Best (and worst) of 2008: Classical music

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Classical music has learned to live with 5-cent Cassandras yearly foretelling the death of an art form and yearly being proved wrong. Young musicians of the Gustavo Dudamel stripe continue to amaze, with even the most adamant doomsayers jumping on the bandwagon. And when things change -- goodbye CDs, hello downloads -- music lovers adapt. Still, this year has been different. With the economy in tatters, we now know that there will be destruction we cannot forestall. Not all institutions will survive. The recording industry will downsize. Concerts will be canceled and, in some cases, whole seasons. But the music won’t die. There is far too much to kill -- the 10 best below are at least 10 too few. I chose for quality, of course, but also for examples of music that matters the most.

Gustavo Dudamel. His concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic were fabulous. His concerts with the Israel Philharmonic were a pleasure. But the 27-year-old Venezuelan’s work with the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles was pure joy.


‘From the Canyons to the Stars.’ Let’s not forget Esa-Pekka Salonen. His performances grow yearly in richness, depth and beauty; his own music does too. Leading Olivier Messiaen’s ode to Bryce Canyon with the L.A. Philharmonic New Music Group in honor of the centenary of the composer’s birth, Salonen brilliantly broke the sound barrier.

Elliott Carter. The other 100-year-old great composer was still with us. He wrote 16 pieces for one birthday celebration or another and kept coming up with surprising new things. If this sort of longevity doesn’t give you hope, nothing will.

‘Ocean.’ Merce Cunningham may have been a mere 89, but being able to move earth and sea at any age is mind-bogglingly impressive. He presented arguably his greatest and most epic work in a granite quarry outside Minneapolis, producing a visual and auditory spectacle that became downright spiritual.

‘Gianni Schicchi.’ Who would have thought Woody Allen had it in him to direct Puccini’s comedy at L.A. Opera with hilarious wit and engaging musicality? Not I -- and I was wrong.

Tanya Tagaq. There is nothing like a little raw sex to sex up a string quartet concert. This is what the Inuit singer, who counts Björk as a fan, brought to the Kronos Quartet in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Her voice and her body were one, and they both got a workout.

‘Hurricane Mama.’ Shortly after Tagaq quivered on the Disney stage last May, Terry Riley got the whole hall aquiver with his blazingly psychedelic organ composition. I’m told God was sighted.


‘Kafka Fragments.’ Half a year later, God was chased back out of Disney. This shattering meditation by György Kurtág for soprano and solo violin was staged by Peter Sellars for Dawn Upshaw as a housewife with an inner life.

‘La Commedia.’ Louis Andriessen’s wise and musically inventive version of ‘The Divine Comedy,’ staged by filmmaker Hal Hartley at the Holland Festival last summer, was the opera of the year.

‘Satyagraha.’ The new production of Philip Glass’ portrayal of Gandhi set the Metropolitan Opera stage aglow as never before.


‘The Fly.’ L.A. Opera commissioned Howard Shore to write an opera based on the David Cronenberg movie. By the end of its run, the Music Center was selling tickets to people who simply had to see if it really was that bad. They got their money’s worth.

Gerard Mortier. The imaginative head of Paris Opera was set to remake New York City Opera -- and just possibly revolutionize opera in America -- when Wall Street tanked. The Lincoln Center company could no longer afford his vision, and now Madrid will get it.


-- Mark Swed