Was 2018 a good year for classical music?
It’s that time of year when pundits crank their befuddled old brains into reverse and pick out the ‘highs and lows’ of the previous 12 months.
But that requires research, hard work and, worst of all, the capacity to recall dates and names. Eminently unsuited on all counts, I propose something a bit different: a concise musing on two themes that emerged during 2018 and will, I predict, change musical life significantly in years to come.
The first is, to put it bluntly, intolerance. Intolerance is not always wrong, especially if it targets sexual misconduct or the abuse of power. And 2018 saw that net tighten around the careers of three eminent conductors. Whatever the rights or wrongs of their individual cases, all lost their jobs on the back of accusations about past conduct.
Some called the campaigns against them vindictive, and pointed out that past ‘greats’ such as Klemperer, Bernstein and Solti erred far more spectacularly and were never punished. But that’s not the point. We live in a more enlightened era, and the ‘duty of care’ implications for orchestras, operas houses and conservatoires are now immense.
Not unrelated to that is an increasing intolerance of the historic but still prevalent gender imbalance in musical life. Suddenly in 2018 there were far more women conductors getting prominent engagements. Also this year, a large number of European festivals, including the BBC Proms, committed to commissioning equal numbers of male and female composers by 2022. That will have huge knock-on effects, too.
I’m afraid the signs aren’t encouraging for middle-aged male composers and conductors of less than arresting talent.
Then there’s a third kind of intolerance. Black and minority-ethnic singers are becoming increasingly militant about claiming that they, and they alone, can depict people of colour on the stage. heaven knows, there are few enough of those roles, so I have some sympathy. In 2018 that anger boiled over when the BBC cast a white singer as Maria (a Puerto Rican girl) in its Proms production of West Side Story. The singer received such vitriolic social-media posts that she withdrew, even apologising for taking the role in the first place.
Then an otherwise excellent modern opera, The Golden Dragon by Peter Eötvös, was banned by the hackney Empire because its cast (workers in a Chinese restaurant) were played by white singers. It will be a brave opera company that now casts white singers as Otello or Madam Butterfly, and in America even The Mikado is under scrutiny.
My second theme is less contentious. More and more I am noticing people making an effort to present repertoire in unexpected ways and places. In 2018 three such events particularly impressed me. The first was a Wigmore hall event in which maverick Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto joined forces with a leading cancer researcher to present something that was half-concert, halflecture, and somehow linked the growth of musical organisms with the growth
(or combat) of cancer cells. The place was packed not just with Kuusisto fans but medics too. As evidence increasingly emerges about music’s therapeutic powers, expect more initiatives like this, spanning the disciplines of medicine, science and the arts.
I also saw a remarkable BBC Prom performance of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy by the viola virtuoso Antoine Tamestit and John Eliot Gardiner’s Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. The piece reflects Berlioz’s own melancholic travels through Italy, and that was underlined by having the soloist stroll round the stage like a wandering exile – sometimes bewildered or frightened by what he heard, elsewhere duetting lyrically with another player. Suddenly a work I hadn’t much appreciated before came alive, because the performers used their visual imaginations as well as their musical abilities.
After a year of mostly rather indifferent musical commemorations of the 1918 Armistice, English National Opera’s staging of Britten’s War Requiem was genuinely evocative of the horror and pity of war. It was also a muchneeded triumph for ENO after another difficult year. But most important of all, taking this complex work out of the concert hall and into the theatre introduced it to a different audience. And as fewer young people learn about the great musical masterpieces at school, presenting those classics in fresh, inviting ways that grip newcomers without any prior knowledge will increasingly become the biggest challenge facing the profession.
People are making more of an e ort to present repertoire in unexpected ways and places