Today's classical music scene is vibrant and varied, bursting with more talent and artistry than you can shake a fiddlestick at. Like other genres, classical music faced challenges in 2011, but I am continually amazed by the scope and scale of accomplishment in evidence at every turn. Here is my hand-picked, by-no-means-comprehensive selection of highlights, milestones and a few bumps in the road from 2011.
Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed noted several new concert halls opened in 2011, both in the United States and abroad. I was particularly interested to hear about the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo., which opened in September. I'd heard of Kansas City as a traditional center for jazz, but not classical. Maybe that's changing! New performance spaces also opened in Miami Beach; Florence, Italy; Reykjavik, Iceland; Helsinki; and Montreal.
Several significant commemorations were recognized in 2011. It was the bicentennial of composer/pianist Franz Liszt (1811–1886), and the 100th centennial of composer/conductor Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), and both were honored with many special performances worldwide. Living composers were celebrated, too. Elliott Carter, the quintessential elder statesman of classical composition, celebrated his 103rd birthday in December at a concert in New York that included five works written in 2011!
The classical world marked the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 with concerts nationwide, including, fittingly, a weeklong series of concerts at Trinity Church Wall Street. Two New York-based composers wrote new works to commemorate the anniversary: John Corigliano, whose "One Sweet Morning" for mezzo-soprano and orchestra was commissioned and premiered by the New York Philharmonic; and Steve Reich, who wrote "WTC 9/11" for the Kronos Quartet, incorporating recorded speeches by witnesses of the day's events. (Reich also celebrated his 75th birthday in 2011.)
Whether playing new works or old, classical musicians are on the cutting edge 21st-century media and technology. I first heard of a musician using an iPad in place of sheet music in 2010, when it seemed more of a gimmick than a practical tool. But this year, an iPad appeared atop pianist/conductor Jeffrey Kahane's harpsichord during a performance with the New York Philharmonic — you can hardly get more legit than that!
As for those challenges, here are a few of the high-profile bumps in the road that we heard about in 2011. The Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that artistic excellence and financial success don't always go hand in hand in the classical world. One of my home teams, Opera Boston, announced its closure in December due to a budget deficit. On the other hand, the musicians of the Detroit Symphony ended a six-month strike in April (a relief to me as a former Detroit resident and DSO season ticket holder), while the New York City Opera recently reached a tentative agreement with its two unions, opening the door to a resolution to a problem that threatened its future.
In spite of the present economic uncertainty, classical music endures, from concert halls to cafes. It's thrilling to be a part of it!