The Year in Music: International

By Keith Clarke

The rise of streaming. “Temperamental” Barenboim under fire in Berlin. Brexit concerns. Haitink’s last concert. Debuts for 2020 Bayreuth Ring. A nearly all-white cast of the Gershwins’ Porgy in Hungary. Victoria Bond’s Clara in Baden-Baden. Two major awards for Mutter.

The year began with cheery news for classical labels in year-end sales figures claiming that sales of classical music in 2018 grew faster than those for any other genre—by 10 percent, as compared to a 5.7 percent rise for all other types of music. The figures, compiled by the Official Charts Company for BPI, the British Recorded Music Industry (equivalent to RIAA), stated that more than 2.2 million
classical albums—almost 60 percent in CD format—were purchased, downloaded, or streamed. Streaming classical music increased by 42 percent over the previous year’s figures. Classical downloads were down 13.4 percent, a smaller drop than the wider market at 26 percent. 

Universal Music Group aimed to capitalize on the rise of streaming by announcing a new unified management structure for its Classics and Jazz Division. President and CEO of Universal Classics and Jazz, Dickon Stainer, took on yet more responsibilities, adding the Verve Group to his portfolio.

The U.K. got a new classical-music broadcasting station in Scala Radio, a digital platform aimed at younger listeners. It was encouraged by research carried out for station owners Bauer Media that claimed 45 percent of under-35s listened to classical music to escape the noise of 21st-century life. Among the presenting team was the U.K.’s youngest commissioned composer, 19-year-old Jack Pepper.

A new TV drama depicting life in a fictional orchestra with a woman conductor was launched in Belgium and Switzerland before going live on French national TV, attracting large audiences.

Having swept in like the U.S. Cavalry to save English National Opera, Artistic Director Daniel Kramer decided that three years was enough in his first admin role and quit. The company’s backstage staff benefited from a new union deal that closed the gap in pay between men and women working in the company’s costume, wardrobe, and wigs departments. Before leaving, Kramer announced a 2019-20 season that would celebrate “the rise of the feminine,” enlisting women to direct more than half of the seven new productions and three revivals.

The Royal Opera appeared to be moving in the other direction, with only one woman among the 19 conductors scheduled for the opera’s main stage, Ariane Matiakh taking some performances of a revival of La bohème. Director of Opera Oliver Mears stated that it was not an acceptable ratio and that future years would redress the balance. 

Shock waves went around the music business when the U.K. Court of Appeal ruled that the Royal Opera House failed to take reasonable steps to protect the hearing of violist Christopher Goldscheider during a 2012 rehearsal of Wagner’s Die Walküre. The company had argued that the artistic merit of the music being played outweighed hearing damage that was both inevitable and justifiable, a line of argument that was unanimously rejected by the court.

Welsh National Opera lost both artistic director and managing director, failing to renew David Pountney’s contract and losing Leonora Thomson in the course of a strategic review. The two had run the company jointly but fell afoul of a decision to return to the model of single leadership, a job that now falls to Aidan Lang from Seattle Opera as general director.

The Paris Opera named Alexander Neef as successor to Stéphane Lissner as general director from the 2021-22 season.

Bayreuth announced a new Ring Cycle for 2020, with Austrian director Valentin Schwarz, Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen, and American soprano Christine Goerke making their house debuts. 

In Milan there was dissent at the $16.9 million five-year partnership between La Scala and the Saudi Arabian government, following outrage over the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. La Scala decided to return $3.4 million of the cash. The Saudi proposal included giving a seat on the La Scala board to Saudi Arabia’s culture minister. The Mayor of Milan, Giuseppe
Sala, who also chairs La Scala’s board, said the $3.4 million had been deposited into an escrow account without the theater’s consent.

The Greek National Opera received a $22.7 million grant to implement a four-year program to help raise the company’s international profile and fund its season-long tribute to the 200th anniversary of the Greek Revolution of 1821.

Hungarian State Opera sought to get around the Gershwin estate’s stipulation that only black performers should appear in Porgy and Bess, asking its nearly all-white cast to self-identify as African-American. The Hungarian performers were asked to sign a statement declaring that “African-American origin and identity is an inseparable part of my identity” and made being in the production “a
special joy.”

