The Year in Music North America

By Leslie Kandell

The New York Philharmonic performed a historic concert in Pyongyang, North Korea, in  February. No classical- music event has been so internationally televised, broadcast, and streamed, as well as chronicled by a planeload of journalists interviewing and blogging every step of the way. The program was standard rep—Dvorák, Gershwin, that sort of thing—but the concert, in the works for two years and now on DVD, was the first-ever appearance of an American orchestra in North Korea, and a remarkable cap to an Asian tour that included the Philharmonic’s first trip to Shanghai.

 The extraordinary corps of ad hoc cultural ambassadors led by Lorin Maazel, who is concluding his seven-year tenure as music director, caused a momentary thaw between two nations, and diplomacy inched forward. Governments talked, people talked, Cristiane Amanpour talked—they let her and her camera crew into their nuclear disablement facility. Pyongyang suddenly sprouted decorative lights, sumptuous food, and Internet access.
The music world had its own meeting (or collision) with the larger world, which for the musicians was a humbling experience. One reporter announced a piece by Brahms that was actually by Bizet, and another mispronounced Dvorák—perhaps because he knows nothing of the “New World” Symphony, or where “Goin’ Home” comes from. Bassist Jon Deak was identified on air as clarinetist Stanley Drucker, and “Arirang,” a Korean folk song played as an encore in a huge arrangement, was misidentified as the North Korean national anthem.
Never mind. The concert went off smoothly and entered the consciousness of millions. Condoleezza Rice scoffed at the politics and fanfare, but this was an overture that softened some hard lines.
Christoph Eschenbach, concluding his five-year tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, led its three-week tour of Japan, China, and South Korea, with soloists Midori, Lang Lang, and orchestra principals. Repertory was standard, but two programs—like those of other touring orchestras—had a selection by Leonard Bernstein.
As a two-week prelude to the Beijing Olympic Games, the Yale School of Music joined Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music in hosting public concerts, lectures, and master classes for students from ten international conservatories. Part of the event was a concert tour by the Yale Philharmonia with Asian alumni as soloists in performances in Seoul, the Forbidden City, and Shanghai.
It is customary to note composers’ centennial years, but unique to acknowledge that Elliott Carter, at age 100, continues to produce compositions given premieres around the country and the world. His latest works are relatively calm with sustained notes, or small-scaled with interest in wordplay, suggesting that he feels he’s proved everything he has to prove. “All About Elliott,” a weeklong tribute at the Juilliard School, presented Carter’s works in context with those of other composers. The Pacifica Quartet performed and recorded his quartets (five to date). At Tanglewood, James Levine designed a five-day, 47-piece all-Carter tribute, which he had planned to play and conduct but missed for medical reasons. Both of these multi-concert events presented world premieres. Intricate, brainy middle-period works were performed with great love, by students as well as established artists who have known Carter for decades. Television images in a reflective film about the composer, A Labyrinth of Time, revealed an urban musical context. His perplexing one-act opera, What’s Next?, had several East Coast outings with better critical than audience reception. Ursula Oppens worked closely with him on his complete piano works, finding them—to Carter’s bemusement—tuneful.
The French composer Olivier Messiaen, who died in 1992, was born one day before Carter. His Quartet for the End of Time has become a repertory staple, and his incredible orchestral hulks (David Robertson inventively turned Turangalîla-symphonie into a music lesson) had much attention in North America and Western Europe. Messiaen performances are listed on
Other centenaries meriting concerts and recordings were of Alexander Schneider, Herbert von Karajan, and Lyndon B. Johnson, in whose memory the oratorio August 4, 1964, by Steven Stucky, was introduced by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. (The date refers to Johnson’s misleading announcement that a United States ship had been attacked in the Tonkin Gulf.)Leonard Bernstein’s 90th year was commemorated by a Carnegie Hall and New York Philharmonic collaboration; concerts, films, reminiscences, and recitals (including a version of Mass performed by inner-city high school students) took place in several New York venues.
Composers honored around the country on their 70th birthdays were William Bolcom (with his imposing Symphony No. 8, a William Blake setting with chorus), John Corigliano with (several days of his works at the Brooklyn Philharmonic), John Harbison (his new Symphony No. 5, thoughts on the Orpheus legend, has two singers and texts by three poets), William Thomas McKinley (won the Koussevitzky International Recording Award for Concert Variations with violinist Glenn Dicterow, violist Karen Dreyfus, and the Warsaw National Philharmonic under Carl St. Clair), Frederic Rzewski (in an all-Rzewski retrospective concert), Stanley Silverman (birthday noted on Access Hollywood), Joan Tower (honored in three concerts by the Cassatt Quartet), and Charles Wuorinen (who has begun Brokeback Mountain for New York City Opera).
