingham, where British orchestra managers gathered for the annual Association of British Orchestras conference, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra announced the appointment of 29-year-old Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla,’s New Artist of the Month for September 2015 and a former Dudamel Fellow, as music director from September 2016, succeeding Andris Nelsons. The city also saw Stephan Meier named as new artistic director of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, formed nearly 30 years ago out of the membership of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Jan Willem de Vriend stepped down after ten years as chief conductor of the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, and Ali Rahbari quit as music director of the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, firing a broadside at the administration as he went. Things were equally unhappy at the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, where lawsuits flew like confetti. Former CEO Park Hyun-jung, who had resigned in 2014 following allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, accused Music Director Chung Myung-whun of embezzling orchestra funds and spending some $12,000 on travel expenses for his own family members. Chung also resigned, causing the cancellation of a planned U.S. tour, but was later cleared of the charges. There remained a defamation case brought by Park against Chung, who was alleged to be at the root of the accusations against her of abuse.

Elsewhere, China unveiled plans for its 71st orchestra, the Suzhou Symphony Orchestra; the Turkish ambassador to Brussels was accused of attempting to censor the Dresdner Sinfoniker over a program concerning Armenian genocide; and in Kabul 19-year-old orphan Negin Khpalwak risked her safety to lead a woman’s orchestra despite the censure of her own uncles and brothers, who threatened to beat her for performing on television.


English National Opera turned up the heat on its immolation scene, looking at how much cash it could save if it cut chorus salaries by 25 percent and reduced numbers. The singers threatened to strike during Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, a piece that needs all the help it can get, but their action was called off following a contract settlement. The company’s 11 senior managers took a substantial pay cut, but plans for staying solvent despite a harsh Arts Council funding cut were deemed unworkable by Music Director Mark Wigglesworth, who quit. McKinsey consultant Cressida Pollock, whose interim appointment as CEO was made long-term in Fall 2015, struggled to stabilize the ship, but it leaned heavily to one side in the absence of an artistic director. It took a full seven months, following the departure of John Berry, to advertise for another one. In April, British-American director Daniel Kramer accepted the poisoned chalice, arriving in August like the U.S. Cavalry to try and save the day.

Artistically, the company held its head high, the orchestra and chorus winning an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera award, and the chorus also honored at the International Opera Awards. The Royal Opera House, smarting from the furor over its 2015 William Tell, issued a sex and violence alert before Katie Mitchell’s new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, prompting brisk business at the box office. In April, a Royal Opera viola player sued the house for alleged damage to his hearing after being placed in front of brass players. American conductor William Spaulding was named Renato Balsadonna’s successor as ROH chorus director. Anna Netrebko canceled her scheduled season opener as Norma, a repeat performance of her withdrawal from the Royal Opera Faust two years earlier. Fingers were crossed at the Bolshoi, where she was booked to sing Manon Lescaut, her first fully staged opera in the house.

Angela Gheorghiu made a late arrival at the Vienna Staatsoper, leaving Jonas Kaufmann stranded on stage during Tosca when she missed a cue. He improvised by singing “Non abbiamo il soprano,” (We don’t have the soprano). Kent Nagano concluded his first season as general music director at the Hamburg State Opera with the world premiere of Turangalîla, a ballet by John Neumeier, and the symphony by Olivier Messiaen of the same name. At Bayreuth, Andris Nelsons walked out of a production of Parsifal three weeks from opening night after a falling out with the administration.

In Italy, the 15,000-seat Arena di Verona was put into liquidation with an accumulated debt of over 30 million euros. Opera di Firenze launched a campaign to support wider access to its opera productions, including greater live streaming and a new “virtual” stage door that lets audiences go behind the scenes. Fabio Luisi was named the music director of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino for five years from April 2018. Rome Opera presented Academy Award winner Sofia Coppola’s operatic debut, a new production of La Traviata, which opened to mixed reviews. La Scala announced a complete Puccini cycle but drew the wrath of the composer’s granddaughter, Simonetta Puccini, who objected to the choice of the original 1904 version of Madama Butterfly.


The shelf-life of the CD remained a popular topic and was much discussed at the Classical:NEXT gathering of industry execs in Rotterdam. For Naxos founder Klaus Heymann, digital turnover exceeded physical sales, but the CD would survive as an on-demand product.

Deutsche Grammophon used the forum to announce a new partnership with Apple Music. The online giant brought 30 million users to the alliance; DG brought the trust of the classical audience, suggested label president Clemens Trautmann.

Doubts remained over the pace of change in recording. SoundCloud, the primary platform used by emerging artists and podcasters to distribute their work, revealed it had 175 million listeners but a loss for 2014 of 39 million euros. The British Phonographic Industry accused Google and other search engines of promoting piracy, saying it had made 200 million requests for links to sites promoting illegal copies of music to be removed. 