The Orchestre National de France put a cat among the pigeons by hiring Charles Dutoit, who has faced multiple accusations of sexual assault, to conduct Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at the Paris Philharmonie, stating that he was the only conductor with the necessary skills available at short notice after the scheduled conductor pulled out for medical reasons. The decision was roundly condemned by retired French soprano Anne-Sophie Schmidt, one of Dutoit’s accusers, who said she lamented the “powerful and catastrophic message” it sends to victims of assault. Dutoit denies wrongdoing and has faced no charge. 

Daniel Barenboim came under fire in Berlin for his “temperamental” directing style, one former member of the Staatsoper stating that he had taken anti-depressants to be able to play again following what he saw as 16 years of harassment by the conductor. Barenboim hit back, questioning the timing of the claims, saying, “Why did the accusations not emerge previously, but only now? In my view, it’s linked to a campaign to prevent me from staying on in Berlin.”

British orchestras became increasingly concerned about the likely results of the Brexit saga. Adding to the woes of losing as much as 30 percent of Arts Council England funding, the political uncertainty meant losing European dates, not knowing what future work permits might look like or what impact future customs arrangements might have on the movement of instruments, and what additional costs might come about from the loss of access to the European health insurance card. The situation could put some well-known orchestras at risk, Parliament was told.

London’s Philharmonia Orchestra swapped one Finn for another, naming 33-year-old Santtu-Matias Rouvali as principal conductor for a five-year term, beginning with the 2021-22 season. He succeeds Esa-Pekka Salonen. Rouvali is currently principal guest conductor. The orchestra’s managing director, Helen Sprott, elected to step down after two years in the job. During her short time with the Philharmonia she was credited with launching the Negaunee Conducting Program at the Colburn School.

The Vienna Philharmonic announced the launch of a training academy for a dozen students aged 12 to 26. At the other end of the age scale, the orchestra voted to give honorary membership to Bernard Haitink, who turned 90 in March and announced his retirement from the podium after several onstage falls. Deciding against a planned sabbatical year, the conductor indicated that his last concert would be at the Lucerne Festival in September.

Nicholas Collon was named the first non-Finnish chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony, starting fall 2021. The Royal Concertgebouw launched a youth orchestra, Concertgebouworkest Young, which debuted in Amsterdam and Brussels in late August.

The organ at Notre Dame Cathedral survived the fire that badly damaged the Paris landmark, though extensive repair work was necessary. The Vienna Philharmonic said it would donate the proceeds of a concert in Berlin to the reconstruction of the building.

Plans were released for London’s proposed multimillion-pound Centre for Music by the chosen architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the team responsible for opening up Lincoln Center. Simon Rattle’s dream venue, a new home for the London Symphony Orchestra, is planned for the site currently occupied by the Museum of London.

The southwest London suburb of Wimbledon, home of lawn tennis, also announced plans for a new venue, a 1,250-seat concert hall to be designed by Frank Gehry, who lost out to Diller Scofidio + Renfro for the LSO hall. The Wimbledon hall was costed at $84 million tops, some way short of the Centre for Music’s $386 million.

Edinburgh was also planning a new venue, local councilors narrowly approving construction of the city’s first new concert hall in 100 years. The $59 million Dunard Centre is to become home to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and selected Edinburgh Festival performances.

The new $346 million Xiqu Centre in Hong Kong was the subject of controversy shortly after opening, the top executive of the Chinese Artists Association of Hong Kong stating that only a few companies would be able to afford to perform there. In Rome, Monsignor Massimo Palombella, appointed director of the Sistine Chapel Choir by the Pope in 2010, resigned, as investigations into money laundering and fraud deepened.

The organizers of the annual six-week-long summer festival in Lucerne announced the closure of its two offshoots, the Easter Festival and the Piano Festival. 

At another Easter Festival, the Berlin Philharmonic’s in Baden-Baden, the world premiere of American composer Victoria Bond’s opera Clara, based on the life of Clara Schumann, was enthusiastically received, and Riccardo Muti conducted an electrifying Verdi Requiem with a standout solo performance by Elina Garanca. 

