The Year in Music: North America

By Leslie Kandell

A new music director and Sunday matinees at Met Opera. Van Zweden at NY Phil. Noseda’s contract extended in D.C. Principal flutist sues BSO in salary dispute. Stars accused of sexual misconduct. Leila
Josefowicz is Avery Fisher Prize winner.

Leonard Bernstein, whose centennial was celebrated all over the world, described his occupation with only one word: musician. He was right not to narrow it down. His talents were so wide-ranging that Stravinsky called him “a department store of music.” Among his departments were conductor, composer, and pianist—as well as scholar, self-indulgent poet, Jew, husband, boyfriend, father, grandfather, advocate, lecturer, television personality, mentor, smoker, party animal. His podium performances of big symphonies looked like meltdowns, if not acts of self-immolation. Yet what he could do with the opening of Mozart’s 40th Symphony or, for that matter, the Andante of his 39th—one heard them with different ears. When Bernstein died in 1990, the editorial headline in the New York Times editorial was “Monarch.” If American music had one, it would be he.

Tanglewood, the Berkshires summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was veneration central. For a half-century, Bernstein spent two weeks there around his August 25 birthday, teaching and conducting its student fellows, leading the BSO, partying at all hours. Tanglewood framed its 2018 schedule around his compositions, as well as pieces by Mahler, Sibelius, and Brahms that he championed and loved to conduct. Except for the symphonies and Mass, almost everything he composed was performed—including scores from movies and shows—amounting to about two-thirds of the total. The gala birthday concert was filmed by Great Performances for a year-end broadcast on PBS.

His symphonies were heard elsewhere, as were West Side Story, Peter Pan, Candide, On the Town, Chichester Psalms, and there were screenings of On the Waterfront, for which he composed his only film score. At Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, Mass, led by Louis Langrée at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, was less well received than the performance at Ravinia conducted by Bernstein’s devoted protégée Marin Alsop. Recordings and radio tributes were abundant. Sony Classical released a 100-CD box of remastered early and mid-career Columbia recordings, nearly all with the New York Philharmonic, from 1950 to 1972, with several smaller breakouts of the set: as composer, conductor, and pianist, and “Leonard Bernstein at Harvard” (13-CD Audiobook). From his second major recording company, Deutsche Grammophon, came a 121-CD and 36-DVD set of his DG and Decca recordings, from 1976 to 1990; only the Beethoven symphonies were remastered. Warner Classics released a seven-CD set of Bernstein’s mid-1970s recordings with the Orchestre National de France. Antonio Pappano and Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia recorded the symphonies (Warner), and the New York Philharmonic, which Bernstein conducted during the turbulent 1960s. The Philharmonic's August programming was dedicated to his memory, from audience education to championing of Mahler, plus historic audio from his legendary debut and the opening of Lincoln Center. Memoirs were published, and Omnibus and Young People’s Concerts were televised on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). 

From the beginning, Lenny was known by one name only—like Marilyn and Aretha. He lives on as a transcendent communicator: a brilliant conductor, teacher of children and adults, memorable crossover pianist and composer of Broadway musicals based on Shakespeare and Voltaire. “If you miss Mars by a quarter-note,” he told a conducting student, “you’ve missed Mars.” Did Leonard Bernstein ever miss Mars? Sometimes, but what a ride. 

Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s appointment as Metropolitan Opera music director, originally scheduled for 2020, began two years early due to James Levine’s departure and the resulting turmoil at the Met’s top level.

The Met reached a “ground-breaking” contract settlement with unions representing the orchestra, chorus, singers, and stage managers. For the first time in the company’s history, beginning in the 2019-20 season,  Sunday matinees will be performed at the Met. Moreover, in the following season, there will be a mid-winter break in February when fewer people traditionally attend the opera, allowing the season to be extended from mid-May to mid-June—which Met General Manager Peter Gelb believes will attract a new audience. 

The Met revived Rossini’s Semiramide after 25 years, with Angela Meade passing the stamina test, and the audience having a surprisingly good time: at the Met premiere of Nico Muhly’s Marnie, not so much. Another good time at the Met was also provided by Nézet-Séguin at the helm in revivals of Strauss’s Elektra—with Christine Goerke commanding in the title role and Elza van den Heever holding her own as Chrysothemis—and Parsifal, which oozed with 1,250 gallons of stage blood.

