The Best and Worst of Classical Music in 2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) (Liz Linder)

The year 2012 supplied plenty of headline-making moments in classical music. There was the infamous marimba ring tone at the New York Philharmonic, the opera singer with the controversial tattoos, the composer accused of plagiarism, and cellos booted off airplanes. It was a tough year for American orchestras and a good year for entrepreneurship.

In this podcast, three highly opinionated critics give us their reviews of 2012: Anne Midgette, classical music critic of the Washington Post; Steve Smith, a classical music critic for the New York Times and music editor at Time Out New York; and Heidi Waleson, a classical music critic for the Wall Street Journal. Below are excerpts of some of their comments.


Heidi: David Lang's love fail, written for the female vocal quartet Anonymous 4 (right). “It was a beautifully haunting, Medieval-Modern, strange modern take on the Tristan Und Isolde story, which was semi-staged at BAM. It was actually a stunningly beautiful piece.”

Anne: “One of my favorite moments was a very local moment...The University of Maryland [orchestra] came out dressed in street clothes with their instruments and began moving around the stage as they played Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun. It was a wonderful example of what could be done with orchestras if they think a little outside the box.”

Steve: “The reason I categorized David T. Little’s opera Dog Days as a big surprise is frankly I didn’t know that he had this in him...He was out at Montclair State University’s Peak Performances series with a full evening-length opera based on an apocalyptic story by Judy Budnitz…There were terrifying things about it and absolutely joyous things about it but in the end I thought, here’s a team that has actually moved opera forward.” Listen to the opera on Q2 Music.


Heidi: On interesting new operas showing up outside of major producing companies: “I thought, maybe if people from the regular producing opera companies actually see [Dog Days], maybe somebody will get an idea that this is actually the sort of thing that can happen in the opera house.”

Anne: “There’s no question that some of the most exciting stuff in opera is going on in smaller spaces – and some of the most innovative thinking."

Steve: On entrepreneurship in classical music: “People confronted with a certain stodginess or intractability in major companies are just putting on the shows themselves, or doing the kind of programming they feel ought to exist. I’m thinking about ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble, whose founder Claire Chase won a MacArthur this year, which was richly deserved.”

Disappointments & Low Points

Heidi: “It was the Metropolitan Opera Ring – and I’m sure I’ll have a lot of company in that one. It took a lot of hits and for good reason. It was just a very big elaborate backdrop of a set for a not very stimulating concept.” [Right: A scene from Die Walküre (Photo: Ken Howard)]

Anne: “The problem with some of the concepts that are applied to operas – and I’m a great defender of innovation in opera direction – but a lot of times you think up this great idea and a lot of times the opera isn’t actually about that there’s only so far you can go with the idea.”

Steve: "What perturbed me is you basically still have to go out of town, even if it’s just crossing the river to New Jersey, to hear what’s really happening and what’s really interesting in the operatic sphere period."

Anne: On American Orchestras: “While it’s both tragic and deplorable that there have been so many lockouts, strikes, seasons disrupted – the Minnesota Orchestra, really one of the exciting orchestras in the country is still not playing – all of this was foreseeable. The managements seem to be acting as if ‘oh my goodness, all of the sudden we’re having these financial crises.’ All of those difficult moments have come home to roost.”

High Points

Steve: What many of the year's most exciting productions this year had in common was the producer Beth Morrison, "who is enabling a lot of really exciting work that’s going on right now. Beth Morrison Productions is involved in a lot of these things – in staged concerts, in grassroots opera. She has been a real bolt of vitality and innovation that has been much needed and is having a great impact.”

Anne: On the John Cage Centennial: “I’m not a big fan of artist centennials. In classical music they’re rammed down our throats, these anniversaries. But with all of the festivals and activities and concerts, it really allowed a new perspective on Cage...It was a centennial and an anniversary that for me really made a big difference.”

Heidi: The Juilliard Historical Performance Program under its new director Robert Mealy (above): "You just don't get a big orchestra of American players playing who can play this in this really stylistically correct and distinct way" (after hearing a concert of excerpts from two Rameau ballets).

BONUS TRACK: Predictions for 2013:

Weigh in: Give us your reviews of the best and worst of 2012 below.


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Comments [6]

Brian Robins from France

Ref comment by Manny - I am a critic - for Opera magazine

Dec. 20 2012 04:05 PM
Carrie from NYC

Frank, from the UWS, how can you say that opera is (or will be) a dead art form???? It may well become a dead art form if opera houses try to "innovate" it. Opera has been around for centuries and that's because it has meaning for people. It appeals to the senses, it's awe inspiring, it's perfection of the human lives on that alone. You can have a black back drop and it can succeed. If you try to "innovate" it with shock drama, production monstrosities rather than substance, lacking its core fundamental of the human voice, then you're in trouble, baby. Opera is bigger than those who want to contain it into their world of thinking. It has its own life, and those of us who appreciate it do not appreciate those fakers who want to change it for "innovation"!!!

Dec. 20 2012 12:38 PM
Manny from Teaneck, NJ

Per Brian Robins' comment: Critics have the occupational hazard that they hear and see the great works so often that they require "innovation", even of the most outrageous kind, just to maintain freshness. They may not have the perspective of someone for whom those works remain inspiring in their original form.

Dec. 20 2012 10:27 AM
Frank from UWS

I love how every time someone raises the issue of actually making opera relevant and innovative someone raises the specter of "regietheater." Let's face it, operagoers in NYC extremely conservative and not befitting a supposedly cosmopolitan, world-class city. I'd like to see a lot more innovation in NYC's opera houses. The problem has been that the Met doesn't really go for it. They just need to be bolder and more risk-taking. Otherwise, opera is a dead art form.

Dec. 20 2012 06:06 AM
Brian Robins from France

Most absurdly over-hyped event: Joyce DiDonato's 'Drama Queens'
Most depressing situation: Trendy critics still looking for 'innovation' in the opera house. It is they who are responsible for Regitheater continuing on its destructive way

Dec. 20 2012 03:00 AM
Frank from UWS

Best: Philharmonic 360 at the Park Avenue Armory
Joyce DiDonato's "Drama Queens"
Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach at BAM

Worst: "The Piano Guys" record

Dec. 19 2012 09:39 PM

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

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