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Best of classical in 2019: Our critics weigh in

In 2019, social media, social justice and other elements from the outside world seeped into the concert hall as classical music strove for greater relevance.

Soloist Audra McDonald performs with the Philadelphia Orchestra and music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin at the orchestra's opening night gala concert in Verizon Hall on Sept. 18, 2019.
Soloist Audra McDonald performs with the Philadelphia Orchestra and music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin at the orchestra's opening night gala concert in Verizon Hall on Sept. 18, 2019.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

“Who Cares if You Listen?”

The title of that 1958 essay — written by composer Milton Babbitt and published in High Fidelity magazine — echoed for decades. It was all the evidence anyone needed to understand the divorce between the average classical music listener and much of the music being composed at the time.

But rapprochement is in the air, and over the past five years, there’s been a dramatic reconnection of classical music and its audience. It’s hard to think of a single composer, ensemble, or presenter who doesn’t care — as if their life depended on it — if you listen.

The care comes in many forms.

If social relevance was big in 2018, it was even bigger in 2019. Women, long a blind spot for many musicians and listeners, are finally getting more attention. Composers present and past are popping up regularly, and long-languishing works by Florence Price and Louise Farrenc are being heard on populist outlets like WRTI-FM (90.1). Expect more.

Some groups are prodding audiences to think — as Singing City did last Sunday in a concert exploring what immigration has meant to America’s music. Opera Philadelphia’s Denis & Katya, which premiered in September, pushed the art form to explore two related themes that seem to be everywhere today: social media and nihilism.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is increasingly basing its programming, touring and outreach around tenets of humanity, and sometimes garnering unintended attention for it. The group just penned a new five-year deal for concerts and other activities in China, once again raising the question of how it can push for social justice at home while building a relationship with a country whose humanitarian crimes are becoming increasingly apparent.

Like every other corner of life, the concert hall is a tangled place. Here are some classical highlights from a year of listening to a changing world, with concerts meaningful to these two critics.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera. This new production by Michael Mayer starring Diana Damrau in December 2018 was so late in the year that it missed many best-of lists, so here it is now, having stood out in so many ways: Damrau’s detailed insights into the role of Violetta, the visual splendor of the production, and Nézet-Séguin’s incredibly vibrant, infinitely flexible reading of the oft-heard Verdi score. — David Patrick Stearns

Xavier Foley. Making his Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) debut in January at just age 24, this Curtis grad and Astral Artists member has the potential to hoist the double bass from its humble supporting role into the spotlight. The recital showed his enormous breadth as both performer and composer, but it was Foley’s nearly comic virtuosity in Bottesini and deep expressiveness in Schubert that point to one of those careers that can be absolutely anything the artist wants it to be. — Peter Dobrin

Imani Winds. This spunky, polished woodwind quintet isn’t based in Philadelphia, but we are grateful for their frequent visits, like the one in February to PCMS. The ensemble’s ability to change its sound and style to suit the piece continues to astonish, particularly so in a program that included gems as distinctly imagined as La Nouvelle Orléans by Mission Impossible composer Lalo Schifrin, the Sechs Bagatellen by Ligeti, and Startin’ Sumthin’ by Imani hornist Jeff Scott. — P.D.

Eric Owens and Lawrence Brownlee. Charisma and individualism arrived both bold and beautifully hushed in this PCMS recital of works by Mozart, Verdi, Donizetti and Gounod, as well as more popular repertoire. Owens has a super-resonant bass-baritone that carries even in the quietest passages, and Brownlee used his agility to great expressive ends. Both benefited from the sensitive ear of pianist Craig Terry. The Kimmel’s Perelman Theater once again showed itself as the city’s singularly ideal venue for vocal recitals. — P.D.

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider. The magnificent violinist visited in May with a magnificent piece: the Elgar Violin Concerto. It is wistful, pastoral, and despairing, and Szeps-Znaider, the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Stéphane Denève discovered every emotional corner of the powerful work. If only the incredible peace they found in the second movement could escape Verizon Hall into the greater world. — P.D.

Beatrice Rana. In June, Philadelphia Orchestra audiences had a first look at this 26-year-old Italian pianist who plays even the most finger-busting classics, such as Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, as if she’s having a personal conversation with her listeners. Not that she’s too personable to be thrilling: Witness her new Erato-label recording with Stravinsky’s excerpts from Stravinsky’s Petrushka that’s populated with vivid characters but has some of most muscular pianism out there. — D.P.S.

The Crossing: Aniara. This lost-in-space story of a ship blown hopelessly off course became the Crossing’s major foray into theater — in a deluxe package in June at the Christ Church Neighborhood House with great computer graphics and programs resembling passports. The piece itself felt conceptually flawed (too little context), but the score by Philadelphia composer Robert Maggio showed just how accomplished he has become in his ability to dramatize most any situation with just the kind of music that’s warranted. And yes, the Grammy-winning Crossing choir knows how to handle itself onstage. — D.P.S.

Nixon in China. Presented by the Princeton Festival at the McCarter Theatre Center in June, the Steven LaCosse production gave new dramatic credibility to this free-floating portrayal of Richard Nixon’s 1973 diplomatic coup. The opera began with Mao lying in state — clearly establishing that this is a memory play. And what the characters remembered most wasn’t history-making moments but the quirky personal exchanges and their mutual sense of discovery. Among the singers, none embodied this new dramatic focus better than Cameron Schutza as Mao.— D.P.S.

O19’s Denis & Katya. Opera Philadelphia’s September festival redrew the cutting edge with Denis & Katya. The compact, 80-minute opera of sorts by composer Philip Venables and librettist Ted Huffman told the story — with layers and layers of perspective — of gun-toting Russian teenagers who shared their standoff with police on social media in real time. The narrative was anything but discursive, but explored these unheroic, abbreviated lives with a directness that doesn’t always happen in opera. Words were spoken, printed and, of course, sung. Was it music or sound design? How much does that matter? — D.P.S.

Audra McDonald and Philadelphia Orchestra 2019 Opening Night. It’s hard to think of an orchestra opening gala newsier than this year’s. Superstar tenor Plácido Domingo had been engaged as special guest for this year’s gala concert, but was disinvited after the Associated Press published a report alleging sexual misconduct. Audra McDonald appeared instead, bringing great style and substance. The audience also made an artistic contribution. For Pauline Oliveros’ “The Tuning Meditation” from Four Meditations for Orchestra, each orchestra musician randomly chose a note of a different pitch, and then Nézet-Séguin asked the audience to do the same. It filled the hall with a pleasant buzz. Instant conceptual art! — P.D.

George Crumb. Having redefined what music can be, Crumb arrived at his 90th birthday on Oct. 24, not as the feared experimentalist of old, but as a beloved figure who opened up haunting new sound worlds. Organizations all over Philadelphia celebrated his birthday — Bowerbird, Chamber Orchestra First Editions, Swarthmore College, Haverford College, and Orchestra 2001. Sadly, his daughter, Ann Crumb, who sang the premieres of several of his works, died of cancer on Oct. 31. She was also a major Broadway figure, and was maybe the smartest soprano to ever star in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. — D.P.S.

Singing City. Last Sunday’s concert by this socially conscious choir followed a holiday theme, but the larger point was about immigrants and the music they brought with them. Would The Nutcracker be the earworm it is had George Balanchine never made his way from Russia to the United States? Singing City and Philadelphia Brass bundled works from Ireland, Germany, Russia, Puerto Rico, African American traditions, and others into a program entitled “Philadelphia: An Immigrant City.” Music director Jeffrey Brillhart didn’t explicitly say it to the audience at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ, but he didn’t have to: America is immigration. — P.D.