Top New-Music Moments of 2016

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Eric Owens as Jaufré Rudel and Susanna Phillips as Clémence in Kaija Saariaho's 'L'Amour de Loin'. (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

As 2016 draws to a close, Q2 Music staff and writers look back on some of the most uplifting, imagination-gripping, and breathtaking musical achievements of the past year. From moments when cities staged ambitious, celebratory new-music festivals to individual artists whose powerful work broke through the noise, this list shares a small cross-section of our favorite contemporary music-making.

Please write your own standout moments and artists in the comments section below, and join us in toasting 2017 with the energy of joy, innovation and driveway-listening that characterized 2016.


New-Music Revelations of 2016

Hans Abrahamsen, Composer 

Composer Hans Abrahamsen

In the midst of the many horrors unleashed by 2016, I frequently found cause to retreat to the frigid beauty of Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. Though previously unknown in the U.S., Abrahamsen suddenly came onto the radar when his song cycle let me tell you won the Grawemeyer Award last year. The recording of let me tell you has become weekly required listening, and the gossamer textures of the work were even more impressive when rendered by the Cleveland Orchestra and superstar soprano Barbara Hannigan at Carnegie in January. A performance of his strangely haunting Schnee at Miller Theatre in March cemented 2016 as the Year of Abrahamsen; let's hope that a U.S. presenter will take on his next wintry project, an opera based on the story of the Snow Queen. –William Robin


Barbara Hannigan, Conductor and Soprano

Barbara Hannigan conducts the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.

It was a very good year for Hans Abrahamsen – and Erik Satie, for that matter – in large part due to Barbara Hannigan. First, she was the "onlie begetter" of Abrahamsen's let me tell you, which seems to have achieved instant immortality, as if history was merely waiting for the stars to align for her coloratura to soar in Abrahamsen’s magical score. (I was at Carnegie that night in January when her voice trailed off into the ether and we all stopped breathing.) Then came her Satie recital with Reinbert de Leeuw and it's love all over again, like we'd never really heard what that music could sound like before. What else? LuluPelléasAlice's Adventures? Singing while conducting Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre in a vinyl dress? Yes, yes, yes, and YES! So, it's official, as of 2016 we have yet to find out what Barbara Hannigan cannot do incredibly well. –Phil Kline


Chaya Czernowin, Composer

Composer Chaya Czernowin

Chaya Czernowin deconstructs orchestral ingredients into intriguing organic noise on The Quiet, which was released this year on Wergo Records. Where melody and development typically have primacy in orchestral music, Czernowin shifts the focus to textural experimentation and exploration of the farthest dimensions of the full ensemble. Esh, for countertenor and orchestra, sighs and rings like an elemental prayer, and the screeching, sliding White Wind Waiting incorporates a bone-chilling electric guitar. –Zoe Madonna


Ear Taxi Festival, Chicago New-Music Festival

Soprano Whitney Morrison

Us new-music misfits around Chicago are still a little bewildered at how composer Augusta Read Thomas pulled off the city’s largest-ever contemporary music celebration with Ear Taxi Festival. Featuring 88 composers, 25 ensembles, countless musicians (including soprano Whitney Morrison, pictured above) and 54 world premieres – all Chicago-based or affiliated – Thomas's staggering vision helped introduce the city to a thriving music scene hiding in plain sight, and for many of us, clarified the need for more diversity and inclusivity moving forward. Ear Taxi was a gift to Chicago, and the most inspiring example I found all year of transforming a big idea into a big reality. –Doyle Armbrust


Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin, Opera

I didn't want to celebrate the Met premiere of Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin purely because of Saariaho's gender – why celebrate something 100 years overdue? So it was a distinct pleasure to hear a gorgeous composition, filled with unique characterizing melodies for the leads and sumptuous rhythms for the chorus, as much as it was a distinct pleasure to see a female composer take a bow. –Alexandra Svokos


Alan Gilbert, New York Philharmonic Music Director 

New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert

It might seem like an obvious choice, but nothing should be taken for granted about the sustained scope of New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert's commitment to new music – the crowning achievement of which being this spring's NY Phil Biennial. Over the course of his eight seasons as director, Gilbert has cultivated a climate where new classical music has never seemed more at home, so much so that it's tempting to overlook how radical a change this represents from decades past. With two Biennials, CONTACT! new-music shows, composers-in-residence, ambitious multidisciplinary statements like the New York premiere of György Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre, Gilbert is leaving a legacy as bold in vision as methodical and inevitable in execution. –Alex Ambrose


