Classical: The best (and worst) of 2008

MAN OF OUR TIMES Gandhi took center stage in Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera in February.

MAN OF OUR TIMES Gandhi took center stage in Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera in February. Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera


The Elliott Carter centenary
How heartening it was to see nearly every sector of New York’s musical community, in organizations large and small, celebrate the achievements of the nation’s foremost living composer—and how truly astonishing it was to find Carter turning out fresh, invigorating new pieces for a great many of the concerts in his honor.

The New York Philharmonic visits Pyongyang
The political sphere unsurprisingly failed to reach instantaneous harmony the moment Lorin Maazel gave his first downbeat in North Korea. Even so, everything about the orchestra’s unprecedented 48-hour mission was historic—and the entire world paid attention to a symphony orchestra for the first time in ages.

Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera in April
Everything we could have dreamed the Met might become was realized in this extraordinary presentation: The singing and playing were on par with the company’s usual high standards, the production was visionary, the message was timely and the composer, Philip Glass, got the biggest ovation of all.

Messiaen organ cycles by Gail Archer and John Scott
Born one day before Carter, Olivier Messiaen passed away well before his 100th birthday. Thankfully, plenty of artists kept his music alive this year, including these two organists. Archer played her series all over town, while John Scott stayed home at St. Thomas Church.

(Le) Poisson Rouge arrives
Booking without boundaries hit Bleecker Street when this chic new establishment opened in the former Village Gate.


The Mortier meltdown at New York City Opera
New York opera lovers spent the whole year looking forward to the arrival of Gerard Mortier at Lincoln Center, with an eagerness that increased with each new initiative the company announced. It all came crashing down in November, when we learned that due to a budget shortfall, Mortier would not be coming after all. Now we’re holding our breath to see if NYCO survives to mount a season.

Things are tough all over
City Opera wasn’t the only company having a hard time this year: Dicapo Opera scrapped its planned New York premiere of Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, and even the Met lopped several highly anticipated new productions and revivals off its 2009--10 season—the most painful loss was John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles.

George Steel departs for Dallas
There was no reason to think that Steel, the intrepid curator whose programming made Columbia University’s Miller Theatre an epicenter of creative buzz, would be here forever. Still, it was a sad day when he departed to take over the Dallas Opera in October.

VIM: Tribeca R.I.P.
This upstart concert series was building an impressive head of steam with its unique, artist-driven offerings. Then the gallery that housed it imposed new rules—and the series abruptly ended in January.


1 Hilary Hahn Schoenberg and Sibelius Violin Concertos (Deutsche Grammophon)
You couldn’t hear Schoenberg’s underappreciated concerto the same way after Hahn offered her passionate take.

2 Bruno Mantovani La Sette Chiese (Kairos)
Susanna Mlkki led the Ensemble Intercontemporain in a dazzling tour of Mantovani’s musical temples.

3 Ursula Oppens Oppens Plays Carter (Cedille)
Pianist Oppens drew on a lifetime of experience and a close connection with Carter for this vivid CD.

4 Johanna Beyer Sticky Melodies (New World)
John McCaughey’s Astra Chamber Music Society rescued the music of this virtually unknown maverick from oblivion.

5 Isabel Bayrakdarian Gomidas Songs (Nonesuch)
This Armenian-Canadian soprano’s homage to the musical hero of her ancestral home was equal parts homework and heart.

6 Harrison Birtwistle The Minotaur (Opus Arte DVD)
The latest opera from England’s modernist master comes to blazing, bloody life in a riveting performance from the premiere run.

7 John Harbison Ulysses (BMOP Sound)
A stellar disc of this epic work inaugurated the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s invaluable CD label.

8 Leo Ornstein Fantasy and Metaphor (New Albion)
Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill made an engrossing overview of this American original’s work.

9 Jonas Kaufmann Romantic Arias (Decca)
The virile German tenor issued the year’s most satisfying collection of operatic arias.

10 Kayhan Kalhorand Brooklyn Rider Silent City (World Village)
Call this crossover if you must; you still can’t ignore such deep connections between two potent musical cultures.

Report card

It’s hard not to be concerned when confronted with this year’s worsts; in a sagging economy, the nonprofit cultural sector is invariably in for a bumpy ride next year. Even so, there was plenty to be cheerful about in 2008: signs of a new adventurousness at the Phil; an excellent hit-to-miss ratio at the Met; ever-more ambitious thinking at Carnegie Hall; and of course, young, crafty composers and performers doing brisk business in lemonade.