The Year in Music: International

By Keith Clarke

Gender issues in music. Mariss Jansons ups with the Bavarians. Simmering unrest at ENO. An all-white Porgy in Hungary. The CD format refuses to die. Classical Brits’ male artist of the year, Sheku, serenades the royal wedding. Scots arts under fire. Nina Stemme awarded $1 million Birgit Nilsson Prize.

The centennial of women’s suffrage in Britain saw renewed attention to gender issues in music and much hand-wringing among arts administrators, especially those deemed male, pale, and stale. At the Association of British Orchestras annual conference, James Murphy (later to be appointed chief executive of the Royal Philharmonic Society) put the cat among the pigeons by pointing out that of the 120 composers programmed by ABO member orchestras during January, only five were women.

The groundswell of opinion in favor of equality saw the BBC proms pledging a 50-50 gender balance among programmed composers by 2022, prompting a protest that it would be unfair on male composers—not from a male composer but from Faber Music vice-chair Sally Cavender.

Airlines worldwide maintained their reputation for wrecking instruments, Alitalia smashing up a 17th-century  viola da gamba and claiming it had been run over by a car. Also unexpected was the damage caused to a Brisbane pipe organ when a 51-year-old freemason was found lying drunk and naked inside it, holding a toy gun and a remote-controlled police car.

While streaming surged ahead and vinyl continued its unpredictable revival, the CD refused to lie down and die, despite many predictions of its demise. For Rebecca Allen, president of Decca Records Group U.K., streaming served to bolster physical sales. She said that Decca had weathered a midlife crisis, bringing in a consultancy to fix it: “You have to adapt or die.” Those pursuing the streaming  dollar (or potential dollar) sharpened their act in an increasingly competitive field. Among the less likely participants was the Vatican, live streaming The Sixteen’s performance of James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater from the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Deutsche Grammophon signed a new, exclusive agreement with Daniel Barenboim for much of his work, including as a cartoon character in Max & Maestro, a 2015 animated TV series in which he introduces 11-year-old rapper Max to classical music.

The Yellow Label also signed an exclusive contract with Yannick Nézet-Séguin in the hope he would make time for recording in between being music director of the Metropolitan Opera, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal.

Sony Music Entertainment promoted U.K. marketing manager Sarah Thwaites to head Sony Masterworks UK, succeeding Liam Toner, who moved to Sony Masterworks International. Sony Corp. had enough left in the coffers to gain control of EMI for a cool $2.3 billion, becoming the world’s largest music publisher.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation announced plans to dismantle its 85-year-old historic sound and reference libraries in Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth, and Hobart to cut wages and free up floor space. Only a fraction of the 100,000 CDs in the collections would be digitized and the future of 373,000 vinyl records was unknown.

The BBC’s director of radio and music Bob Shennan said streaming services represented an existential threat to BBC radio, stating: “We can see now, more clearly than ever, that the global media landscape is likely to be dominated by four, perhaps five, businesses on the West Coast of America.”

Cheerier news from U.K. commercial station Classic FM claimed that listenership to radio among under-25s increased by 43 percent during the last three months of 2017. 

The BBC moved out of historic Maida Vale Studios, a former roller skating rink that had been home to the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1934, transferring operations to a new, purpose-built facility in East London.

The year’s orchestral spectacular took place in a former power station, the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern playing host to the London Symphony Orchestra, split into three ensembles for Stockhausen’s Gruppen, conducted by Simon Rattle, Matthias Pintscher, and Duncan Ward.

Another London orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, grappled with multiple sexual misconduct allegations against Principal Conductor Charles Dutoit, announcing Vasily Petrenko as his successor from 2021.

Other new chief conductor announcements included Marin Alsop, winner of the Association of British Orchestras award, at the Vienna Radio Symphony, Fan Ting at the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Andrés Orozco-Estrada succeeding Philippe Jordan at the Vienna Symphony, New York native Karina Canellakis taking over from Markus Stenz at the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, and Maxim Emelyanychev taking over from Robin Ticciati at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Lined up for new music director roles were Lahav Shani, succeeding Zubin Mehta at the Israel Philharmonic, and Gergely Madaras at the Liège Royal Philharmonic. Barenboim protégé Thomas Guggeis was announced new Kapellmeister at the Staatsoper Stuttgart.

