High Notes and Low Tones for Classical Music in 2013

Monday, December 16, 2013 - 06:00 PM

Richard Wagner, Anna Netrebko, Michael Tilson Thomas, Caroline Shaw Richard Wagner, Anna Netrebko, Michael Tilson Thomas, Caroline Shaw

Poll: What was the biggest story of 2013?

Every year brings us new concerts and recordings, scandals and obsessions. The year 2013 saw plenty of the latter: there were protests at the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera, and a stagehand strike that thwarted Carnegie Hall's opening night. Wagner, Verdi and Britten each preoccupied many musicians, but at least one major orchestra – the Minnesota Orchestra – remained silent.

This week, WQXR's Operavore blog will look specifically at the year in opera. But for now, here are our arbitrarily granted citations for the classical music industry in 2013.

Biggest Financial Woe: The competition was intense (and when isn't it?). After some promising concerts in the spring, the Brooklyn Philharmonic fell silent. The Nashville and Toronto Symphonies both struggled. But New York City Opera's announcement on Oct. 3 that it was closing after a failed campaign to raise enough funds for its 2014 season was particularly tragic in its implications.

Most Complicated Anniversary: Richard Wagner’s 200th birth anniversary. Arts organizations twisted themselves in knots determining how best to observe the problematic composer’s bicentenary. The Cologne Opera in Germany took a confrontational approach with a Nazi-themed Tannhauser. Not to be outdone, Bayreuth staged a new avant-garde Ring Cycle production that was roundly booed over much of its run.

Most-Discussed Playlist: Pope Francis gave an interview in September in which he revealed his cravings for Bach Passions, Mozart sonatas and Wagner’s Parsifal. Missing was music from his native Argentina but Francis has said elsewhere that he loves the tango, and a video recently surfaced of a "tango mass" that he gave in Buenos Aires.

Best Marketing Ploy: In April the Opera Company of Philadelphia asked audience members to Tweet their seat location at a performance of The Magic Flute. The patron with the (presumably) lousiest seat was offered an upgrade to prime main floor seating.

Worst Marketing Ploy: The final installments of a Shostakovich symphony cycle by the Liverpool Philharmonic for Naxos arrived just as the orchestra’s Russian-born music director, Vasily Petrenko, was making some controversial remarks about women conductors to a Norwegian newspaper. Among them: a “cute girl on a podium” is a distraction to male musicians. He later said that his comments were misunderstood but reviewers mostly stayed away from the recordings as a scandal unfolded.

Best Use of Celebrity Cash: To Taylor Swift for her $100,000 donation to the Nashville Symphony in December. 

Podium Pharmacist of 2013: To Michael Tilson Thomas, who, reportedly concerned about a Chicago audience’s chronic coughs and wheezes, left the stage in the middle of a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9 and returned with a handful of cough drops, which he lobbed at the offenders in the seats below. In an interview on WQXR, Tilson Thomas said he wanted to "do something that would be helpful."

TMZ Award: To Joshua Bell for turning up as a judge for the Miss America contest in September. 

Frequent Flier Upgrade: It seemed as if you couldn’t board a flight in 2013 without encountering impromptu classical music performances (or less happily, a damaged instrument). The Philadelphia Orchestra musicians made a flight delay in China more interesting with an adlib tarmac performance that quickly went viral. Runner’s Up: The Bucharest Symphony and this guy.

Precociousness Plaque
: To Caroline Shaw, a 30-year-old composer and grad student, became the youngest-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize in music for her Partita for 8 Voices. The a cappella work was cited for its unique embrace of "speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects." This fall, Q2 Music presented a series in which eight artists remixed the work.

Photoshop Trophy: During the sleepy days of summer an album of Verdi scenes by the soprano Anna Netrebko developed into a popular Internet meme. Online pundits lampooned the album's cover for being heavily Photoshopped: one grafted cats onto the singer's face; others left mock-up versions on her Facebook page. Netrebko's label, Deutsche Grammophon, declined to comment.