Several operas that had premieres elsewhere made it to the United States, or were retooled for subsequent productions there. A new Dr. Atomic by John Adams and Peter Sellars at Santa Fe Opera brought the story close to where the Manhattan Project developed the first atomic bomb, racing the Nazis to do it. The same pair’s new Girls of the Golden West, co-commissioned with the San Francisco Opera, is set in a California mining town. Its premiere there had mixed reviews, as most current operas seem to.

Charles Wuorinen’s complex, atonal Brokeback Mountain, which opened in Madrid in 2014, was presented at New York City Opera, for which it had been originally planned before the company’s demise and rebirth.

The Silver River, by Bright Sheng with David Henry Hwang, tells an ancient Chinese story about a celestial Goddess-Weaver, who spins stars and plays music on her loom, and a cowherd who creates beautiful music with his lute. Its 1997 premiere at Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival was the first of several productions; Chamber Music Northwest, in Portland, Oregon, got it this year. St. Louis
presented the American premiere of the racially charged An American Soldier, by Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang, about an army private of Chinese descent. 

Houston Grand Opera moved back into surroundings restored after Hurricane Hugo, presenting The Phoenix, by Tarik O’Regan and librettist John Caird, which featured Thomas Hampson and Luca Pisaroni playing different ages of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist. 

Opera Philadelphia introduced Sky on Swings, by Lembit Beecher with Hannah Moscovitch, about memory loss, starring Frederica von Stade and Marietta Simpson. The Philadelphia company also presented the short, darkly gothic Elizabeth Cree, by Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, creators of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night. Cree was then mounted by Chicago Lyric Opera, and a local review stated, “Not since Sweeney Todd have operatic blood, guts, and dismemberment been so entertaining.” 

Proving Up, the third opera by Missy Mazzoli, has a typically weird plot, a surprisingly unwelcoming score, and takes place on a bleak prairie; its premiere at Washington National Opera was followed at Opera Omaha and New York City’s Miller Theater.

Aiden Lang left his Seattle Opera post of general director after four years for the Welsh National Opera. Alexander Neef became the first artistic director of Santa Fe Opera, and Houston Grand Opera appointed Eun Sun Kim principal guest conductor.

It is cruel but wonderful that the Met Orchestra, elevated to greatness by James Levine, did fine without him. Conductors Mirga GraĹžinyte-Tyla, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Gianandrea Noseda were well reviewed with the ensemble.

Speaking of Noseda, the National Symphony Orchestra extended his contract as music director through 2024-25. Noseda, who at the Kennedy Center’s Shift Festival showed himself to be skillful and gracious, will benefit from the $10 million raised for recordings of Beethoven Symphonies, radio broadcasts, and touring.

Jaap van Zweden has concluded his decade-long tenure as music director at the Dallas Symphony, officially moving into his new position as music director of the New York Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the new Dallas Symphony music director is Fabio Luisi, and the orchestra’s CEO is Kim Noltemy.

Tod Machover’s sixth of his “city symphony” projects, Philadelphia Voices, is for the Philadelphia Orchestra, choruses, and recorded sounds of the city and its people, including the sizzle of a cheesesteak on the grill. It was given its premiere at the Kimmel Center and made its New York debut at Carnegie Hall.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, resident composer at the New York Philharmonic, conducted the premiere of Metacosmos by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, which the Times described as “radiant.”

It was love at first hearing for the Toronto Symphony and 42-year-old conductor Gustavo Gimeno, who will become music director in the orchestra’s 2020-21 season. Stéphane Denève was appointed music director of the St. Louis Symphony, and Andrew Jorgensen joined Opera Theatre of Saint Louis as general director.

Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School appointed Bramwell Tovey as its artistic advisor. Tovey recently concluded an 18-year tenure as the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s music director, after which he was named music director emeritus of that ensemble. Vancouver, without skipping a beat, appointed 48-year-old Dutch conductor Otto Tausk as music director.

Under its new Music Director Simon Rattle, the London Symphony plans a tour of 44 cities in 19 countries, including several in North and—in a first—South America.

Lincoln Center commissioned In the Name of the Earth by John Luther Adams, a monumental 45-minute work for 800 voices in which multiple choirs moved around America’s largest cathedral, St. John the Divine. Adams employed indigenous names of geographical features across North America to weave a sonic landscape honoring earth, water, and wind. The original venue—Central Park—was
rained out, but the cathedral was judged favorable to the ethereal, meticulously honed sounds. Participating singers, 

whether experienced or amateur, found it more thrilling than did the listeners, who waited on security check lines.