James Levine is 65: The Boston Symphony released a biographical podcast in tribute. Physical ailments that occasionally take him away from the podium have not affected his towering genius as adventurer, planner, advocate, and conductor. After canceling his Tanglewood appearances to recuperate from removal of a kidney, he returned to the Metropolitan Opera in September to conduct the Met Orchestra and Chorus in Verdi’s Requiem in memory of Luciano Pavarotti.
Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, stated on NPR that the Met’s mission is to “convince a broader public that opera is great theater.” Live broadcasts at movie theaters (see feature, page 58) have boosted house attendance over ten percent, he said, and the house is energized by new theatricality. Crossover is not necessarily a bad thing, he added—it’s a bridge to opera. (The concept did not extend to Rufus Wainwright, whose commission to compose Prima Donna was cancelled because Wainwright insisted on a libretto in French. “Presenting a new opera that is not in English at the Met when it could be in English is an immediate impediment to its potential success with audiences,” Gelb told the New York Times.)
Recent American operas have intriguing subjects, but critics were uncertain of their lasting musical success: Elmer Gantry by Robert Aldridge, based on the Sinclair Lewis novel, had its premiere at the Nashville Opera before coming to Montclair, New Jersey. Howard Shore, composer of The Fly, which opened at the Los Angeles Opera, is known for movie scores, but his opera was thought ponderous and enervating. San Francisco Opera (with a new $40 million gift) offered The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Stewart Wallace, based on Amy Tan’s novel about mysterious relationships in a Chinese-American family. Jake Heggie’s Last Acts—domestic angst via Terrence McNally with chamber orchestra and two pianos—was introduced at Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera. In Northampton, Our American Cousin by Eric Sawyer, with a libretto by John Shoptaw, probed the assassination of President Lincoln from the point of view of the actors in Ford’s Theater on that fateful night.
The connection of new works with the halls in which they are performed was the subject of  “Shaping Sound,” a discussion-concert series with composers and architects, organized by the composer/conductor Victoria Bond. It took place in New York’s Thalia Theater, once a respected (if smelly) center for old cult movies. It cleaned up fairly nicely (with funds from Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy), and was a usable site for the space-based chamber works. The first of them, Silent Temple by Bright Sheng, followed a talk with Clifford Gayley of the firm that built Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall, which was itself modeled after Vienna’s Musikverein. Other architectural firms represented in the discussions were the builders of Carnegie Hall’s underground Zankel Hall and Seattle’s Benaroya Hall.
Audiences can respond well to new music but, Aspen Music Festival President Alan Fletcher wrote, in part: “. . . It has to be music of integrity, expressive strength, and technical accomplishment. It must be advocated by performers who deeply believe in it. It helps if the performers have a talent for explaining why they believe. It helps if there’s some narrative element that the listener uses to enter into the listening experience expectantly rather than resistantly. . . .”
Evocative titles and length control increase appeal. The 20-minute Violin Concerto No. 2 by  George Tsontakis, which won the 2005 Grawemeyer Award, begins with “Surges Among Stars,” a kaleidoscopic movement of harp, piano, glockenspiel, and soft busy violins that set off the soloist. Hold me, neighbor, in this storm, Aleksandra Vrebalov’s strings-plus piece, introduced by the Kronos Quartet, is colored by ethnic instruments and a tape of the Serbian composer’s grandmother singing.
Electronic music is here to stay, and assistance in loving it is offered at every turn. The theme of this year’s June in Buffalo festival was “Music and Computers”: Composers, performers, and students of electronic music met for seminars, lectures, master classes, panel discussions, open rehearsals, and public concerts.
The annual installment of Juilliard’s “Beyond the Machine,” with its chamber ensemble Axiom, was “The Art of the Groove,” merging “classical craft and sensibilities with the rhythmic language and energy of modern times.” The African shaman in Incantation, a premiere by Jeremiah Duarte Bills, had not only rattle and bells, but flute and oh yes, laptop.
The Reno Chamber Orchestra gave the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Joseph Schwantner’s Chasing Light; commissioned by the multi-orchestra Ford Made in America, it is to be performed by 58 orchestras in all 50 states.
