The Year in Music: North America

By Leslie Kandell

Dvorák’s Dimitrij an up-to- date power struggle. Renée’s graceful gear shift. America’s first Bruckner symphony cycle. Kennedy Center’s new SHIFT Festival. Subotnick revisits Silver Apples. Levine  appointed conductor laureate at Ravinia. Borda puts Geffen Hall on back burner. Toscanini at 150—new Sachs bio a must-read.

2018 Muscial America The Year in Music: North America
© Todd Norwood/Bard

Melissa Citro (Marina) and Clay Hilley (Dimitrij) in Bard SummerScape’s production of Dvorák’s Dimitrij, about a 16th-century Russian power struggle.

Love it or hate it, the current drama at top levels of the United States government has captivated the world. Everyone talks about it and voices opinions. Imagine the possibilities for an opera: a riveting central figure, arias, whispered recitatives, trios, quartets, small ensembles, and scenes separated by tweets. Imagine choruses of volatile crowds—press conferences, supporters, and protesters. Mussorgsky looked at Russian history and had thoughts like these. John Adams has expressed some in his operas. Bard College Summerfest hosted the staged American premiere of Dvorák’s long, challenging Dimitrij, about a 16th-century Russian power struggle. It was praised for its glorious choruses. Now we await a composer to dazzle us with an opera of pageantry and intrigue.

Hurricane Harvey flooded the Houston Arts Center. Houston Grand Opera resourcefully moved three productions into a transformed Exhibit Hall in the George R. Brown Convention Center. The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Mason Bates, which had its premiere at Santa Fe Opera, was an incarnation of a hi-tech personality, and such a hit that the company added an extra performance.

Renée Fleming, 58, chose to conclude her operatic career at the Metropolitan Opera in the spring with the role of the Marschallin in a new production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. She gave a Carnegie Hall recital in the fall and was cast for the role of Nettie in a Broadway revival of Carousel in early 2018. Kristine Opolais followed Jonas Kaufmann in withdrawing from the Met’s Tosca, and conductor Andris Nelsons, to whom she is married, withdrew shortly after. They performed a concert version of Act II, with Bryn Terfel, at Tanglewood. James Levine, whose health is improving, led the Met’s cast of fill-ins. After a concert in Toronto, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, in treatment for brain cancer, made a surprise appearance at the Met gala with an ecstatically received aria from Rigoletto. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg charmed in a speaking role in Daughter of the Regiment at Washington National Opera. It’s not her first opera sally: She has also spoken in Ariadne auf Naxos and Fledermaus.

Also at the Met, Thomas Adès conducted the American premiere of his 2016 The Exterminating Angel, based on  the surrealist Luis Buñuel film. Billboard’s number one for the year’s CD sales was Mozart, and the Met set a production of Così fan tutte on Coney Island, featuring Kelli O’Hara and a tattooed strongman. San Francisco Opera introduced John Adams’s Girls of the Golden West,
a true Gold Rush-era story. Its libretto is by Peter Sellars, who discovered a trove of old letters.

Breaking the Waves, a chamber opera by Missy Mazzoli, received its premiere at Opera Philadelphia. Alfred Walker and Denyce Graves starred in Pittsburgh Opera’s first premiere, The Summer King, by Daniel Sonenberg. Its baseball-themed plot (called a public-relations dream) is about Josh Gibbons, the Negro League’s short-lived predecessor of Jackie Robinson. 

Philip Glass’s opera about Walt Disney, The Perfect American, received a decent American premiere, four years after it opened in Madrid—thanks to the intrepid Long Beach Opera. Another American premiere was The Trial, based on Kafka, at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which captured the feeling of opera as a fever dream. The Minnesota Opera gave the premiere of William Bolcom’s Dinner at Eight, with a sparkling Mark Campbell libretto. It was judged typical multi-idiom Bolcom. The 12 episodes of Lisa Bielawa’s VIREO: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser, aired on KCTV and was streamed and promoted as the first made-for-TV opera.

A fictionalized Walt Whitman is at the center of Matthew Aucoin’s Crossing, introduced in Boston in 2015 and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last fall. Acoin led the Chamber orchestra, called A Far Cry, with baritone Rod Gilfry as a convincing Whitman. Both the Civil War and Whitman’s erotic feelings for a wounded soldier remain relevant matters.

Christine Goerke surmounted vocal hurdles, returning as a dramatic soprano. She successfully sang Brünnhilde in Ring cycles at the Canadian Opera Company and Houston Grand Opera.

Poor, wandering New York City Opera migrated to Bryant Park, with four well-received summer performances, this year opening with the colorful Baroque-era Los Elementos by Antonio de Literes and then moving to standards.