Executives at Universal Music Group played a vigorous round of musical chairs. Costa Pilavachi retired as senior vice-president in charge of classical A&R, sailed his yacht to Greece for two months, then returned to the old firm as a consultant.

While Deutsche Grammophon signed Andris Nelsons to an exclusive contract for three major projects with three of the world’s highest-profile orchestras, Decca attended to both ends of the age scale by signing 16-year-old recorder player Lucie Horschand and 87-year-old composer Ennio Morricone.

In broadcasting, the BBC launched a Get Playing scheme to encourage people to dust off instruments, following research that showed the U.K. had almost eight million lapsed players. Alison Balsom and Evelyn Glennie were among artists giving master classes. TV spin-offs included The Great British Amateur Orchestra, a competition from which the winning ensemble got to play at the BBC Proms in the Park.


In London, where there are plans to raise £280 million to build a new concert hall, the 53-year-old City of London Festival closed for lack of funds. Also faltering, due to the loss of its principal sponsor, was the annual Martha Argerich Project in Lugano, Switzerland, which held what was expected to be its last event, after 15 years, in June 2016. In France, the Annecy Classic Festival was canceled just two months before its scheduled opening.

Edinburgh International Festival announced the end of a 34-year relationship with oil and gas giant BP, whose sponsorship had attracted protest from activists pressuring arts groups to sever ties with fossil fuel companies. The Royal Opera House and Royal Shakespeare Company continue to take BP’s cash.

Turkey announced plans to build “Europe’s largest opera house” in Istanbul. The ten-year-old Copenhagen Opera House received a substantial donation to help it go green—heating and electricity were said to be among its greatest costs. The funding will also underwrite new productions and help compensate for government cuts of nearly $8 million in the last four years.

Milan and Paris both announced new ballet directors—Mauro Bigonzetti at La Scala Ballet and Aurélie Dupont at Paris Ballet, where Benjamin Millepied quit after just two seasons.

The Royal Albert Hall, home to the BBC Proms, was on the lookout for a new chief executive following the retirement of Chris Cotton, who had been in the job for seven years, overseeing major infrastructure and improvement works.


Just a month before his death, Peter Maxwell Davies was awarded the gold medal of The Royal Philharmonic Society. “That’s the one I wanted,” he quipped on joining the ranks of Brahms, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Britten, Bernstein, and Boulez. At its annual awards ceremony in May, the RPS honored director Graham Vick with honorary membership and named Daniil Trifonov top instrumentalist, Sakari Oramo winning conductor, and gave its audience engagement prize to The Multi-Story Orchestra, which plays in a multi-story parking lot in South London.

Opera magazine named Gianandrea Noseda, Musical America’s 2015 Conductor of the Year, as top conductor. Also picking up awards during the year were conductor Kazushi Ono, winning Japan’s prestigious Asahi Prize; the Danish String Quartet and German soprano Anna Lucia Richter getting Borlotti-Buitoni Trust awards; New York-based composer Anna Clyne, receiving the 2016 Hindemith Prize at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival; and Cecilia Bartoli, winning a 2016 Polar Music Prize and making it clear in a statement that it was not her first accolade. The Ernst von Siemens Prize, sometimes referred to as the Noble Prize of music, went to Danish composer Per Nørgård.

Among competition winners were Czech pianist Lukáš Vondrácek, 29, netting the grand prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition, with second and third prizes going to two Americans, Henry Kramer and Alexander Beyer. Sheku Kanneh-Mason, a 17-year-old cellist, was named winner of BBC Young Musician 2016.


Welsh National Opera celebrated its 70th anniversary with two world premieres: Elena Langer’s first opera, Figaro Gets a Divorce, a zany follow-up on his marriage, and Iain Bell’s In Parenthesis, a First World War commemoration dealing with the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder, both strong works.

The Vienna Philharmonic made a foray into the work of a living composer with the world premiere of Thomas Larcher’s Second Symphony. 

The BBC Proms season did its customary flag-waving for new music, packing in 30 first performances, 13 of them world premieres, including new works by Magnus Lindberg, Michael Berkeley, and Helen Grime. Three British composers got birthday parties: Anthony Payne (80), Colin Matthews (70), and Sally Beamish (60).

Tributes poured in following the death of two giants of contemporary music, Pierre Boulez and Peter Maxwell Davies. The latter’s swansong was a children’s opera, The Hogboon, receiving its premiere from the London Symphony Orchestra  nder music director designate Simon Rattle. •

Keith Clarke is consultant editor of Classical Music magazine and a regular contributor to