Best Classical Music of 2021
From left: Angel Blue and Will Liverman in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at the Metropolitan Opera, and Magdalena Kozena in “Innocence” at the Aix Festival.Credit…From left: Jeenah Moon for The New York Times; Sara Krulwich/The New York Times; Jean-Louis Fernandez
Best Classical Music of 2021
During the year and a half when the pandemic forced performing arts institutions to close, and countless freelance artists lost their livelihoods, the fragility of classical music was exposed as never before. But the art form returned to an extent that seemed impossible during the bleak early months of 2021. Some institutions made strong statements by grappling with roiling societal issues. Others simply celebrated by joyously resuming business as usual.
A Last Gasp for Mostly Mozart?
The Mostly Mozart Festival was canceled this summer, but in August, with determination and good cheer, a group of 13 players from the festival’s superb pickup orchestra gave a free outdoor concert on Lincoln Center’s plaza. The lithe, elegant performance of Mozart’s “Gran Partita” Wind Serenade was heard by several hundred grateful listeners. Though Mostly Mozart has found a devoted audience over the decades, its future is now under discussion. Might this auspicious return prove to have been a sad farewell?
The Metropolitan Opera Returns — Four Times Over
The Metropolitan Opera returned — almost inadvertently — with a series of performances that spoke meaningfully to the moment. Even as the company was still embroiled in contentious labor negotiations with its orchestra musicians — who, along with choristers and other employees, were furloughed without pay for months — members of the orchestra and chorus, along with four fine solo singers, performed at the Knockdown Center in Queens.
Led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director, the program was a gift from dedicated artists who had come to an outer borough to play music and share an implicit message: “We’re still here; we’re thinking about you, our loyal audience; and affirming our purpose.”
Then, over Labor Day weekend, after negotiations with the unions were finally settled, the full orchestra and chorus presented two free outdoor performances in Damrosch Park, in the shadow of the opera house, of the most fitting piece imaginable: Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, led by Nézet-Séguin. A week later, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, the Met opened its doors for the first time in 18 months and presented a sublime account of Verdi’s Requiem.
On Sept. 27, the Met opened its season in earnest with a stirring performance of Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” the first work by a Black composer to be presented by the company in its 138-year history (and an adaptation of the memoir by the New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow). For those fearing that audiences might be still wary of attending performances: “Fire” enjoyed a nearly sold-out run.
The Philadelphia Orchestra Opens Carnegie Hall
On paper, the concert with which Carnegie Hall returned to live performances after being closed for 572 days looked simply crowd-pleasing, as befits a fund-raising gala. Nézet-Séguin — leading the Philadelphia Orchestra, which he also directs — included Bernstein’s festive “Candide” overture and Beethoven’s omnipresent Fifth Symphony.
Yet the program opened with Valerie Coleman’s “Seven O’Clock Shout,” written during the pandemic as a tribute to frontline workers, followed by the pianist Yuja Wang in a crackling account of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto. Beethoven’s Fifth was preceded by Imam Habibi’s dark, restless “Jeder Baum spricht,” written in dialogue with the symphony. And there was nothing standard about the volatile performance of the Fifth that Nézet-Séguin drew from the orchestra.
Paul Appleby and Conor Hanick
As major New York institutions reopened, a recital by the tenor Paul Appleby and the pianist Conor Hanick in the Board of Officers Room at the Park Avenue Armory was a gratifying reminder that music also thrives in intimate spaces. This appealing tenor, accompanied by a superb pianist best known in contemporary repertory, offered an intelligently conceived, beautifully performed program of songs in German, including Beethoven’s cycle “An die ferne Geliebte” and Berg’s breakthrough work, the “Altenberg Lieder.”
For more than half a century, Young Concert Artists has been presenting gifted emerging performers in New York. This essential mission resumed in November, when Zhu Wang, a 24-year-old pianist from China, gave a recital at Zankel Hall. His thoughtful program included refined accounts of works by Marcello (a Bach arrangement), Schumann and Liszt, along with a recent score by Zhang Zhao and a premiere by Nina Shekhar, the organization’s composer in residence.
Juilliard’s Baroque Rarity
Opera-lovers in the New York area have long flocked to the Juilliard School to encounter star singers of the future in inventive (and affordable) productions of both familiar and overlooked works. The program returned in November with an assured, affecting and playful staging of Luigi Rossi’s inexplicably neglected “Orfeo,” from 1647. Avi Stein led Juilliard415, the school’s top-notch early music ensemble. Re-emerging with a Baroque take on a myth about the power of music felt appropriate.
Michael Tilson Thomas at the Philharmonic
The New York Philharmonic returned this season in the midst of momentous transitions. While David Geffen Hall is undergoing renovations, the orchestra is performing mostly at Alice Tully Hall and the Rose Theater. A search is also now underway for a new music director, after Jaap van Zweden announced his intention to step down in 2024.
