Notable performances and recordings of 2021


When, at the end of spring and the beginning of summer, the indoor concerts resume, I was less struck by the quality of the performances – superb as they often are – than by the sublime fact of the sound itself. . Long deprived of live music, I felt a simple wonder at the weightless majesty of voices and instruments resonating in a sympathetic space. At Disney Hall in June, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra embarked on Alberto Ginastera’s “Variaciones Concertantes” and the arpeggio of dewdrops floating from Elisabeth Zosseder’s harp was more or less the most beautiful thing I had heard in a year. Equally important was the company of other listeners. Music, for all its supposed ethereality, is the most material art, the one with the most immediate impact on the body. It is the language of bodies communicating in space.

2021 in review

New York writers reflect on the ups and downs of the year.

The thousand-year-old, multi-faceted art form known as classical music relies almost entirely on live performance. Catastrophically, the pandemic has made a musical livelihood nearly impossible. Organizations and individuals learned new tricks with streaming, but no one could feed a family or care for a pet by posting videos. These first indoor performances attracted the heart all the more because they were the sound of returning to work. Statistics from recent years suggest that before the pandemic, American orchestras and opera companies together employed more than ninety thousand people. It’s not a small cohort, and that excludes the thousands of freelancers who had no organizational reservations to fall back on when it all stopped. This evanescent shimmer is the work of the throat, lungs, arms and hands.

Ash Fure, whose “Hive Rise” installation is listed below, made a striking comment in a print interview last year: “We have so few civic spaces left that allow us to commune outside of the classroom. language. And while there is a lot about classical musical culture that I find haunting – its colonial history, its homogeneity, its exorbitant cost – the gatherings tradition calls for are among the last in the West to carry an expectation of focus without telephone and collective calm. . I always find it very strange and deeply moving that humans come together in silence just so that the air molecules can bump against their skin at the same time. . . I am drawn to sound because of the ability of sound to draw us into our bodies and each other in a radically actual way. These words help explain why the return to live music was, in some ways, like the return of life itself.


Ten notable performances of 2021

“Darkness Sounding” in Los Angeles, from January 15 to February 11

Photograph by Rozette Rago / NYT / Redux

During the dark wave months of last winter, my efforts to keep the column of musical events afloat at times got a little desperate. I wrote about David Hockney’s Wagner Drives, which involved driving along LA’s coastal roads while playing Wagner on the stereo. I also found myself sitting in the Stranger Garden listening to wind chimes, thanks to Wild Up’s “Darkness Sounding” festival. But the extreme intimacy of these events was unlike anything I had experienced as a critic. One day, I sat down with singer-songwriter Odeya Nini in a small park on Mount Washington, while she performed her piece “I See You”. No one else was there. It was as if the music was reinventing itself note by note, after the flood.

Video: Odeya Nini


The New York Philharmonic Orchestra at The Shed, April 14

Esa-Pekka Salonen isn’t one to speak on the catwalk, so it was worth listening to her words when the NY Phil returned to the indoor performance at The Shed: “If there’s one thing what we musicians have learned in these fourteen months or so is that nothing, absolutely nothing, can replace the act and ritual of a live concert. Music, of course, exists on many different levels: in written form, using the complex system of symbols we call notation; in the form of recordings on various media; or, perhaps most importantly, in our memory and in our dreams. However, music truly fulfills its original, dare I say biological, function as a powerful tool to convey the deepest emotions and feelings only when played here and now, at this unique moment in time, where the music, the performers and the audience are one in a perfect symbiosis.


Julius Eastman’s “Femenine” in Orange County June 18th

Eastman’s minimalist seventy-five-minute juggernaut resurfaced in 2016, more than twenty-five years after the composer’s death. Since then, he has become a modern workhorse, with no less than four recordings in circulation, on the labels Frozen Reeds, Another Timbre, Sub Rosa and New Amsterdam. The latest album, performed by Los Angeles-based ensemble Wild Up and supervised by Seth Parker Woods, Richard Valitutto and Christopher Rountree, is the most vital of all: an ode to joy. An open-air performance in Orange County has evolved into a sort of agnostic service, with an orchestra of bells ringing in the night.

