The Year in Music: North America

By Leslie Kandell

E-P inherits MTT’s SFSO. Susan Wadsworth retires from YCA. Domingo banished from the Met forever. “Phil the Hall” says NYPhil for $5 a ticket. Nelson’s Die Walküre at Tanglewood. The “amazing” Leon Botstein hails Erich Wolfgang Korngold at Bard.

Places to hear music are springing up around the country. The remarkable Shed—which is what it looks like from the outside—appeared on Manhattan’s West Side, by the Hudson River. Where the High Line meets the new Hudson Yards, the Shed is on a plaza near a clutch of giant buildings and stores that have changed the skyline, without—mercifully—causing the island to sink. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro with the Rockwell Group, the Shed will commission works across all disciplines, physically transforming to support artists’ ideas. It has high ceilings, airy spaces, movable room parts, escalators, and eateries. Classical music last autumn was highlighted by musicAeterna, a chorus and orchestra from Perm, Russia, in their North American debut. Accompanying the performance of Verdi’s Requiem was a cinematic artwork (co-commissioned with Baden-Baden’s Festspielhaus) by the late avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, inspired by words of poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, to whom the Requiem was dedicated.

Tanglewood’s elegant year-round Linde Center for Music and Learning—several one-story studios—provides space to connect audiences with musicians, artists, students, academics, and cultural leaders, exploring wider cultural ideas. Its clean-lined wood and glass rooms, in the spirit of nearby Seiji Ozawa Hall, were also designed by William Rawn, but its low buildings are climate-controlled, with a café. Ingenious landscaping and windows provide serene views of people strolling across spacious lawns, with a background of purple Berkshire mountains.

It was the inaugural season of La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, permanent home of La Jolla Music Society and host of performances presented by the Music Society as well as by other San Diego arts organizations. Like the Linde Center, the Conrad is a site for conferences, corporate meetings, and private events. Those who like Schubert with their Storm King have Tippet Rise, in Montana, commissioning site-specific works. New and old chamber music is performed within rock formations, and the Center presented its first indoor sculpture exhibition.

The vigorous Jaap van Zweden, in his second season at the New York Philharmonic, is pretty well settled in, producing bold and risky repertoire along with the comforting classics. Esa-Pekka Salonen is to succeed Michael Tilson Thomas, 75, who is retiring from the San Francisco Symphony after 25 years in a blaze of projects and commissions. Renée Fleming and Patrick Summers—an intriguing pair—are to head a new opera program at the Aspen Music Festival. Ken-David Masur became music director of the Milwaukee Symphony, and also principal conductor of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. Ludovic Morlot stepped down as Seattle Symphony music director after eight years. Gerard Schwarz was named artistic and music director of the Palm Beach Symphony beginning in 2019-20. Among retirements, Malcolm Lowe stepped down after 35 years as concertmaster of the Boston Symphony. Simon Woods stepped down after two years as chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Susan Wadsworth retired from the trailblazing Young Concert Artists, which she founded in 1961, and was given a concert in tribute at Alice Tully Hall. Sony Music Entertainment announced the promotions of Mark Cavell and Per Hauber to lead the company’s classical, jazz, Broadway, and non-traditional contemporary music business. They will be based in New York. Bogdan Roscic will step down from his post as head of Sony Music Classical to become the artistic director of the Vienna State Opera.

Carnegie Hall and some 70 partner institutions mounted a five-week event called “Migrations: The Making of America,” highlighting music that melted in the pot of American culture. Performances and talks in many venues encompassed such subjects as Ireland, India, Jews, Italy, and Africa. There were movies, museum tours, radio, and digital offerings.

As part of Gay Pride Month, the New York Philharmonic presented a group of concerts called “Music of Conscience.” One feature was John Corigliano’s AIDS Symphony, which sounded topical at the time but is holding up well, and another was the new prisoner of the state, David Lang’s grim take on Beethoven’s Fidelio.

The orchestra raised $50 million from donors who supported its incoming music director, Jaap van Zweden. “Phil the Hall” is its offering of $5 tickets to organizations including Coalition for the Homeless, the Bowery Mission, and God’s Love We Deliver. Seventy-five-minute concert programs show the diversity of classical music, and the first one showcased two pieces by children.

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, under the Québec-born Bernard Labadie, presented a Bach festival that included six dances choreographed to Bach’s music by Paul Taylor. Labadie also led Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec in Bach’s B Minor Mass at Carnegie Hall.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s exalted posts in Philadelphia and at the Met Opera have not dented his enthusiasm for his roots one bit. His hometown Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal had appointed him its music director when he was 25, and two decades later it has named him music director for life.

