The Best and Worst of Classical Music in 2013

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advertising for New York City Opera's performance of 'Anna Nicole' is seen at BAM, before the company filed for bankruptcy Advertising for New York City Opera's performance of 'Anna Nicole' is seen at BAM, before the company filed for bankruptcy (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The year 2013 saw plenty of headline-making moments in classical music. Protesters came to the opening night of the Met, while a stagehands strike cancelled the opening night at Carnegie Hall. There were heated debates over women conductors and some complicated celebrations for Richard Wagner. It was another tough year for some orchestras but a good one for Benjamin Britten fans.

In this edition of Conducting Business, three experts talk about the past year: Anne Midgette, classical music critic of the Washington Post; Justin Davidson, classical music and architecture critic for New York magazine; and Heidi Waleson, a classical music critic for the Wall Street Journal.

High Points:

Anne: In the year that Van Cliburn died, Anne was particularly excited to hear the 22-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov: “Trifonov is a pianist whom I find totally exciting. I hear a lot of great concerts in the course of a year but I find that Trifonov has something really special and is a really interesting artist and somebody I look forward to hearing again and again.”

Justin on Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra's staging of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at the Mostly Mozart Festival: “One of things I really liked about it was it was one of these really portable productions. It was done in a concert hall with the orchestra on stage, no sets, minimal props, costumes that were taken off a clothes rack that was sitting on the stage…With minimal resources they produced one of the most effervescent and inventive productions I’ve seen of that opera. What it said to me is how much you can do with how little.” [Read more of Justin's picks at]

Heidi: George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, given its U.S. premiere at Tanglewood in August: “So often you see these new operas and you think, ‘Why did they bother? Why did you turn this movie or this book into an opera?' This was a completely new piece of writing and it had a tension to it from beginning to end. It has a fantastically colorful and intricate orchestration, which includes a solo moment for the viola da gamba."


Low Point:

The closing of New York City Opera in October after a last-ditch campaign to raise funds for its 2014 season fell through.

Anne: “It is not a sign that New York can’t support two opera companies. It is a sign that, due to poor decisions on behalf of the board and a whole sequence of events, this particular thing happened that really didn’t need to happen.”

Justin: "One thing that you can take away from that is it is really the product of a classical music and operatic infrastructure that, over the years, got overextended. While we have learned how to expand, trying to do planned shrinkage and figure out how to contract” is tougher for the classical music business. "If you have union contracts and have a season that establishes a kind of baseline, it’s very, very difficult to say ‘we need this to be smaller.’”

Heidi: “It was unable to come up with a convincing audience strategy, opera house strategy or even artistic strategy. They did try a few things that I thought were quite interesting – doing for example A Quiet Place, a Leonard Bernstein opera that had never been done in New York… They were in fact trying to reestablish themselves as something that was alternative to the Met, that was a little more forward-looking, and I think it’s really a shame that they couldn’t.”


Anne: The spotlight in 2013 turned to women – women conductors, women composers. “Classical music has proven to have a particularly thick glass ceiling. People are looking at the situation and saying, ‘It’s been years people, why do we still not have very many female conductors on the podium? And when we do, why is it such a big deal?’ There’s still that funny ambivalence about how far we should look at this as a phenomenon and how far we should pretend we’ve all been equal all along.”

Justin: The lack of women on major podiums is “a sign of the difficulty that the whole establishment has in adapting at all. What happens is these institutions are very rigid and brittle and when they come up against an obstacle they know that they’re going to splinter and so they avoid the obstacles. It’s a very inflexible set of relationships…

Heidi: “The New York Philharmonic seems to be about 50 percent women these days – so why not on the podium?”

Justin on the arrival of alternative opera and non-traditional performance venues, as seen in events like the Prototype Festival: “With the cost of real estate in New York, companies are finding cheaper venues and the technology has matured enough so all that you really need is a pretty small room and a fairly minimal investment in machinery to be able to put on a pretty sophisticated multimedia event."

Heidi: “There are other organizations doing similar kinds of things: The Gotham Chamber Opera put on a Cavalli opera [Eliogabalo] in a burlesque club... It attracts a different kind of audience. You can break through some of the formality of going to the opera house and sitting in the velvet seat and watching the gold curtain go up."



Justin: Caroline Shaw, a 30-year-old New York composer, violinist and singer (right), became the youngest ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize in music for her Partita for 8 Voices (heard at the start of this segment). “It has a quality that almost no contemporary music has, which is joy. It’s something that we’ve forgotten is part of the classical music tradition and an important one.” 

