THE TEN BEST CLASSICAL PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR
1. Dialogues des Carmélites
With Isabel Leonard as the snowy-souled Blanche and Karita Mattila as the raging prioress, the return of Poulenc’s (almost) all-nun opera would have been pretty transcendent even without any additional virtues. But Yannick NézetSéguin’s presence on the podium made it downright celestial.
2. Fire in My Mouth
With a composer’s gifts and a historian’s soul, Julia Wolfe has hammered the story of the American worker into musical shape. She has written choral elegies to Appalachian steel drivers, Pennsylvania coal miners, and, in her latest multimedia blockbuster, the toiling immigrant seamstresses who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. An intensely expressive monument to loss, labor, and political rage,
Fire in My Mouth received an incandescent world premiere from the New York Philharmonic (which later released a nonmultimedia recording).
3. Thomas Adès’s Piano Concerto
When the British composer shows up at your doorstep carrying a big toolbox and promising to fix up a creaky old genre, know that he’ll leave it a bit like the DeLorean time machine: dazzling, weirdly familiar, and irresistibly warped. The seemingly 20-fingered pianist Kirill Gerstein premiered Adès’s new concerto at Carnegie Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra— an evening of pleasurable delirium.
4. Porgy and Bess
Every staging of the Gershwins’ 1935 opera feels as if it’s assembling an argument out of old grief and current trends. The Met’s new production places the story squarely in the past, but the cast—Eric Owens and Angel Blue, to spotlight just two members of a standout troupe—testify to the current opera world’s deep reservoir of African-American talent.
5. Caroline Shaw and the Attacca Quartet
On the 2019 album Orange and in a free happy-hour concert at Lincoln Center’s Rubenstein Atrium, the Attacca Quartet formed a bond with a quietly original composer who surely has an opera somewhere on her to-do list. Shaw, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, writes music that feels fresh but displays a command of old-fashioned virtues, among them a finely calibrated ear for how harmony can simultaneously flow and support a musical structure, like an amalgam of water and steel. She also displays a love of language and a keen sense of how specific voices work, including her own surprising soprano.
Philip Glass’s 36-year-old opera finally floated into the
Met on a cloud of blissed-out anticipation. Part of that was owed to countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who is as gifted a showman and marketer as he is a singer. Glassians knew what not to expect: arias, action, relationships, conflict, or even a comprehensible libretto. Instead, director Phelim McDermott turned the honeyed score into an interpretive juggling act, a pageant of costumes and crowns, and an argument for transcendent superficiality.
7. Der Ring des Nibelungen
In Wagner’s epic of greed, family loyalty, and betrayal, Brünnhilde is the disappointing daughter, the warrior paralyzed by an eon of solitary confinement. But when Christine Goerke sang the role in the Met’s latest Ring cycle, the character’s downfall was the singer’s triumph. It’s a punishing part, full of hollering and heroics as well as stretches of intimate regret. Those of us lucky enough to hear Goerke in her prime will treasure the memory until we become insufferably nostalgic.
8. The Black Clown
Davóne Tines, a bass-baritone with the dark and glossy timbre of a bass clarinet, is the sort of singer who excites old-guard audiences and young composers at the same time. Tines spent nearly a decade co-creating (with composer Michael Schachter) and singing in The Black Clown, a stage work of uncertain genre based on the poetry of Langston Hughes, which galvanized this past summer’s Mostly Mozart Festival. It was a drawn-out sizzle reel, proving Tines is equally comfortable singing a gospel melody, some sweaty blues, or a Baroque aria.
9. Giuseppe Verdi, Requiem
For his first American appearance, the Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis brought his own orchestra and chorus from Siberia, because what Western ensemble would tolerate his nano-managerial style, which specifies the duration of every staccato? The result was a performance so manically controlled, so suffused with highprecision uplift and catharsis, it was hard to believe it was real.
10. Vienna Philharmonic
The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has spent much of his career dismantling the orchestral world’s conventions and the rest of it building them back up. He returned to Carnegie Hall at the head of one of the world’s most traditional ensembles to play Mahler’s Ninth, the last completed symphony of a composer whose radicalism long ago went mainstream. Spacious, glimmering, and grand, the performance demonstrated how satisfying it can be when the revolutionary and the revanchist merge.