Franz Welser-Möst’s contract as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra has been extended an additional five years, to 2027.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin began his tenure as director of the Metropolitan Opera conservatively, with La Traviata. In the Met’s Ring, Québec-born Robert Lepage’s apparatus was somewhat less clunky than last time around, and Christine Goerke is the Brünnhilde of the hour. To one reviewer, the staging apparatus looked better from the cheaper seats. Apparently there was more action in Tanglewood’s concert version of Walküre, performed in three concerts over two days. 

Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel was decidedly better liked by critics than by audiences. 

The Met, which offered buyouts to 21 administrative employees and settled James Levine’s lawsuit, commissioned its first operas from women. Missy Mazzoli’s Lincoln in the Bardo is a ghost story with multiple narrators, and Grounded, about a pregnant fighter pilot, is by Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the play Fun Home. The libretto is by George Brant.

San Francisco Opera, which gave the West Coast premiere of Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life, cancelled its concert plan to mark Plácido Domingo’s 50th anniversary with the company when  Domingo was accused of sexual harassment. On the same day, the Philadelphia Orchestra withdrew its invitation to him to sing at its opening gala. The Los Angeles Opera, of which Domingo is general director, is investigating the charges. The Met initially decided to await L.A.’s determination, but amid outcry from singers and other Met employees, Domingo withdrew from the three Macbeths for which he was scheduled. Ċ½eljko Lucic, who was to sing the final three, was assigned all six. The Met statement said, “The Met and Mr. Domingo are in agreement that he needed to step down.” Moreover, they agreed that he would never sing again at the Met.

Paul Ruders composed The Thirteenth Child, introduced at Santa Fe Opera, with a libretto by Becky and David Starobin. A paranoid king banishes his 12 sons so that his daughter will rule. But, as in all fairy tales, the results are unexpected. The Handmaid’s Tale, composed by Ruders in 2000, was revived at Boston Lyric Opera.

Opera Saratoga presented Ricky Ian Gordon’s easy-to-digest Ellen West, about a woman (the wonderful Jennifer Zetlan) with an eating disorder.

Atlas, Meredith Monk’s lengthy 1991 excursion into the permutations of a couple of notes, was heard at Walt Disney Hall under Yuval Sharon.

Opera Theater of St. Louis introduced Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terence Blanchard, about the upbringing of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, starring bass-baritone Davóne Tines, recipient of the Sphinx Medal of Excellence. Long Beach Opera offered The Central Park Five by Anthony Davis. Also “ripped from the headlines” was Denis and Katya by Philip Venables at Opera Philadelphia, about the deaths of two 15-year-old Russian runaways in a standoff with Special Forces—which they videotaped.

Robert Ashley’s Improvement concerns Jewish women in the diaspora.

Opera Steamboat received a grant to commission Cookie, by Denver-based Leanna Kirchoff. It is a true local story about the first female auctioneer.

New York City Opera faces another big financial challenge: They’re in good company with the Met, although as the old Hertz ad said, “The overall effect is somewhat different.”

This year’s splashiest Tanglewood event, Die Walküre over three concerts, was performed by student instrumentalists of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. The bewildered, exhausted young players had a physical therapist in attendance, and won’t forget that experience any time soon.

The Lincoln Center Festival may have ended but the contract of Mostly Mozart was extended. Of interest last summer: a tour stop of The Magic Flute from Berlin’s Komische Oper, embracing what a reviewer called “its messy mix of fantasy, profundity, and silliness”; Langston Hughes’s The Black Clown, a music-theater adaptation of a dramatic monologue; Shostakovich’s Second Symphony; Schnittke’s Moz-Art. So take that, outdated “Mostly.”

Bard Summerscape delved into the world of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. His opera The Miracle of Heliane was staged and sung, with grand voices. Between-the-wars vocal writing style and touching orchestral interludes forecast Korngold’s successful Hollywood film scores. Its depraved characters, magic, gore, and power of love would have pleased Wagner; Strauss might have related to the score, and so maybe would Othmar Schoeck. The amazing Leon Botstein conducted at Bard’s Fisher Theater.

At the Ojai Festival, directed this year by Barbara Hannigan, one could hear free community concerts of John Luther Adams’s The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies in his three successive parts.

Maine’s 25-year-old Salt Bay Chamberfest focused on connecting music to historical and political ideas. Its opening concert highlighted Vijay Iyer, combining his work with Beethoven and Ravel. The Bridgehampton Festival, called “Winds of Change,” had some pieces by women, from Amy Beach to Jennifer Higdon.