Wang Lu, Composer

Composer Wang Lu

Don't be late to the party like I was on Wang Lu's music. Having previously had just a passing familiarity with her work, I finally did myself the service of investigating it further this year (hearing the premiere of her Cloud Intimacy at the Mostly Mozart Festival, then touring with her Urban Inventory). Wang’s music provides poetic and deeply personal commentary on the whole of modern civilization, meditating with equal gravitas on Tiananmen Square and Tinder. The results are in turns cheeky and devastating, and the sheer sound of it is utterly her own. –Patrick Castillo


Christopher Rountree, Conductor and Composer

His nonconformist new-music collective wildUp has been an invigorating shot in the arm since 2010, but in the last two years, conductor and composer Christopher Rountree has also found his footing as a formidable free agent. In 2016 alone, he conducted David Lang's new opera anatomy theatre, led the Interlochen Academy Orchestra at the New York Phil Biennial, guested with the San Francisco Symphony and composed music about frozen yogurt left on the porch for violinist Jennifer Koh. His wildUp took on Coltrane at Brooklyn's National Sawdust, made numerous appearances with the LA Phil and collaborated with Wordless Music (under the baton of Ryan McAdams) to perform a stunning live score to Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, among plenty of other badassery. Rountree also does a mean Instagram takeover. –Hannis Brown

What new classical music discoveries blew your mind this year? Concerts that took your breath away or composers that changed your world? Let us know in the comments below.


More in:

Comments [5]

Steve from New York City

New York City based new music groups along with the occasional independent event by one of their members provided many intriguing programs and wonderful performances. Highlights included counter)induction's ongoing series, Miranda Cuckson's ECM album release event at LPR, Collide-O-Scope Music's four concert Robert Morris festival, and New York New Music Ensemble's recent Milton Babbitt concert.

Dec. 24 2016 03:15 PM
Paul from Upper upper Manhattan

- "L'Amour de Loin" blew me away. It may only be at the top of my list because I've so recently seen it. But it would be on my list in any case. Some others for me:
-The NY Phil all-Saariaho "Circle Map" concert at the Armory earlier this fall conducted by Essa-Pekka Salonen.
- Over the summer up at Mass Moca in North Adams, MA: A John Luther Adams piece (title was something like "A Million Birds") by Bang on a Can summer festival participants directed by Vicky Chow. Amazing to both listen and watch performers playing while wandering around the huge space as the performance unfolded.
- One of the many Steve Reich at 80 concerts--I attended one at a Jazz at Lincoln Center venue. While it's no longer a "new" piece, the highlight for me was Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians." I never tire of that piece.
- Back in February in Philadelphia: Jennifer Higdon's powerful opera "Cold Mountain" performed by Opera Philadelphia, featuring Met star Isabel Leonard and a new discovery for me: the young Curtis School grad Barrett Ott replaced Nathan Gunn and was terrific.

Dec. 21 2016 11:30 PM
Q2 Music

Thanks, Larry from NY, for pointing that out! We fixed it in the copy above.

Dec. 21 2016 12:24 PM
Larry from NY, NY

Fantastic list, but one correction: the wonderful Chris Rountree did not conduct Punch-Drunk Love. That was the other wonderful conductor Ryan McAdams, both in LA and at BAM.

Dec. 21 2016 11:48 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

My new music excitement this year came courtesy of the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. Sebastian Currier's "Time Machines" and Kaija Saariaho's "L'Amour de Loin" interested me the most to the point of wanting to hear them again and buy the scores. I was almost carried away by Julia Adolphe's "Unearth, Release" because I loved the energy and and adventuresomeness of the second movement and the threnody-invoking final movement, but I didn't care for the first movement at all, I fear. I would rather have enjoyed some expository material from the first movement dovetailing into the second. Two concerts of standard repertory remain in memory, one, the Mahler Third Symphony, because of the clarity and detail and the other because of the ingeniousness of the programming itself that included two disparate works that depend on dialogue with solo and massed forces, namely, Ives's "The Unanswered Question" followed by Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto with Emanual Ax and concluding with Robert Schumann's Second Symphony. The concerto performance, overall excellent, I thought, also provided a huge shock factor in that Mr. Ax chose to play the opening chord as an arpeggio, the shock of which I've still not recovered from and left me with a question I can't answer: "Why"?

Dec. 21 2016 05:36 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 Q2 Music

Q2 Music is WQXR’s multiplatform home for musical discovery and dynamic new classical music from trailblazing composers, ensembles and leading New York new-music venues. Q2 Music's 24/7 stream lives online at and is accessible via the free WQXR app.


Follow Q2 Music