Summer festivals were pervaded by themes of death, not necessarily followed by transfiguration. Mostly Mozart presented the U.S. premiere of the oratorio La Passion de Simone by Kaija Saariaho, its composer-inresidence, and staged by Peter Sellars. The young philosopher Simone Weil (sung by Dawn Upshaw), starved herself to death in a Nazi camp. Kurt Weill and BertoltBrecht’s Rise and Fall of Mahagonny, a rough satire on Americans’ search for Utopia, and evil twin of the engaging Threepenny Opera, had flawed productions at the Los Angeles Opera and Tanglewood Music Center. In a second staging, Amistad, the slave ship uprising tale by Anthony Davis, was the centerpiece of Charleston’s Spoleto Festival; at the Park Avenue Armory, Lincoln Center Festival featured a rare staging of the German expressionist Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1965 Die Soldaten, called “an outcry at the brutality that man visits on his fellow man”—in this case woman. Bard’s “Prokofiev and his World” staged Karol Szymanowski’s opera King Roger, with an unpleasant plot and the intrepid Leon Botstein managing to hold the American Symphony Orchestra together.
It was a year for changes at the top of the country’s major orchestras. The relative youth of the appointees suggests they could be in place long enough for search committees to rest up from past years. The New York Philharmonic appointed Alan Gilbert music director, Pittsburgh decided
on Manfred Honeck, and the Dallas Opera chose George Steel as general director: All are in their forties. General directors Alexander Neef of the Canadian Opera and Timothy O’Leary of Opera Theater of St. Louis are in their thirties, and Gustavo Dudamel, music director-designate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is in his twenties.
In news of senior shiftings, Riccardo Muti, who had earlier spurned the New York Philharmonic, accepted as music director of the Chicago Symphony in 2010-11. That same season, Christoph Eschenbach, having left Philadelphia, will become music director not only of Washington’s National Symphony, replacing Leonard Slatkin, but the newly created post of the Kennedy Center as well. Donald Runnicles leaves the San Francisco Opera to become music director of the Deutsche Oper. Edo de Waart, continuing his midwest ties, is at the Milwaukee Symphony, and Belgian-born innovator Gerard Mortier arrives as general manager and artistic director at New York City Opera (which is crossing its figurative fingers).
Neemi Järvi bids farewell to the New Jersey Symphony. Joel Smirnoff gave up his position as first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet and chair of the School’s violin department to become president of the Cleveland Institute of Music; he is to be succeeded by Nick Eanet. Hugh Wolff holds New England Conservatory’s newly created “director of orchestras” post.
David Lang, recently appointed to the faculty of Yale University (along with Christopher  Theofanidis), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Little Match Girl Passion, a neo-minimalist choral work performed at Carnegie Hall, but which can be heard any time at Zubin Mehta is the winner of Japan’s Praemium Imperiale.
Peter Lieberson won the Grawemeyer Award for Neruda Songs, inspired by the illness of his late wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who sang them with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Boston Symphony, the co-commissioners.
The National Endowment for the Arts has established Opera Honors, which were awarded to James Levine, Leontyne Price, Carlisle Floyd, and Richard Gaddes.
An ASCAP award for adventurous programming went to the Minnesota and American Composers orchestras.
Dawn Upshaw, muse of Osvaldo Golijov and star of Kaija Saariaho’s new oratorio, La Passion de Simone, at the Mostly Mozart Festival, was awarded a MacArthur grant last year for “breaking down stylistic barriers;” the newest MacArthur awardees are violinist Leila Josefowicz, who explores new sounds, and critic Alex Ross. The Naumburg cello award was split between David Requiro and Anita Lenzinger. Major winners of the 2008 Missouri Southern International Piano Competition in Joplin, Missouri, all have Asian names. Bálint Karosi, the first American organist to win Leipzig’s Bach competition, gave a lecture/recital at his church in Boston about the pieces and organs he played in Germany.
For his dedication to performances of works suppressed by the Nazi regime, James Conlon was awarded the Galileo 2000 Prize from the Foundazione Premio Galileo 2000 and Medal of the American Liszt Society. (He’s so busy that he accepts awards by video.)
In 2008 and late 2007, the music world noted the loss of composers Karlheinz Stockhausen,  Bebe Barron, Henry Brant, Norman Dello Joio, Andrew Imbrie, Mauricio Kagel; conductors Richard Westenburg, Robert Bass, Nicola Rescigno, Craig Smith; pianists Leonard Pennario, Alexander Slobodyanik, Louis Teicher; violinist Siegmund Nissel; clarinetist and recording-company executive David Oppenheim; soprano Frances Yeend; tenor Giuseppe di Stefano; baritone Frank Guarrera; piano maker Henry Z. Steinway; music scholars H. Wiley Hitchcock, Leonard Meyer; publisher Warren B. Syer; managers Herbert Barrett, Harry J. Kraut, Gudrun Wagner; director and coach Janet Bookspan; publicist Edgar Vincent.
Leslie Kandell contributes to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, American Record Guide, BBC Music Magazine, Berkshire Eagle, and other publications.


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