Best of 2015

Classical music 2015 highlights: Female conductors, 'Hopscotch,' Dudamel — but about those parking fees

Mark Swed
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Music Critic

Every year has its personality. This list of highlights is neither intentionally ordered nor haphazardly listed, but rather a bit of stream of consciousness.

Van Beethoven: From Berlin to Beijing, Beethoven has had, for whatever reason (be it salability or spiritual sustenance), a very big year. Downtown L.A. was no exception. The new year began with Michael Tilson Thomas' compelling Los Angeles Philharmonic performance of "Missa Solemnis." The fall season began with Gustavo Dudamel's Beethoven symphony cycle — shared by the L.A. Phil and Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela — that demonstrated a young conductor's profoundly deepening understanding of the composer. And the orchestra drove around downtown and elsewhere in SoCal via a souped-up van equipped with a cool virtual-reality display of Dudamel conducting Beethoven's Fifth in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Limo opera: Meant to put opera literally on the downtown L.A. map, "Hopscotch" cruised operatic limousines through the inner city and its environs. Yuval Sharon's brilliantly engineered concoction of street theater, animation, video art, installation art, environmental art and, yes, the lyric stage, involved an impressive team of composers, librettists, theater people, tech people, drivers and the occasional stunt motorcyclist. Despite the annoying hype and aspects of slumming, "Hopscotch" compensated with thrills, surprisingly few spills and astonishing instants of beauty.

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Year of the maestra: 2015 could prove a watershed year for a new generation of female conductors. L.A. Phil's assistant (soon to be associate conductor), Mirga Gra¿inyt¿-Tyla, demonstrated how remarkably her star is rising in programs at Disney Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and her debut at the San Diego Symphony. Karina Canellakis' Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra debut made her an instant favorite in the ensemble's music-director search. Susanna Mälkki worked wonders in the L.A. Phil's production of Unsuk Chin's "Alice in Wonderland."

Composer of the year: Julia Wolfe got the Pulitzer Prize for her textured oratorio "Anthracite Fields," which makes vivid the plight of Pennsylvania miners. She walked home with the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts for music. And her "Steel Hammer" happened to inspire the music theater event of the year — a Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA production of Anne Bogart's transformative staging of Wolfe's song cycle that looks at the massive effect the legend of John Henry has had on our culture and workforce.

Choreographer as musician of the year: Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker takes the honors with "Vortex," which was the last of the Flemish choreographer's four-evening retrospective, also at UCLA. Set to an acoustically evanescent score by the French Spectralist Gérard Grisey, this became an interaction between movement and music-making of a new sort, thanks in great part to the astonishing Belgian new-music group Ictus, performing by memory and becoming a strikingly indispensable part of the action.

Old game-changers of the year: Terry Riley turned 80. Pierre Boulez turned 90. The Mr. Natural Californian Minimalist and the Napoleonic French Modernist may seem to represent opposing musical points of view, but together they have changed the way we think about music. A year of celebrations revealed striking commonality in the maximalist way Indian music and jazz opened Riley's compositional realm, as African and Indonesian music did Boulez's. Both are seminal composer performers (Riley as pianist, Boulez as conductor). Both revere Ravel.

Old musickers of old music: After long absences, early-music specialists John Eliot Gardiner (born 1943) and William Christie (born 1944) brought their venerable ensembles to Southern California. Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists excavated the last bit of theatrical magic from Monteverdi's "1610 Vespers" and "L'Orfeo." In an especially remarkable musical sleight of hand, Christie found magic in minor French works with his Les Arts Florissants ensemble at Disney Hall.

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Rites of spring: Dudamel demonstrated with a volcanic "Rite of Spring" that his Stravinsky has grown as much as his Beethoven. At UCLA in spring, choreographer Bill T. Jones presented a thoughtfully disruptive version of the ballet that profoundly upset the Stravinskian apple cart.

Piano rites: The revered Hungarian pianist András Schiff brought ecstatic veneration to a three-concert survey of the final three sonatas of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert at Disney. The young Russian pianist Igor Levit levitated Bach, electrically mystified Beethoven and brilliantly banged-up Prokofiev in his dazzling and illuminating local debut recital at the Wallis Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

A Symphony from the beyond: Henryk Górecki died before he could finish his Fourth Symphony, which the Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned as a companion to Brahms for a festival four years ago. But it turns out the Polish composer had long before finished a piano score, which his son has orchestrated brilliantly. The belated premiere by the L.A. Phil in January offered the world a disturbing, unforgettable masterpiece.

The worst trend

Parking!!: Given how traffic already makes it tough to get to concert venues, rising parking prices can be a deal-breaker for audiences. The worst offender is UCLA, which charges $12, higher than the cost of some theater tickets on campus (and $12 more than tuition was when I was a student there). Disney Hall's lot lowers its $9 fee to $5 at 8 p.m., a slap in the face of L.A. Phil concertgoers but a boon to REDCAT's 8:30 p.m. curtain. In Costa Mesa, if you shop or have dinner at the Segerstrom-family-built South Coast Plaza before a show at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, you cannot just walk across the street from the free mall lot. You are required to drive a block and pay a tenner (cash only) to the theaters. That's bad for the arts, the environment and anyone who could benefit from the exercise.

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 13, 2015, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "BEST OF 2015 - MARK SWED" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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