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Peter Dobrin's best of 2017 in classical music

Philadelphia's classical music circles are opening themselves to new venues, like TLA on South Street; new faces, like Benjamin Grosvenor; and a social-mission role that comes with risks.

Opera star Stephanie Blythe sings in the audience during an Opera Philadelphia show at TLA South Street with Dito van Reigersberg.
Opera star Stephanie Blythe sings in the audience during an Opera Philadelphia show at TLA South Street with Dito van Reigersberg.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON

In the last year, Opera Philadelphia hosted a drag queen at TLA on South Street, the Philadelphia Orchestra played its first concert in which caretakers of autistic listeners wouldn't have to worry about drawing death -stares if their charges made a little noise, and a composer from the Curtis Institute of Music has been working with inmates in Graterford Prison.

Even the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, long known for playing it straight when it comes to presentation, stretched its wings a bit in 2017, with a festival of last works and late style by composers.

In many ways, this was the year that Philadelphia decided classical music can define itself far more broadly — as a musical genre, as a social force, and in terms of who its audience is.

This is a positive development  — as long as classical leaders don't place too heavy a burden on the art form. It is worrisome to see language about art changing lives on marketing materials from cultural groups. It is both an oversimplification and raises expectations too high. I worry, too, that if social mission and outreach become the primary driver of some arts groups, the quality of the art itself may begin to suffer.

But for the most part, Philadelphia's classical community appears to be on to something big, a democratization long overdue (though there is surely more to do). Best-of lists are, of course, subjective. But this year, it was possible to come up with highlights that soar on multiple levels: innovation in format, creativity of venue, a reconsideration of who a worthy audience is, and a certain directness in the message of the music itself.

School District of Philadelphia and its arts partners. Some of the best performances this year have gone on backstage. For the first time in recent memory, there is momentum from arts groups behind the School District's push to fortify music and art programs in the schools. Just to name a few of the more significant developments: Philanthropist Joseph Field has donated $10 million toward a new performing arts space at Central High. ArtistYear has greatly expanded the number of artists it places in school residencies. The Grammy Music Education Coalition has put some fund-raising muscle behind a larger $60 million "wish list" of programs the School District is developing to enhance music in the schools. And arts groups and specific schools are becoming much more sophisticated in how they work together to help fill the gaps in arts education.

Hannibal Lokumbe. It's hard not to be awed by the presence of the Texas composer and trumpeter in Philadelphia this year. He's become a kind of pop-up conscience, bringing Philadelphia Orchestra musicians and others into churches, schools, and prisons, as well as the traditional concert hall. "I want you to be part of this piece," Hannibal told a group of prisoners at the Philadelphia Detention Center in Holmesburg in March before a string quartet played an Anne Frank-inspired work of his.

Hannibal told the story of his talking to a German farmer who remembered, as a child, seeing ashes rising from crematoriums and thinking "that it was like snow." Hannibal gave the prisoners instructions to make a hissing sound at the end of the piece, an effect meant to emulate the air upon which human ashes were carried. It was one of those moments that was obviously powerful to everyone in the room, and maybe powerful to everyone in a different way. "He opened my eyes up to a lot of new things, things that I didn't even know about myself," said one inmate.

Rudolf Buchbinder and Benjamin Grosvenor. Strength of personality, we often hear, is in short supply in a cookie-cutter world. Not so here. These two piano recitalists — actually, Buchbinder's April appearance was part of last season  — showed the enormous value of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society as our purest presenter of art for art's sake and hedge against provincialism. Grosvenor is only 25 and making his mark all over the world, and it was clear from his expressive ear for Bach that we'll be glad to have been let in early on his individualistic if judicious ways. Buchbinder, at the autumnal end of his career, was every bit the mercurial thinker, making the last movement of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata, as I wrote at the time, about all kinds of things outside itself and inside us  — "about liberation, yes, but also struggle, triumph, and the beauty of taking big chances in life."

Margaret Leng Tan. The New York pianist reached into the body of a Steinway grand to manipulate prepared strings and make us question the definition of music. In the big Annenberg Court of the Barnes Foundation in November, Tan played Cage, Crumb, and Cowell, a trifecta of still-daring-sounding composers that lent considerable credibility to the Barnes' involvement with new music. Tan was also an articulate spokeswoman for her repertoire, in concise comments to the audience. Why isn't this persuasive ambassador here more often?

Dito and Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night. Opera Philadelphia's inaugural move this season to a festival format, O17, grabbed national attention for its energy, innovation, and genre-bending premieres – and deservedly so. But, actually, Opera Philadelphia has been bending genres for several seasons. In February, it paired local drag queen Martha Graham Cracker (Dito van Reigersberg) with real-life opera star Stephanie Blythe. The resulting 90-minute show by Bearded Ladies Cabaret artistic director John Jarboe was smart and bubbly in all the right places. Best of all was the mash-up audience that filled TLA on South Street. For a night, anyway, Philadelphia managed to put what seemed like one of everyone into a single room – gay, straight, young, slacker, and establishment types – and the world was a loving, funny place.

Bruce Nauman. The strength the Philadelphia Museum of Art is building in Bruce Nauman is appealing in many ways, including the way the American artist's works resonate with collections elsewhere in the building. The resonance was literal in Contrapposto Studies, I through VII, and a related work, Walks in Walks Out, which were on view through early 2017, and then acquired jointly by the museum with the Pinault Collection. The monumental sound-video installations in which Nauman himself becomes a proxy for the fragility of the human body had an "aleatory joy," as I wrote at the opening, creating "the odd sensation that revelation, expressivity, and humanity can be found in unexpected places if you have the eye for it."

Fabio Luisi: With Vladimir Jurowski out of the Philadelphia Orchestra's annual rotation for the last couple of seasons and Simon Rattle an only occasional presence, Luisi has emerged as one of the most compelling regular visitors to the podium. His Franck D Minor Symphony in February had great majesty, and the spectrum of textures he drew from the ensemble in Weber's Overture to Oberon was varied, adroit, and unusually sophisticated. Luisi — who returns in January for a program of Wagner, Beethoven, and Haydn — had the orchestra in top form, proving that the right kind of leadership can still turn disparate personalities and views into a unified voice. Even in the concert hall.