Several programs so far have been exciting, with new and recent works by Anne Clyne, Hannah Kendall, Anthony Davis and Missy Mazzoli, and appearances by major soloists. The most inspiring return took place in early November, when the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, having taken three months off to recover from surgery for a brain tumor, led the Philharmonic for the first time in 10 years — in a demanding program of works by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Berg’s Violin Concerto (with Gil Shaham as soloist) and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. Clearly keeping this commitment meant a great deal to Thomas, and the audience at Alice Tully Hall responded with a hero’s welcome.
The Met Goes Back Inside
It’s not my favorite piece.
While Verdi is always dear to me, even in good renditions his Requiem has its longueurs. So I was hardly dreading it, but I wasn’t thinking, as I lined up outside the Metropolitan Opera for the company’s performance of the work on Sept. 11, that it would be the most memorable music-making of this strange year of slow, unsteady returns.
A week earlier, the Met had given a pair of outdoor Mahler performances to celebrate finally coming to terms with its unions after a bruising battle. But with the Requiem, the public re-entered the company’s gleaming theater at Lincoln Center for the first time since March 11, 2020.
This would have been momentous enough, but that day was also the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Exhilaration and gratitude at being back in a space that has shaped my life was tempered by mourning the immensity of the pandemic’s losses and what we had endured two decades ago — our increasing distance from the attacks and their endless closeness.
It was a confluence of emotions, but, strangely, not a conflict. The feelings all amplified one another. I can’t have been the only person in the audience wanting to rise, to become part of the performance before it even began: The reception of the company’s Mahler had been warm, but I don’t think anyone quite anticipated the ovation that greeted the orchestra and chorus as they walked onstage for the Requiem.
It was an outpouring to honor the musicians who had spent nearly a year furloughed without pay. And to acknowledge that we in the darkened opera house, standing, applauding, cheering, were alive.
The Mahler, however stirring, had inevitably diffused a bit in the open air; Verdi’s music, though, filled the theater and bloomed, accumulating rather than dissolving. His Requiem telescopes from grandeur to intimate prayer and back again, and with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the company’s music director, conducting, the sound was robust but never too heavy, with a golden shine rather than a bronzed burn. The “Sanctus” had lively sweetness; even the ferocious “Dies irae” felt more affirming than grim. (The vitality of all those people playing and singing their hearts out beat the tidings of the Day of Judgment.)
The longueurs didn’t disappear, but there was joy even in being bored. The mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, the tenor Matthew Polenzani and the bass-baritone Eric Owens were fine soloists. And then there was the soprano Ailyn Pérez. She relished the text, treating it as urgent revelation; her voice vibrated with passion while being utterly controlled. Simultaneously larger than life and deeply human, she captured what opera can be, bringing us all back to the art form we adore.
The Composer of the Year
It always feels frivolous to speak in superlatives, but this year it’s fitting — necessary, even — to name a best composer.
Kaija Saariaho, who has long conjured otherworldly sounds with the spirit of an explorer returning to share her discoveries, reached new heights of mastery with two of 2021’s most memorable premieres: the opera “Innocence” and the symphonic “Vista.”
In both, there was a disconnect between first impressions of sight and sound. At the Grand Théâtre de Provence in France, where “Innocence” premiered at the Aix Festival in July, the London Symphony Orchestra filled the pit with enough players to carry a Wagner opera. “Vista,” which I watched on livestreams from Berlin and Helsinki before hearing it in person with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in October, similarly called for an ensemble of about 80. (Susanna Malkki, Saariaho’s finest interpreter, conducted all of these.)
Rarely, though, did either piece deploy the full forces of the orchestra. “Vista” opens with an interplay of oboes; “Innocence,” with just a handful of low instruments before the entrance of a wailing bassoon. No note is extraneous, in part because there aren’t that many to begin with. Like Flaubert’s sentences, Saariaho’s writing here is crafted with the economy of an essentialist. Only the mot juste remains.
But to maximal effect. And in that lies the wisdom of Saariaho’s most recent music, which feels like the culmination of a master’s practice. For decades, she has interrogated the possibilities of acoustic and electronic sounds: how they’re produced and transformed, how they can trick the mind and tingle the senses. She has also, as she told the pianist Kirill Gerstein in a recent online conversation, spent those years honing her own kind of harmony, free from the restrictions of her serialism-era education.
“Vista” does have explosively grand moments, yet doesn’t rely on them for its power. Instead its allure and tension accumulate from textures that shift slowly, like a driver’s view of an open landscape. “Innocence” is by its nature more dramatic but achieves its heightened emotions through absence as much as exclamation.
A propulsive collective memory play — about a shooting at an international school and its long tail of trauma — “Innocence” is a ripped-from-the-headlines opera for our time. But it also has the makings of a classic, drawing the universal from the personal in its treatment of grief and forgiveness; it fits neatly on the shelf alongside “Jenufa” and “Wozzeck.”