“Nomadic Nights,” one of the groups of events at Lincoln Center’s summer festival, presented artistic approaches by composers and playwrights of other nations, notably Israel, Syria, China, and Brazil. Morton Subotnick “revisited” his 1967 milestone of electronic music Silver Apples of the Moon and presented his recent “media tone poem” Crowds and Power, featuring his wife, vocalist Joan LaBarbara.

Mostly Mozart, it is generally acknowledged, is now mostly not. Notable was Schubert’s Winterreise, set to Hans Zender’s contemporary orchestrations, sung by Ian Bostridge. “White Lights” had wide-ranging themes honoring the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, plus 20th-century symphonies. Ravinia also looked backward: James Levine returned there to lead Haydn’s oratorio The Creation; 25 years after stepping down as music director of the festival, he was appointed conductor laureate. 

Works with visuals added were Tanglewood highlights. Besides Das Rheingold, there were six chamber concerts titled “Schubert’s Summer Journey,” curated by Emanuel Ax. Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream had a speed trip with some staging and a large screen with things that may have been trees. E.T. was screened atop the Boston Pops on film night, and the Contemporary Music Festival was curated by young Tanglewood Music Center alumni, who were as delighted with their choices as listeners were. 

The Aspen Festival, under Robert Spano, featured Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, and a new chamber opera about global warming, by Luke Bedford. Using Milton’s Paradise Lost, it has angels falling from the heavens into a mysteriously deserted landscape.

Four orchestras participated in the new SHIFT Festival of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The North Carolina Symphony was represented by composers with ties to the state: Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Mason Bates, and Robert Ward. The Atlanta Symphony performed Creation/Creator, a multimedia oratorio by Christopher Theofanidis. The Knights (from
Brooklyn) brought a mixed group including the San Francisco Girls Chorus along with Brahms, Vivaldi, Aaron Jay Kernis, and a commission by Lisa Bielawa. The Boulder Symphony featured a  multimedia commission commemorating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. Montana’s Tippet Rise offered another new work by Kernis: (First) Club Ride

This year’s Ojai director was Vijay Iyer, and the performance choices—unusual, as usual—encompassed Kaija Saariaho and Josephine Baker. At Opera Philadelphia, The Magic Flute was directed by Barrie Kosky, 50, who is also busy at Bayreuth and Berlin’s Komische Oper. Conductor Will Crutchfield completed his 20-year-old Bel Canto project at the Caramoor Festival and planned a move to SUNY Purchase that would allow a wider opera repertoire with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. The Salt Bay Chamber Music Festival in Maine introduced Angel Lam’s Fragrance of the Sea, for mixed quartet. 

The photos for a series, “Three Generations: changing the direction of Concert Music,” at Zankel Hall, show the once-threatening, now-venerated Steve Reich and Philip Glass, 80, Julia Wolfe (younger), and Nico Muhly, to represent the future. Reich and Glass also gave a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, signifying a reunion of sorts. (Their combined awards, lined up, would probably reach the moon.) Mark Morris presented a choreographed chamber program, “Lou 100: In Honor of the Divine Mr. Harrison,” at Tanglewood. Juilliard’s Focus! Festival was also a centennial tribute, to Milton Babbitt.

Wagner’s Das Rheingold apparently entered a new lifestyle as an orchestral showpiece, successfully performed in concert by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons at Tanglewood. (Wagner might have preferred an resounding bass-baritone Morris Robinson, who at 6-foot 3-inches and 285 pounds was deemed too small for postcollege football.

Daniel Barenboim brought the Staatskapelle Berlin to Carnegie Hall for America’s first-ever complete cycle of Bruckner symphonies, augmented by Mozart concertos he led from the piano. Listener response to the outsize undertaking apparently emanated from how much they liked Bruckner going in, rather than on epiphanies or conversions.

The New York Philharmonic celebrated Tchaikovsky in a series, also heard in European halls, led by Semyon Bychkov. It was called “Beloved Friend,” as the composer addressed his favorite patron, Nadezhda von Meck. (After Beethoven and Wagner, Tchaikovsky is the orchestra’s most performed composer.)

The Boston Symphony formed an ambitious working liaison with the Gewandhausorchester of Leipzig. It involves co-commissioning and residency exchanges among musicians and advanced students. Andris Nelsons is leading both orchestras and overseeing the project. 

Under Franz Welser-Möst, the Cleveland Orchestra introduced Let me tell you, Hans Abrahamsen’s lauded Shakespeare fantasy on Ophelia’s words and last year’s Grawemeyer award winner. Barbara Hannigan sang the Paul Griffiths setting.