Anne: “It’s interesting in that [Shaw] doesn’t even self-identify as a composer but as a violinist. The Pulitzer has been very eager to expand its reach and get outside of the norm of what had been deemed Pulitzer-worthy over the years and I think this is a sign that this is happening.”

Heidi on Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s musical of “Fun Home” at the Public Theater: "I see a lot of new operas, and so many of them are overblown, trying so hard that they feel stillborn. 'Fun Home,' based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, tells the story of a critical juncture in Alison’s life: she came out as a lesbian in college, and several months later, her father, whom she had just found out was a closeted gay man, killed himself by walking in front of a truck. The piece uses music in the way that you wish these new operas would – to deeply explore feelings in a raw, immediate way." (Note: this "bonus pick" did not make it into the podcast.)


Listen to the full discussion above and tell us: what were your high and low points in classical music in 2013?

Photo credits: Shutterstock; Caroline Shaw by Piotr Redliński, 2013

Hosted by:

Naomi Lewin


Brian Wise


More in:

Comments [8]

Michael from New York, NY

The only worse thing I can encounter was I believe a recent concert that Michael Tilson Thomas conducted and someone in the audience coughed. The maestro went backstage to bring out a coughdrop to that audience member and then continued on with the concert. I'm not sure how worse that can be with anyone like that during a concert. However, in honor of the conductor himself, WQXR had a showdown at 12 noon every Wednesday, but couldn't hear the work they featured with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.

Dec. 31 2013 07:35 PM
john dunbar from Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

In what surely amounts to a cultural distortion of the relative importance of things, comments about women's issues and feminist perspectives infuse virtually every topic of public life. How boring and predictable ! The best policy is generally to simply ignore them all.

All one has to do to learn that these people are `cultural imperialists' is to look around. Women now dominate virtually every area of public life so that, as Winston Churchill observed when he visited the United States at the end of the 19th century, there are too many women everywhere.

Dec. 30 2013 07:56 AM

Surely the worst or low point must include the interminable "fund-raising"--begging for dollars on WQXR.

Dec. 27 2013 06:32 AM

@David from Flushing

Follow the money? Women audiences? Does this equate to women donors? Or does the money come from Mr./Mrs. but Mr. brings home the bacon?

If it's a family trust, are the trustees male? Or female?

I don't know the answers but I can make a pretty good guess. Statistically speaking.


Dec. 26 2013 10:47 PM
David from Flushing

I have always been under the impression that the majority of classical music audiences are female. It seems unlikely there is a prejudice against women conductors at least at this level. There are some orchestras known for their exclusion of female musicians not to mention conductors. There is probably less of this in the US than in parts of Europe. Unfortunately, the general shrinkage of opportunities in classical music does not favor women.

Dec. 23 2013 07:27 PM
Bernie from UWS

Mr. Robins - what century do you live in? The fact is, there are plenty of women conductors leading smaller orchestras but the big ones don't engage them because they're afraid of upsetting their wealthy, mostly conservative donors. If there are 50/50 men and women in the ranks of orchestra players, it's clear that there's plenty of female talent going into classical music. It's just that there are glass ceilings keeping them out of the top ranks of the conducting field. It's another case of classical music seeming out of touch with the rest of our society.

Dec. 23 2013 12:15 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

I'd just like to list my high points: James Levine returning to work at the Met and Carnegie Hall; ;Hilary Hahn commissioning and performing encores from 27 contemporary composers; Daniel Barenboim conducting "Der Ring des Niebelungen" at the London Proms; Riccardo Muti conducting "Messa di Requiem" on Verdi's birthday on the Internet and conducting "Otello" with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Franz Welser-Mo"st pairing Beethoven and Shostakovich symphonies (3-6;4-8;5-10) on the Cleveland Orchestra's European tour and in Cleveland; the "War Requiem" and "Peter Grimes" practically everywhere; Valery Gergiev and the Youth Symphony Orchestra of the United States in D.C., Moscow, St. Petersburg and at the London Proms; Rolando Villazon returning to the Met after vocal problems; Marin Alsop and Joyce di Donato at the Last Night of the Proms

Dec. 23 2013 08:58 AM
Brian Robins from UK

Given the present stridency of the feminist movement and the fact women now dominate the discussion of everything, could it be possible that there are just not enough sufficiently talented women conductors around? Just a thought.

Dec. 23 2013 08:01 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Conducting Business

WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

Conducting Business is hosted by Naomi Lewin and produced by Brian Wise.

subscribe to Conducting Business

Listen to Stitcher