‘Portlandia’ Prize: To Steinway & Sons, which a takeover suitor praised for its “artisanal manufacturing processes.” That potential buyer, the private equity firm Kohlberg & Co., ultimately lost the deal when the hedge fund Paulson & Co. swooped in with a higher bid. Earlier in the year, Steinway finalized the sale of Steinway Hall, its flagship showroom at 109 West 57th Street.

Lemonade out of Lemons Award: To the Philadelphia Orchestra, for organizing a free, impromptu concert at Verizon Hall in Philadelphia, the night it was scheduled to open the Carnegie Hall season, before that concert was cancelled due to a stagehand strike.

What do you think was the biggest story of the year? Most overlooked? Take our poll and leave your comments below.


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Comments [13]

Howard from Florida

I think Hilary Hahn's commissioning 27 contemporary composers to compose encores was a splendid idea. It benefits not only the composers, but performers and listeners.

Dec. 19 2013 07:28 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

The most overlooked story of the year --- and to me the most heartwarming --- was the formation and tour of the first Youth Symphony Orchestra of the United States of America under the auspices of Carnegie Hall in Washington, D.C., Moscow, St. Petersburg and finally at the London Proms. Valery Gergiev conducted the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Joshua Bell as soloist and also programmed the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony. This is the most demonstrable cause for hope and positivity in the world of classical music in our couuntry in my humble opinion. I realize there are many other Youth Symphonies in many of the major cities and in some of the minor ones, and it's a pity they don't get the exposure the Y.S.O.U.S.A did. They, too, are to be lauded. The return of James Levine to work is another cause for joy. Agreed that the economics in today's symphonic world is a disaster, as is the abolition of the New York City Opera Company. I won't elaborate on what previous writers have written. I can only add "ditto". I also feel concomitant disaster in the continual bastardization of opera stagings and costuming other than what inspired the composers in the first place. Another case of "dumbing down" to fill seats. For shame. And the biggest event of the year that hasn't been mentioned is the continual dumbing down of commercial t.v. and radio to a semi or illiterate childish audience as evidenced by programs such as "The Voice", "American Idol" and such ilk so that many in the audience think that's what the art of singing is all about.

Dec. 19 2013 07:23 PM

Re. Matt,

The premiere should merit some attention.


Dec. 19 2013 03:49 AM
Matt from VA

What about the 100th anniversary of the premier performance of the Rite of Spring? I was hoping that would at least some mention.

Dec. 18 2013 07:01 PM

I have to agree with Brunnehilde and David. The powers-that-be, usually well heeled, CEOs and other "influential" people try to use scholock to get people in the door. It hasn't worked in the past, is not working now, nor will it work in the future. Witness the Catholic Church, using "rock" masses, etc. and now churches using "mixed" music etc. It's so "mixed" it pleases noone. What a shame.

Dec. 18 2013 11:39 AM
Brunnhilde from NYC

The demise of NY City Opera was disastrous. The operas were there, the sets, costumes, chorus, orchestra were there, the faithful as well as new opera fans were there....but a stubborn, incompetent administration was not. It proves that non-musical, better yet, non-opera-musical powers that be cannot add, but can destroy even an established company, art form. Broadway musicals and an opera are not the same! There is a difference. And if opera directors do not have the art of opera in their hearts...they can never do it. Adherence to the text is very important. Stage directing that will enable the singer to produce their best is very important. In opera, you can even have a black backdrop for an opera, and the audience will still love it - the music and the singers and the interpretations are all that matter. If City Opera had only thought of this - instead of sensationalizing - and had they not thought of production over product, I almost guarantee City opera would have survived.

Dec. 18 2013 11:06 AM
The Baron from Long Island City, NY

Well, at least we have the annual, year-end Classical Countdown to look forward to, where listeners get to vote for their favorite classical compositions. Will Beethoven's 9th Symphony be Number One and his 5th Symphony be Number Two, or will his 5th Symphony come out on top, with his 9th Symphony taking second place? I can hardly wait to find out. The suspense is killing me.

