Many cultural communities are truly going through the worst of times. The usually vital Minneapolis/St. Paul has both of its orchestras locked out. Elsewhere, one orchestra after another has staggered under financial problems.
Philadelphia ain't rosy, but both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia have pulled back from the brink. Individual artists persevered in ways that can only be described as noble. Composers, the backbone of any music community, kept putting out some of their best music in 2012.
Looking into the future, the Opera Company of Philadelphia snapped up Jennifer Higdon's new opera, Cold Mountain (now in workshops at the Curtis Institute) - after the San Francisco Opera stumbled - and made cutting-edge Brooklyn-based Missy Mazzoli one of its composers in residence. Most quixotic of all is the 23-event "John Cage: Beyond Silence" festival that runs through January. Even if you don't love it, you have to respect any endeavor that has an all-night organ work at Christ Church.
Let's not pat ourselves on the back too hard. The ugly events in Minneapolis prove that a great conductor/orchestra combination - the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä - isn't the magic bullet for survival. But Yannick Nézet-Séguin arrived at the Philadelphia Orchestra not a moment too soon. And that's why he makes the year's list of standout classical performances, albums, and DVDs.
Verdi Requiem. Choral works are one of Nézet-Séguin's specialties, and his season-opening Verdi showed his vision at its clearest: Though the piece had all its customary hellfire, the performance featured rarely heard, fine shades of sound that created a deeper effect. Audiences also enjoyed multiple soprano soloists: When the dramatically charged Marina Poplavskaya fell ill, Angela Meade by all accounts sailed through the piece.
Elegy for Young Lovers. This daunting 1961 opera can't be taken on lightly, with its heady W.H. Auden libretto and knotty Hans Werner Henze score. But in March the combined forces of the Curtis Institute, Opera Company of Philadelphia, and the Kimmel Center created a production of this mordantly funny opera about a hyperegotistical poet that showed just how great the piece is.
Dog Days. At the end of David T. Little's opera, heard in October at Montclair State University in New Jersey, you were lucky to find your way home. The unsettling piece about how human beings turn on one another during desperate times ended with a devastating electronic crescendo accompanying an act of cannibalism.
Voices From the Heartland. George Crumb's latest songbook collection, premiered in January, transplanted traditional melodies, some of them American Indian, into sound environments created by 100 percussion instruments (deployed by Orchestra 2001), suggesting distant church bells, cicadas, and so much else.
Esa-Pekka Salonen Violin Concerto. Though mainly known as a conductor, Salonen is also a great composer, and has never been greater than in his Violin Concerto, which had its local premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra in March and is now out on a Deutsche Grammophon recording. Though always effervescently eventful, the composer has rarely bared his soul as much as in the concerto's monologuelike final movement.
Ilya Itin. The Russian-born, New York-based pianist enjoys solid mid-career status in Europe and the Far East, and showed what U.S. audiences are missing in a July recital presented by the Golandsky Institute in Princeton, which promotes pain- and strain-free piano technique. The result was apparent in Itin's great freedom of expression, allowing Chopin's Preludes (Op. 28) to speak more articulately than ever.
La Bohème. As a contributor to Gramophone magazine, I'm often assigned DVDs I normally wouldn't encounter, such as this one, issued by Electric Picture, of the Norwegian National Opera's La Boheme. Set in a modern hospital ward, the Stefan Herheim production begins with a giant EKG of the opera's dying heroine - and goes from there to reinvent the usual life-and-death operatic devices into something more devastatingly real.
Tonic. This Steve Mackey orchestral work, premiered by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia in February, showed the Princeton-based composer in a more abstract, homogeneous phase with a piece that simmers with prickly inner tension and shimmers with harmonic surfaces, suggesting Sibelius.
Anthology of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Vol. 7 (2000-2010). This just-released 14-CD set is culled from exceptional live performances by this great orchestra under Mariss Jansons, Fabio Luisi, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Paavo Berglund, Ivan Fischer, and others, showing what a musical nerve center Amsterdam is. The set is the swan song from Radio Netherlands Worldwide, which eliminated its music department due to budget cuts. Watch for it on Amazon.com.
Borromeo Quartet. Sometimes the better the performance, the more overwhelming the music seems. So it was at Borromeo's November marathon of Bartók's six ultradense string quartets at the Curtis Institute that only deepened the music's mysteries and raised its already great stature.