Mirga GraĹžinyte-Tyla, a former Musical America New Artist of the Month, who announced in March that she was expecting a baby, extended her contract for two years as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra until summer 2021, guaranteeing her presence for the orchestra’s centennial in 2020. Andrew Davis said he will step down as chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the end of his contract in December 2019, becoming conductor laureate. Also heading for the exit in 2019 was Daniel Harding, leaving his post as music director of the Orchestre de Paris, the resident symphonic ensemble at the new Philharmonie, after only three seasons in the job. The orchestra also announced that it would merge with the Philharmonie.

Mariss Jansons extended his contract as chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir through the 2023-24 season, and the Berlin Philharmonic designated him an honorary member of the orchestra, the players wishing to “express their gratitude for a long association,” adding his name to a distinguished list: Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Seiji Ozawa.

Garsington Opera, held at the Getty family home in rural southeast England, clocked up its first full-scale commission, David Sawer’s The Skating Rink, based on the novel of the same title by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. Krzysztof Penderecki, 85, announced that he would not be able to deliver Phaedra, planned for world premiere in the 2018-19 season of the Wiener Staatsoper. The BBC Proms packed in 41 premieres across the summer, including 27 world premieres and 14 U.K. or London premieres. Anna Meredith’s Five Telegrams, based on telegrams sent by young soldiers from the trenches in 1918, was performed outside the Royal Albert Hall, with specially commissioned digital images projected onto the walls of the building.

George Benjamin conducted the London Sinfonietta at a Prom at the Roundhouse, a former locomotive shed, in the premieres of works by Luca Francesconi, Georg Friedrich Haas, Hannah Kendall, and Isabel Mundry, all related to the First World War.

Welsh National Opera celebrated the centennial of women’s suffrage in the U.K. with a wacky new work from Elena Langer and librettist Emma Jenkins, Rhondda Rips it Up!—Artistic Director David Pountney having decided that “we would rather throw a party than preach a sermon.” 

In February a North Korean orchestra paved the way for Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un by taking a ferry to South Korea to take part in the Winter Olympics. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields capped a U.S. tour with a $1 million gift from the American Friends of the Academy president Maria Cardamone, leading up to the 2019 celebration of the 60th anniversary of its founding by Neville Marriner.

George Benjamin’s dark new opera Lessons in Love and Violence proved a challenge for some at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, carrying the weight of huge expectation following the runaway success of Written on Skin, but was generally considered another winner. A more unexpected world premiere at Covent Garden was a concert performance of Donizetti’s L’Ange de Nisida, completed in 1839 but unperformed as the Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris went bankrupt.

Less welcome for the Royal Opera was a high court ruling in favor of a staff violist who had sued for loss of hearing following rehearsals for Die Walküre in 2012. Chris Goldscheider’s legal team claimed that the orchestra sound peaked at around 137 decibels, the equivalent of a jet engine. The judge’s decision sent shock waves round the industry.

The Royal Opera’s former director of opera, Kasper Holten, returned to the Royal Danish Theater to oversee opera, theater, and dance.

English National Opera confounded expectation by appointing a TV executive with no experience of the opera business as new CEO, despite having at least two contenders on the shortlist who had run opera companies. Stuart Murphy said he hoped to be “relevant.” A union rep warned of “simmering unrest” among staff over working conditions. The company’s producing director, Terri-Jayne Griffin, quit, accusing the company of “a lack of artistic ambitions” under the new CEO.

David Mellor, a former culture secretary who brokered a deal to allow ENO to buy its London Coliseum home, was loudly critical of a company that now presents only 85 performances in the peak London opera season from September to April, subletting the building for much of the time to commercial musicals and Russian ballet companies.

London opera critics had an entertaining Twitter spat with composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, who said that he would give up writing opera following a less-than-enthusiastic response to his fourth chamber opera for children, Coraline.

Glyndebourne presented its first ever Madama Butterfly and a rare production of Barber’s Vanessa. The love story behind the foundation of the country opera house was told in London’s West End in a David Hare play, The Moderate Soprano.