Sofi Oksanen’s libretto reveals its mysteries gradually, as it moves fluidly among years, languages and relationships — with a cast of 13 singers and actors, each identifiable by a unique musical palette. That seems like a lot, especially with a large orchestra and chorus, but “Innocence” is a triumph of restraint and legibility. Magisterial in her command of such forces, Saariaho writes unwaveringly in service of the drama. And the scale follows.
“Innocence” is bound for major houses in Europe and the United States, including the Metropolitan Opera. “Vista,” too, is still traveling. So Saariaho should continue to be a highlight of the classical music year, for years to come.
Seth Colter Walls
Reawakening, Not Just Reopening
As the coronavirus pandemic wore on into 2021, it was tempting to praise almost any performance that managed to make it to the stage. Still, there remained a sharp difference between reopening and reawakening. Getting ensembles back together to play the usual repertoire represented the former impulse — and was no small thing to get right. The latter prospect was even more challenging, so all the more impressive when it worked.
This summer, Opera Theater of St. Louis truly reawakened, putting on William Grant Still’s “Highway 1, U.S.A.” Rarely staged (or even recorded) since its 1963 premiere, this one-act by the man widely known as the dean of Black composers is a compact, entertaining and beguiling piece. (Its libretto, by Verna Arvey, is one reason for the elegantly swift pace.)
Though Still and Arvey, committed integrationists, did not specify the races of the characters in their down-home, strong-work-ethic milieu, the all-Black cast in St. Louis reveled in bringing touches of gospel, blues and jazz to their characterizations. The company’s necessarily brief streaming-video presentation back in September was a revelation — and an implicit challenge to other companies.
The Metropolitan Opera moved to reawaken too, deciding to move up its scheduled production of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” adapted from a memoir by the New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow. It was the first work by a Black composer to be performed in the Met’s 138-year history.
Blanchard’s small-ensemble jazz work and his scores for Spike Lee films have given me much pleasure over the years, so it was a joy to see his work performed by America’s largest performing arts organization — a truly grand opera decked out with a large orchestra and chorus and fluid stagecraft.
Those things are common at the Met, but “Fire” also brought less familiar attributes, including step dancing and a drummer. And not just any drummer, but Jeff “Tain” Watts, whose pedigree as a onetime Young Lion in New York’s 1980s jazz scene helped propel several scenes in Kasi Lemmons’s libretto. Watts’s feel for swing also worked in ideal fashion alongside the tempos of the Met’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Watts was also heard in another opera production this year, not long after his Met debut. That turn came in “Iphigenia,” an adaptation-slash-critique of Euripides with a score by Wayne Shorter and a libretto by Esperanza Spalding. Presented by Arts Emerson in Boston, Watts appeared alongside members of the New England Conservatory Orchestra and players from Shorter’s long-running jazz quartet. The piece wasn’t as dramatically satisfying as the work of Still and Arvey or Blanchard and Lemmons. Yet the interplay between established jazz figures and the impressive student orchestra was often gripping.
I recalled Watts’s season in opera when reading the pianist and critic Ethan Iverson’s essay on a new recording of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” Iverson made a brief pitch for his definition of what puts the “American” in American classical music: “swing, the blues, probably a drum set.” The opera world may at last be coming around to the same position.
Building a Richer Repertory
“Are we getting there? Are we finally building a more inclusive culture in classical music?”
Those were the questions I asked 12 months ago in our end-of-year roundup, noting a flurry of worthwhile recordings of works by women composers. Ask the same question again now, and the answer would have to be a stronger — if still preliminary and heavily caveated — yes.
On record, the momentum continues. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a welcome convert to the cause, has begun a Florence Price cycle with the Philadelphia Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon); John Jeter has completed his (Naxos). The Takacs Quartet has followed its superb account of Amy Beach’s Piano Quintet with an equally convincing version of Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet (Hyperion). The Louise Farrenc discography has broadened enough that one can now debate the merits of three sets of her symphonies, the latest competitor being an ongoing effort from Laurence Equilbey and the Insula Orchestra (Erato).
And several orchestras have taken the pause offered by the pandemic to reassess their output. Farrenc is everywhere, and Price likewise; Beach, whose “Gaelic” Symphony received an outing in Seattle last month, ought not be far behind. Pauline Viardot’s “Cendrillon” had a revival at Wolf Trap Opera in July; Nadia Boulanger was the focus of the Bard Music Festival in August; Stephen Tharp performed the organ works of Jeanne Demessieux at St. Thomas Church in New York in November.
There is, of course, considerable distance to go, and there is still the air of tokenism about some of this work; in a program sold as “Brahms and the Schumanns,” the New York Philharmonic managed to relegate Clara Schumann to a brief piano solo alongside big works by her husband Robert and their friend Johannes Brahms. But even if ensembles are trying merely to appear more progressive in their programming, that’s still a sign that those gatekeepers who have for so long guarded a narrow understanding of music have started to feel the imperative for change. Baby steps.