High Notes and Low Tones for Classical Music in 2013

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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.