The Best and Worst of Classical Music in 2013

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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