The Albany Symphony made a performance tour of the Erie Canal, stopping in several places, in honor of the canal’s bicentennial.

Annoying songs get stuck in the brain more, says a recent study, when a task is too difficult, and the mind wanders. AARP reports that listening to classical music lowers blood pressure. MIT neuroscientists learned that American musicians, as opposed to those in simpler cultures, have the highest rate of preference for consonant music over dissonant. An Iraqi maimed in a bombing learned to play the santur, a variety of hammer dulcimer, and he no longer requires medication to keep his body from rejecting transplants. Warner Music Group paid $14 million to settle claims about its rules for using “Happy Birthday.” 

Anne Kaier writes about learning to sing despite a genetic tissue disorder: “I know that when I am singing my best I make beauty and feel powerful physical pleasure.” There is a movement to update the clothing of orchestral musicians, to make performing more comfortable. Vests, tunics, no lapels, and mesh sleeves are under consideration.

New York City routinely disparages its Philharmonic Orchestra music directors, but snuffles dejectedly when they leave. In his final concerts there, Alan Gilbert garnered warm reminiscences for the creative festivals he devised, the new music he championed, and for his democratic chamber-music participation as a violinist. Incoming director Jaap van Zweden had better grow a thick skin. He opened the season with a vigorous, lean Mahler Fifth, soon followed by Philip Glass’s Two-piano Concerto, which the New York Times called “Gershwin as a minimalist.”)

The Philharmonic is grappling with other turbulence at the top. Former President and Chief Executive Officer Deborah Borda, who left in 2000 to hold the same position with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, returned to her original New York post, replacing Matthew VanBesien, who moved to replace outgoing president Ken Fischer at the University of Michigan’s UMS. Interestingly, not long after Borda’s arrival, the controversial plans to renovate the New York hall were placed on the back burner.

Christoph Eschenbach stepped down as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, and is succeeded by Gianandrea Noseda. The St. Louis Symphony appointed Stéphane Denève as David Robertson’s successor. Bernard Labadie will succeed Pablo Heras-Casado as music director of Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Thomas Dausgaard will succeed Ludovic Morlot as music director of the Seattle Symphony in the 2019-2020 season.

Damian Woetzel will become the new president of the Juilliard School in 2018, succeeding Joseph Polisi, Juilliard’s president since 1984.

Angel’s Bone, by Du Yun, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music. Her opera’s premiere was at New York’s Prototype Festival. Word was that Royce Vavrek’s riveting libretto and the eclectic mix of chamber music, theatre, pop music, opera, cabaret, involving visual arts and noise, formed a harmonious and moving piece. Play, a 47-minute orchestral work by American composer Andrew Norman, is the winner of the prestigious 2017 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. 

Juilliard alumni were among the inaugural six notables inducted into “Legends at Lincoln Center: Performing Arts Hall of Fame.” The names of Yo-Yo Ma, Audra McDonald, and Leontyne Price will be carved into paving stones on Josie Robertson Plaza, accompanied by a marker that, when scanned with a mobile device, will give patrons access to interpretive content and stories about artists. Other inductees are Louis Armstrong, Plácido Domingo, and Harold Prince. 

Claire Chase, founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble, is the first flutist to win the Avery Fisher Prize. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton took the Beverly Sills Award, and soprano Nadine Sierra, the Richard Tucker. Coming up: her first Susannah in The Marriage of Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera. Yekwon Sunwoo, 28, from South Korea, won the gold medal at the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. • 

In 2017 and late 2016, the music world recorded the loss of composers Pauline Oliveros, Karel Husa, Francis Thorne, Pierre Henry; conductors Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Jiri Belohlávek, Georges Prêtre, Jeffrey Tate, Louis Frémaux, Fiora Contino; pianists Walter Hautzig, Zoltán Kocsis; violinist Paul Zukofsky, Fredell Lack; cellists Jules Eskin, Heinrich Schiff; flutist Fenwick Smith; clarinetist Ernst Ottensamer; sopranos Roberta Peters, Barbara Cook, Brenda Lewis; tenor Nicolai Gedda; countertenor Russell Oberlin; bass Kurt Moll; music announcer June LeBell; poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko; photographer Don Hunstein; artist manager Mary Lynn Fixler; impresario Harvey Lichtenstein; record producer Max Wilcox; musicologists Philip Gossett, Henry-Louis de La Grange, Donald Mitchell; director Peter Hall.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to, the New York Times, Opera News, Los Angeles Times, Classical Voice North America, American Record Guide, Berkshire Eagle, and other publications.