Hungarian State Opera stirred up two hornets’ nests, first announcing an all-white Porgy and Bess, in contravention of the composer and librettist’s instructions, then cancelling the musical Billy Elliott following a homophobic protest in a state-run newspaper.

A wrongful termination dispute between Serge Dorny and the Dresden Semperoper was settled out of court, the swiftly unappointed intendant claiming that Principal Conductor Christian Thielemann had usurped much of the job. “There cannot be another God alongside Thielemann,” wrote Die Welt.

Lauren Zhang, a 16-year-old Chinese-American pianist, was named BBC Young Musician 2018. Her predecessor, 2016 winner Sheku Kanneh-Mason, a Musical America New Artist of the Month, became the year’s best-selling British debut artist, his first album reaching No. 1 on the (U.K.) classical chart with 2.5 million streams on Spotify alone. Later in the year he pulled out of a concert with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra when he received an offer he couldn’t refuse: to perform at the royal wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.

Kanneh-Mason also won the male artist of the year and the critics’ choice prize at the Classic Brits, renamed and relaunched after a five-year absence. Renée Fleming was named female artist of the year and the musical theater duo of Michael Ball and Alfie Boe won group of the year and best album.

Two new competitions named winners: 35-year-old Gabor Kali of Hungary winning Hong Kong’s first international orchestra conducting competition and American mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey, 25, taking the inaugural Glyndebourne Opera Cup.

Prague International Spring Competition named Alexandre Collard of France winner of the French horn section but could find no one to claim the cello prize. Swedish soprano Nina Stemme was awarded the $1 million Birgit Nilsson Prize, and soprano Gemma Summerfield won the Chilcott Award for young British opera singers.

France got another new concert hall, Le Couvent des Jacobins, Le Centre des Congrès de Rennes, a new home for the Brittany Symphony Orchestra created from a converted 14th-century Dominican convent in the city of Rennes. 

Istanbul got the green light to build the Atatürk Cultural Center, to include a 2,500-seat opera house, several smaller concert halls, theaters, cinemas, libraries, shops, and restaurant, replacing the city’s 1960s-era opera house, closed for a decade because it cannot handle the technical demands of modern opera performances.

Scotland’s national arts agency Creative Scotland landed in the thistles following funding cuts in January. The country’s only disability-led arts organization was among groups facing an uncertain future. The agency came under fire from the Scottish government’s culture minister and was forced into an embarrassing U-turn. In July, chief executive Janet Archer resigned, having lost the confidence of her staff. Also in Scotland, Stirling Council threatened major cuts to Big Noise, Scotland’s version of El Sistema, bringing star violinist Nicola Benedetti out fighting, telling a national newspaper: “Combined with proposed cuts to music services up and down the country this is another travesty, demonstrating a deep-seated lack of understanding on what it is to make music together.”

In London the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room—smaller sisters to the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank site—reopened in April after a two-year refurbishment. Earlier in the year, Jude Kelly, director of the Southbank Center since 2006, announced that she would be stepping down to focus on the Women of the World festival she founded in 2010.

The British Museum unveiled plans for its first music festival, “Europe and the World,” building on similar events already held at major museums in Jerusalem and Dresden.

King’s College, Cambridge, whose celebrated Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is broadcast worldwide on Christmas Eve every year, secured Daniel Hyde, organist and director of music at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, to become director of music, succeeding Stephen Cleobury, who retires in September 2019 after 37 years.

In Brussels, La Monnaie presented a European project, Orfeo & Majnun, and the work got its French premiere at the Aix-en-Provence festival. Also on the festival circuit, Salzburg offered five new opera productions, including a Peter Sellars La clemenza di Tito; Bayreuth had no Ring but a new production of Lohengrin and Plácido Domingo conducting Die Walküre. In Finland, the spectacular castle setting of Savonlinna saw The Queen of Spades with a Russian-Finnish cast. Bregenz Festival presented the world premiere of Thomas Larcher’s The Hunting Gun. The Leonard Bernstein centennial was comprehensively celebrated at the Pacific Music Festival he founded in Sapporo, Japan. •

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