(NOTE to whoever wrote the copy for the radio promo spot:
As we all know, neither Brahms nor Buxtehude is a contender to Win or Place.)

Dec. 17 2013 11:49 PM
Jim the Bass Trombonist from Florida

How about the untimely death in February of Bill Bennett, principal oboist with the San Francisco Symphony? An aneurism hit him as he was playing the Strauss Oboe Concerto with the SFSO. His last conscious act was to hand his oboe to the concertmaster so that it would not be damaged as he fell.

Dec. 17 2013 08:16 PM
Richard M. Braun from NYC

The demise of the New York City Opera was and is and will always be a catastrophe.

Dec. 17 2013 06:11 PM
Kenneth from Grand Junction, CO

As a long-time resident and opera goer in New York, I can testify that the City Opera had many ups and downs. But whatever they did, it was worthy of attention and time. It was also a much needed second voice in opera performance. The Met really should not have the field to itself: I love the Met, too, but it is ingrown and much too self-satisfied. The loss of City Opera should be mourned. Its end, an ignominious crash and burn, was sad beyond words.

Dec. 17 2013 04:33 PM
David from Brooklyn, NY

The twisting and writhing contortions and pains occurring in the orchestra scenes today speak volumes of the stuck-in-the-mud attitude the powers-that-be remain in. The story is old, with barnacles and rust, but the woes don't cease. More folks are out of work and the stalemate is nowhere over—and the audience just shrugs its weary shoulders and moves on elsewhere.
So the musicians of the Minnesota orchestra band together. What does that mean? Does it mean a hundred individuals (who are otherwise not, due to their hard-headed, zealously recalcitrant call to remain a union at all costs—not acknowledging that they’ve cut their nose to spite their face) decided to play music together for a few nights this season, for the pittance they will receive—because they have nowhere to go and nothing better to do to earn a living? Or is it a bona-fide thumbing of the nose at the 'Establishment,' which is consolidating their assets as we chat, and flippantly letting the whole concept of a city's orchestra rot away?
This story and this struggle is as old as the hills. But since stubbornness is a virtue, there is no negotiating with either side. So roast your chestnuts hot, because that’s all that’ll keep you warm this winter in Minnesota.
But something closer to home is of greater concern to me. The Brooklyn Philharmonic. Another specimen in the laboratory of institution experimentation that died before the test was over. But instead of instilling it with some life, the powers-that-be continue poking and prodding at the carcass of the once-great and historic institution, cynically trying see how much more of the poison they injected, that killed it in the first place, can be supplemented in the hopes of a different outcome.
Life, I say? A powerful orchestra like the Brooklyn Philharmonic should have been able to diversify their offering in a far better manner. As a proud Brooklynite, it has pained me for years that I couldn’t attend any concerts of the Brooklyn Phil. Why? Because the crap they performed was just not worthy of my patronage. You’ll find me at the String Orchestra of Brooklyn’s concerts. You’ll find me at CUNY orchestra concerts (Brooklyn College has be doing some very admirable stuff lately, and the orchestra contends to be a powerful force to reckon with.) You’ll find me crossing the river to the music scene of Manhattan. But I have never been to a single Brooklyn Phil concert. And I wager, this is the case with most of the patronage and funding. And they wonder what happened…
So how about manning up and admitting that the direction in which it was taken was wrong, and it can live again by revitalizing its image by ‘reverting’ back to traditional concert music? I won’t bank on that happening anytime soon.

Dec. 17 2013 01:04 PM
joe salerno from Houston area, Texas

Another event, though not as earth shaking as those listed, was the unsuccessful find raiser for KUHA-FM in Houston, after which most of the announcing staff was released. Minneapolis, the city without an orchestra, now provides the bulk of our classical music on the radio. It wou7ld seem Houston can no longer support a classical music radio station. I remember when we had 2.

Dec. 17 2013 10:10 AM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

This is a good and cleverly written synopsis of the year that was.To a large extent, the Wise choices were wise choices.

Dec. 17 2013 01:55 AM

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