String instruments by Stradivarius, Amati, and Guarneri del Gesu are being recorded for posterity, in an advanced computer project forcing the whole town of Cremona to be so quiet that cobblestone streets were closed off. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art renovated its musical instrument gallery, which houses some 250 instruments, some indigenous.

A German panel ruled that a 1706 Guarneri violin, confiscated by Nazis and valued at $158,000, could be retained by its present owners but that the heirs of its original owner should be compensated.

Liam Byrne is updating the viol repertoire; one new piece is Long Phrases for the Wilton Diptych, with live electronics, by Nico Muhly.

Raising money to repair disintegrating public school instruments, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lang composed the 40-minute symphony for a broken orchestra. It explores the idea that the instruments are, as Lang says, “only broken in the Western classical-music sense.”

An installation at the Met Breuer, Vessel Orchestra, commissioned by the museum, was composed of pots, with sound passed through them via microphones suspended above each object.

A New York Times article encouraged playing piano transcriptions of the classics as a way to transform oneself into a conductor—making choices like bringing instruments to the fore, according to taste. 

Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, with Thomas Adès in charge, began with The Cricket Recovers by Richard Ayres, a cute mini-opera in concert, with a feeble premise. A delightful idea was student-composed scores for silent film clips, from Buster Keaton to MetropolisPenelope, an unfinished work by André Previn with words by Tom Stoppard, was completed by Previn’s colleagues and put on with such luminaries as Renée Fleming and Uma Thurman. (Otherwise it would not be mentioned.) The Boston Symphony Orchestra produced a Kevin Puts co-commission (with U. of Texas Austin, Colorado SO, National SO, Eastman, and Naples Phil), The Brightness of Light, about Georgia O’Keeffe’s romance with photographer-husband Alfred Stieglitz. H. K. Gruber’s new trumpet concerto was composed for Håkan Hagegård and Music Director Andris Nelsons—both trumpet players, except that Nelsons now conducts the orchestra and plays trumpet only in private moments.

New oratorios included Dreamers by Jimmy Lopez, with a “poetic and poignant” libretto by Nilo Cruz, led at Berkeley by Esa-Pekka Salonen. It is about young undocumented immigrants whose right to remain in the U.S. is being disputed. Another oratorio, introduced at the New York Philharmonic, was Julia Wolfe’s Fire in my mouth, about the deadly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911. This affecting work included photos used as videos and voices of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, whose members wore aprons and snapped scissors.

Agency, David T. Little’s “brooding, politically charged” chamber piece, introduced by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, was, typically, not easy to absorb, but a composer talk helped.

Three years after the death of David Bowie, John Adams conducted the premiere of Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 12, “Lodger,” inspired by Bowie’s 1979 collaboration with Brian Eno, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Glass’s King Lear Overture, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, opened that orchestra’s season.

Both the Pulitzer Prize and the Music Critics Prize were awarded to Ellen Reid for her opera, Prism, which uses sophisticated vocal writing and striking instrumental timbres to confront effects of sexual and emotional abuse. Its libretto is by Roxie Perkins, and it was commissioned and produced by Beth Morrison Projects in association with Trinity Wall Street, and presented with the Los Angeles Opera and also the PROTOTYPE Festival.

The Grawemeyer Award went to Nomaden, by Joel Bons, for cello and chamber orchestra.

Soprano Lisette Oropesa won both the Richard Tucker and Beverly Sills awards, and the George London Foundation awarded its Kirsten Flagstad prize to tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven.

In 2019 and late 2018, the music world noted the loss of composer-conductor-pianist André Previn; composers Dominick Argento, Michael Colgrass, Michel Legrand, Ben Johnston, Mario Davidovsky, Christopher Rouse; conductors Michael Gielen, Joseph Flummerfelt; pianists Paul Badura-Skoda, Jörg Demus, Jacques Loussier; violinists Nina Beilina, Aaron Rosand; cellists Aldo Parisot, Anner Bylsma; flutist Robert Stallman; tuba player Sam Pilafian; sopranos Heather Harper, Hilde Zadek, Eva de La O; baritones Sanford Sylvan, Robert Orth, Theo Adam; bass Spiro Malas; opera director Franco Zeffirelli; organists Marilyn Mason, Peter Hurford; lutenist and founder of the Waverly Consort Michael Jaffee; harpsichord builder Wolfgang Zuckerman; Jack Renner, recording engineer; Quita Chavez, recording company executive; musicologist Vivian Perlis. •

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.