Video: “Feminine


“Innocence” by Kaija Saariaho in Aix-en-Provence, July 3

By far, Saariaho’s spellbinding opera about a school shootout was the big novelty of the year. In my review, I could have said a lot more about Sofi Oksanen’s libretto, one of the most brilliantly constructed and psychologically acute opera texts of the century to date. Consider, as a small but revealing example, how a priest loses heart as he mumbles bromides to the parents of a mass murderer. “Your firstborn can always find a way for him,” said the priest, “and I can help him find a job where he too could give back. After a few soft moaning chords, he adds, “I don’t know why I said that.”


Herbert Blomstedt in Tanglewood, August 7

Photograph by Hilary Scott

When I interviewed the indefatigable Blomstedt in Tanglewood, he told me the story of his colleague Sixten Ehrling, a conductor known for his wild spirit. Ehrling conducted the Detroit Symphony from 1963 to 1973, and towards the end, the noted musicians held a vote on whether to stay or go. As Blomstedt says, only one player voted to “stay”. At a farewell event, however, around 40 musicians identified themselves as the sole supporter, at least that’s what Ehrling claimed. No such story will be told about Blomstedt, who, with the death of Bernard Haitink, became the beloved elder sage of the conductor’s profession.


Davóne Tines at Monday evening concerts, September 8

A ritual program at the First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, ranging from Bach to Julius Eastman, showed the daring, passion and intelligence of one of America’s best young singers. I featured him for the magazine, and his critique of the hollow rhetoric of upliftment and transcendence of classical music bears repeating: and so on and the fact that we don’t really, very simply ask, “How you do you smell ? What do you need?’ “

Video: Eastman’s “The Holy Presence of Joan of Arc


Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at the Met, September 27

Headlines focused on the fact that Blanchard’s rigorously constructed drama of modern black life was the first opera by an African-American to ever perform at the Met. It comes five years after the company presented Saariaho’s ‘L’Amour de Loin’, their first opera by a composer since 1903. These embarrassing and belated breakthroughs illustrate the central dilemma facing traditional classical institutions: as long as they are linked to the past, they will be regressive in all respects. Living composers offer the only way forward.


Igor Levit at the Thomas Mann House, October 16

Mann’s former Los Angeles residence, purchased by the German government in 2016, is not open to the public, but does host gatherings and musical evenings. His first post-pandemic event was extraordinary: Igor Levit playing Beethoven’s Sonata, Opus 111, on Mann’s own Wheelock grand piano. Since I participated in the rally as an interlocutor, I cannot claim any critical distance – for this see Mark Swed THE Time Account-but the evening would have kept me going no matter what. Next to me was Frido Mann, the author’s double grandson, who had donated the piano to the house. Theodor W. Adorno was seated in front of the same instrument when he spoke to Mann about Opus 111 – an essay which became part of the novel “Doctor Faustus», Writes in the office next to the living room. I have no penchant for the supernatural, but there have been times when I have felt the touch of ghosts.


Jonny Greenwood’s score for “The power of the dog”, November 17

Photograph by Edu Hawkins / Redferns / Getty

When a director empowers a composer to carry a film and not just accompany it, a sort of singular musical drama emerges. Such a moment comes in a seemingly unremarkable scene towards the end of Jane Campion’s magnificent post-anti-Western. As a fastidious young man named Peter rides a horse through a mountain ravine, Greenwood’s score – two French horns enigmatically calling each other in reverberating space – signals that we are witnessing a revelation or transformation, well. that we cannot yet see its full dimensions.


Ash Fure’s “Hive Rise” at Geffen Contemporary, November 20


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