2011 Year's Best Musical Events

1. Opera: Despite the continued, agonizing wrangling over the direction and fate of New York City Opera, 2011 was a great year for opera lovers here, and one of the most exciting and satisfying year of opera I’ve experienced. Looking back on the year, the variety and artistic quality of the work I saw on stage seems almost impossible. It was roughly bookended by appearances from William Christie and Les Arts Florissant, and that group encapsulated the strength of the year and of the form itself. Their lightly staged, concert performances of Rameau at Lincoln Center were are reminder that opera is a musical form first, a vessel for sets, costumes and diva-ishness a lagging second. In between, I saw Yoav Gal’s fascinating and effective Mosheh, the exceptionally powerful and moving production of Nixon in China at the Met, the exciting Three Monodramas at City Opera, The New York Philharmonic’s completely wonderful The Cunning Little Vixen, Ivan Fischer’s intensely dynamic and gripping Don Giovanni, the first dramatically successful Don I’ve seen in performance, Vertical Player’s Rep deeply pleasurable and charming out-of-doors production of La Calisto, and, at the end, Atys at BAM, the realization of the most abstract ideals of the operatic form, beautiful almost beyond the capacity of the human senses, and one of the single greatest experiences of my life. You can have almost the same experience via this excellent DVD of the same production, which I urgently recommend.

2. PowerFUL/LESS: One of the most imaginative programs of classical music I’ve ever seen put together. The Holy Grail of concert programming is typically a combination of masterpieces that cover the 18th – 20th centuries, give the audience the pleasure of the familiar and a dose of the modern/contemporary in a way that won’t scare them off. It’s presented as a questions — what do these pieces have to do with each other and you — that the performance answers. Eighth Blackbird’s program at the Park Avenue Armory’s Tune-In festival was something entirely different. They had questions — can music express specific ideas, especially political ones, and is music that attempts that better than music that doesn’t — to which they offered brilliant pieces as evidence with which to decide. And that there was no final answer was testament to the intelligence and taste of the program. Even more, that so much of the music had an effect that was opposite of the political arguments was proof of how fine the pieces were: rather than express the futility of order, Georg Friedrich Haas’ In Vain was an example of how conflict can create coherence, even in difficult circumstances; Andriessen’s “Worker’s Union” was a testament to how most great music-making is an autocratic, not democratic process; Matt Mark’s “A Portrait of Glenn Beck” and Fred Rzewski’s masterpiece, “Coming Together,” showed how the best political music let’s us think for ourselves and make up our own minds; and Stephen Schick’s fabulous performance of “UrSonate” turned a mirror on how much nonsensical ‘thinking’ we, as citizens, must endure. And then there was the great performance of Music for 18 Musicians, which, with its sense of community, is one of the more salient political compositions for these times.

3. JACK Quartet at Ostrava Days: a remarkable experience, a concert of music, but music about shapes, colors, timbres and, ultimately, the fabric of the universe and how our souls mesh with it. The combination of technique, imagination, expression, intelligence and stamina this group has is unsurpassed.

4. The return of the Brooklyn Philharmonic: like a combination of both the Phoenix and Superman, the Brooklyn Phil has come back from nothingness, which is good enough news. But that the administrative side had the imagination and fearlessness to both hire Alan Pierson and to realize that since the standard way of doing business didn’t work, they might as well just do what they want to do will be, I hope, an encouraging example to classical music organizations everywhere. Oh yeah, the programs and playing are great, the collaboration next June with Mos Def will completely change the standard by which the current commingling of classical and pop music is judged.

5. Inuksuit: I don’t think John Luther Adams imagined this, but it was an only in New York year for him. The same Tune-In festival introduced this massive, beautiful work to the public, in doors, and then Make Music New York revealed how naturally the piece lives and breathes out-of-doors, in a performance that became a natural part of the sonic fabric of Morningside Park, New York City, and the life experience of all who witnessed it.

6. Miller Theatre: I don’t want to set up a conflict where there is none, but the relative success of what’s been called alt/indie-classical, the post-Minimalist, constructively eclectic style that has pretty much become the new New York Sound, pulls a lot of attention away from music that is not primarily tonal, that is not primarily repetitive and is very strong and expressive. The way much of that music is designed to resolve implies that it is an answer, and that can be satisfying, but sometimes the most stimulating art only asks questions. Miller Theatre is a place for questions, and the ‘old-school’ style of post World War II Modernism is still full of vitality and variety. And even things that are not entirely successful, like James Dillon’s Nine Rivers, are fascinating for their means and ambition, and the fundamental feature of all the Composers feted in Portraits is their craft, from the exquisite exactitude of Mario Davidovsky to the smart, musical song craft of Tobias Picker. And where most concerts, no matter how pleasing, fail to surprise, it was at Miller this year that I discovered the excellent work of Chaya Czernowin.