In Milan, Fabio Luisi quit as music director of the Maggio Musicale, hard on the heels of a behind-the-scenes power struggle over Cristiano Chiarot’s departure as the theater’s intendant.

Ukrainian baritone Andrei Kymach, 31, triumphed at the biennial BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, with English soprano Katie Bray winning the Audience Prize and Chinese tenor Mingjie Lei the Song Prize. British composer Rebecca Saunders won the 2019 international

Ernst von Siemens prize of $282,000, the first woman composer to win; Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan was awarded Denmark’s highest musical honor, the 2020 Léonie Sonning Music Prize; Italian ensemble Quartetto di Cremona won the Franco Buitoni Award 2019.

The inaugural Aga Khan Music Awards, which offer an eye-watering $500,000 in prizes, were held in Lisbon, with the first performance award going to the blind singer and oud player Mustafa Said. Another new award was the government-funded China International Music Competition, held in Beijing at the China Conservatory of Music, where Canadian pianist Tony Siqi Yun took the top prize of $150,000.

French pianist Alexandre Kantorow won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. Chinese competitor Tianxu An won unexpected publicity and a “Special Prize for Courage and Restraint” when the program order was changed just before he appeared onstage but announced only in Russian.

Violinist Anne Sophie-Mutter, Musical America’s 2011 Musician of the Year, took two stellar music awards in 2019: Sweden’s Polar Music Prize and Japan’s Praemium Imperiale. The Carl Nielsen Competition gave top prizes to Johan Dalene of Sweden, violin; Blaz Sparovec of Slovenia, clarinet; and Joséphine Olech of France, flute. In Helsinki, Swedish soprano Johanna Wallroth took top prize at the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition. Russian soprano Liubov Medvedeva won the Siemens Opera Contest at the Opéra Garnier in Paris.

It was a rich year for new concertos, with under-served instruments getting a shot at the limelight. There were trombone concertos from John Casken, Gavin Higgins, and James Stephenson, an accordion concerto from Jonathan Dove, who also had a new piano concerto at the BBC Proms, trumpet concertos from Thea Musgrave and Robin Holloway, a percussion concerto from Helen Grime, a viola concerto from Gerald Barry, and a clarinet concerto from Paul Dean.

Harrison Birtwistle turned 85 but showed no sign of slowing down, with premieres of his Duet for Eight Strings for viola and cello in London and ...when falling asleep for soprano, reciter, and ensemble in Birmingham and Hamburg.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic called in at the Edinburgh International Festival to give the European premiere of John Adams’s new piano concerto, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?

Proms premieres included more than 20 BBC commissions. The season marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing by opening with Zosha Di Castri’s Long Is The Journey, Short Is The Memory and saw the U.K. premiere of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos, a musical metaphor for falling into a black hole.

There was also the world premiere of Radiohead frontman Jonny Greenwood’s Horror vacui, which simulates electronic sound using 68 string instruments played acoustically, and Martyn Brabbins presented a 21st-century companion to Elgar’s Enigma Variations 120 years on, with variations by 14 living composers, including Sally Beamish, Harrison Birtwistle, Dai Fujikura, and Judith Weir.

The emperor had no clothes in a Lithuanian National Opera production of Turandot after the costumes were stolen from a truck during transit.

Bass players were given the chance to avoid trial by baggage handler with the creation of a self-assembly TravelBass by a team of Italian luthiers in Parma.

Another new Turandot, by the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei incorporating the demonstrations in Hong Kong, was planned for an early 2020 staging at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma.

In Denmark a pilot program of serving up “culture vitamins”—artistic excursions for the depressed—was deemed a success.

The world’s largest piano was unveiled in Latvia. At 20 feet high, it is accessible to pianists by a steep flight of stairs. 

The St. Petersburg Concert Choir celebrated Defender of the Fatherland Day in February with a performance of a song about the total nuclear annihilation of the United States.

While President Trump flip-flopped on Huawei, the Chinese telecoms behemoth announced that it had “finished” Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony using artificial intelligence. No one discovered why. •

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