There was more Mozart at Tanglewood than at Mostly Mozart Festival, though pianist Emanuel Ax made a robust contribution to both festivals. And at Bard’s meaty Summerfest, a Leon Botstein-sized spotlight was thrown on Rimsky-Korsakov and His World.

Continuing the tradition of presenting immersive experiences, Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, directed by Thomas Adès, who conducted and had a premiere, was infused with the presence of the late Oliver Knussen, a beloved teacher and admired composer.

Juilliard’s FOCUS! festival of new music, conceived and led every year by Joel Sachs, offered “China Today,” highlighting composers who live and work in that vast country.

Kronos Quartet presented a San Francisco weekend festival devoted to collaborations on new works with composers it has commissioned.

Kendrick Lamar became the first hip-hop performer to win a Pulitzer Prize, for his album Damn. President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University called it a “virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”

Bent Sorensen, a Danish composer whose flickering motifs draw comparisons to paintings of Georges Seurat, won the Grawemeyer Award for his triple concerto, L’Isola della Città.

Igor Levit, a Russian-born pianist raised in Germany, won the $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award, given every four years. Both the Richard Tucker and Beverly Sills awards went to the flamboyant soprano Nadine Sierra, and violinist Leila Josefowicz won the Avery Fisher Prize.

Georgian pianist Nicolas Namoradze (age 26) has been named Prize Laureate of Calgary’s Honens International Piano Competition. He wins the world’s largest prize for piano $100,000 (CAD) and an Artist Development Program valued at $500,000.

The following high-profile musical figures resigned or were dismissed from their positions amid accusations, denials, and lawsuits: James Levine, Metropolitan Opera music director; Charles Dutoit, Royal Philharmonic conductor; Daniele Gatti, Royal Concertgebouw chief conductor; William Preucil, Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster; David Daniels, counter-tenor and professor at the University of Michigan; organist James David Christie, professor at Oberlin College and Conservatory.

Flute suit: Boston Symphony Orchestra Principal Flute Elizabeth Rowe sued for $200,000 in back pay, stating that the male principal oboist makes $70,000 a year more than she. The orchestra denied that the salary is gender-based, citing different skills for each instrument and the fact that Rowe’s pay for solos is the highest of the orchestra’s principals.

The copyright for the song “Happy Birthday” was ruled invalid, leaving Warner Bros. on the hook for $14 million in settlement claims. 

Max Richter’s 2012 Sleep, which has unsurprisingly been compared to a lullaby, is performed live over eight hours, while the audience sleeps on cots provided. It has been heard in Europe, and was slept through in several U.S. locations.

A study reported by AARP found lower blood pressure readings in classical-music listeners. An Iranian farmer quoted in a New York Times story maintained that hearing music daily “makes the cows eat more and then produce more milk.”

Politics: Composer Caroline Shaw said, “You can write something that people sing together and talk about with each other, and that’s where the conversations have to start.” Michael Gandolfi’s appealing In America was commissioned by Tanglewood, and sets edgy texts about current political issues and divisions.

In 2018 and late 2017, the music world recorded the loss of composers Oliver Knussen, Olly Wilson, George Walker, William Mayer, Glenn Branca; composer and music critic Eric Salzman; composer and flutist Katherine Hoover; conductors Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Jesús López-Cobos, Maurice Peress, John Oliver, Robert De Cormier, Claudio Scimone; violinists Robert Mann, Wanda Wilkomirska; violist Michael Tree; flutist Paul Dunkel; trumpeter Hugh Masekela; sopranos Montserrat Caballé, Carol Neblett, Kristine Ciesinski, Inge Borkh; baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky; bass Bonaldo Giaiotti; directors Frank Corsaro, Tito Capobianco; choreographers Paul Taylor, Arthur Mitchell, Lindsay Kemp; musicologist Franz Beyer; impresario David DiChiera; José Antonio Abreu, conductor and educator who created Venezuela’s El Sistema; Charles Hamlen, artist manager and founder of Classical Action, which supports AIDS research; Russ Solomon, founder of Tower Records; Simonetta Puccini, who convinced a court that she was the composer’s descendant; Alan Gershwin, who controversially maintained that he was the son of George. •

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.