7. New Amsterdam records: That being said, there is a lot of good music being made in the current style, and New Amsterdam is the exemplar of this — there were heavily represented in the Believer’s music issue. As a label and an organizing institution, they’ve been remarkably successful, and that’s good for music. Their inaugural Ecstatic Music Festival was a grand way to mark their arrival, and demonstrated the range and quality of the label’s taste, which I’m sympathetic to. While not everything they produce is a success — Shara Worden’s chamber music is not up to snuff, and Build seems to misunderstand what makes good pop music — but with a year of releases that stretched from Jefferson Friedman’s excitingly agitated String Quartets to Gregory Spears’ astringent Requiem to the ambient improvisations of itsnotyouitsme, New Amsterdam is learning by doing, and show us all how to make this ‘indie’-whatever thing work. It looks like 2012 will be equally as ambitious and impressive.

8. Sibelius and His World: The final two orchestral concerts of this summer’s performing symposium were as fine as possible, cogent programs that put together masterpieces from Sibelius with musically and conceptually related works from Nielsen, Vaughan Williams and Barber, and playing that reached the highest order. Botstein’s direction of Symphony No. 7 was ear-opening, and the performance of Barber’s Symphony No. 1 was mind-boggling.

9. Elliott Sharp at 60: I only caught one of the evening of this celebration of the great musician and composer, and of host Issue Project Room, but it was absolutely dazzling. Going his own way with a balance of modesty, dedication and a clear delight in what he doesn’t know but would like to discover, Sharp has become, across the board, one of the most accomplished figures on the contemporary music scene. There’s no one like him as a player and a thinker, crafting and executing the almost impossible etudes of Octal, creating finely structured improvisations with Orchestra Carbon, his excellent “Oligosono” for piano, and offering the further surprise of what I can only call the Dub-Noir free stylings of Bootstrappers.

10. 9/11: It could have been the worst of times, but became perhaps the best of times. The legacy of 9/11 has been shameful in the extreme, showing that those who lead this country, their mouthpieces and courtiers are mostly frightened, infantile, cosseted bullies who have the basest values. We have waged war so that weaklings like George W. Bush, Thomas Friedman and Dick Cheney can feel tough, tortured people because sadistic acts of cruelty transfer our own fears to others, spied on every American at will because the atavistic state of our leaders demands utter personal loyalty, and in the pluperfect culmination, it is now the law of the land that the U.S. Military can arrest American citizens within our borders and hold them in prison, indefinitely, without charges. And out of this, there are still vicious cretins who think we don’t sufficiently proclaim our American Exceptionalism. Because while we may do things every other despotic regime has done, we do them better! Because FREE MARKETS!

So, as this commemorative date rolled around and musical events were scheduled around New York, I was ambivalent. But things turned out better than I had imagined. Of course, there was this, but there was also the almost miraculous concert at the Temple of Dendur, with William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, and the excellent Kronos Quartet “Awakening” show at BAM. For something incomprehensible, that happens without warning (despite there being people who should have known), the appropriate moral and intellectual response is to find the right thing, rather than strive for forge it. That is Basinski’s piece, and that is Kronos’ program, where they collect music from across the world and across genres, then stitch it together in a way that conveys an abstract narrative from mystery to a willingness and ability to comprehend who we live in the world. Their performance was tighter, tougher, clearer and more effective than even at the original premiere in San Francisco in 2006.

In a more conventional way, the New York Philharmonic gave Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony to the city. While an assurance about the afterlife may be one of the underlying problems in human nature, this is no less a work about recovery and revival, and the anguish and mystery are very real, as is the sublime beauty. This was a good and proper gift, not only free but shown in live broadcasts. What the performance lacked in the nth degree of polish it more than made up for in commitment, passion and generosity. The experience is available on an excellent DVD transfer, well-directed and with good sound, and with the moving touch of footage of New Yorkers outside in Lincoln Center, watching the broadcast, immersed together in their own private experiences.