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Commentary: The faces and facets of classical music’s year of emergence

Cutout photos of classical music's Gustavo Dudamel, Russell Thomas and Barrie Kosky in a collage.
(Illustration by Martina Ibáñez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times; photographs by Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times; L.A. Opera; Eric Feferberg / AFP via Getty Images)

We are not butterflies, winged and free, all splendor, released from our pandemic chrysalis. After our 2020 arts annus horribilis, we foresaw celebratory champagne corks popping and fireworks exploding by 2021’s end. That fantasy has been replaced by the reality that every step needs to be taken gingerly and that not all steps can move forward. Gathering remains a series of negotiated risks, ever more so now with the unpredictable rise of the Omicron variant.

Still, we emerge. And in a heartening number of instances, we have done so in glory, thanks to the many extraordinary first-emergers who made it happen. Here is some of what they’ve brought us indoors, outdoors, in our backyard, around the world and in the digital beyond.

EMERGING CALIFORNIA CONDUCTORS. It has been an exceptional year of emergence for conductors from, and of, the West Coast. Gustavo Dudamel rose to new heights as a conductor in the summer as he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic back to public performance at the Hollywood Bowl and then opened the orchestra’s fall season at Walt Disney Concert Hall. He also began what looks to be a game-changing music directorship of the Paris Opera with Robert Wilson’s production of “Turandot” this month. He was the shoo-in to win a Grammy for his L.A. Phil Ives symphony cycle and, of course, he did.

L.A. Phil laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen gave early indication that he will be bringing some of his trailblazing rethinking of what an orchestra can and should be to the Bay Area as the new music director of the San Francisco Symphony. His Clarinet Concerto got its premiere in Helsinki yesterday, but without Salonen conducting: Though asymptomatic, he has tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, with remarkable resilience, the beloved former SFS music director and L.A. native Michael Tilson Thomas rapidly emerged from successful surgery for a brain tumor and subsequent chemotherapy to conduct the New York Philharmonic in early November. That program included Berg’s Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham. Their SFS recording is one of this year’s great releases.

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Throughout the pandemic, native Californian Kent Nagano has been an active presence in Europe. His work includes a revelatory “Ring” cycle on period instruments with Concerto Köln (which is archived on the Dutch radio station NPO Radio 4) and the release of Messiaen orchestral works; it’s another of the year’s most stunning orchestral recordings.

This is also the year that Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare, who has been spectacularly rejuvenating the San Diego Symphony, added a prestigious second music directorship, succeeding Nagano at the Montreal Symphony. And the emerging African American conductor and Lakewood, Calif., native Ryan Bancroft has been making waves far from home as the first American conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and, as of this month, the music director of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.

EMERGING DIVERSITY. Bancroft was far from alone. This is also the year in which Black conductors and musicians have rightfully been more prominent in classical music lineups. In January, Los Angeles Opera named Black tenor Russell Thomas its latest artist in residence. And when the company emerged from the pandemic this fall, it did so with mainstage productions of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” and Rossini’s “Cinderella” — all of which featured Black singers in leading roles. San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra music director Anthony Parnther made impressive appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and on the Jacaranda new-music series, as did Berkeley Symphony music director Joseph Young in his debut with the Pasadena Symphony in a concert that also featured the radiant young — and yet another SoCal native — Black violinist Randall Goosby, whose Hollywood Bowl debut was a highlight of the summer.

In 2021, many an American orchestra worth its salt got the message that playing works by lively and provocative young Black composers like Jessie Montgomery and Carlos Simon is essential. The L.A. Phil added Kris Bowers as one of the three composers who curated its “Reel Change” festival of film music, and the Metropolitan Opera at long last staged its first opera by a Black composer, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by Terence Blanchard, the composer, trumpeter and Kenny Burrell Chair in Jazz Studies at UCLA. Equally important, the year gave a major lift to three senior Black composers — George Lewis, Anthony Davis and Wadada Leo Smith — who have been among the most profound, progressive, challenging and influential American voices for decades but given far too little due by the establishment.

EVER-EMERGING FRANK GEHRY. Having turned 92 in February, the architect of the Walt Disney Concert Hall has already enjoyed several lifetimes’ worth of emergences. Even so, Gehry’s modest yet wondrously luminescent design for the new Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center in Inglewood, which opened in the fall, is poised to become a transformative example of how the L.A. Phil music education program changes lives. At the other extreme, the year has ended with the finishing touches being put on Gehry’s the Grand, across the street from Disney. It couldn’t be, well, grander and, once its proposed Colburn concert halls are built, it will be poised to complete the transformation of Grand Avenue into the dominant arts center in the country and well beyond.

EMERGING RADY SHELL. When the San Diego Symphony’s outdoor concert venue opened in the summer, it must have felt like it emerged from the sea. On the shore in downtown, the space-agey new shell overlooks the harbor (and overhears its ships’ horns occasionally to lovely atmospheric effect) and takes many of its cues from the Hollywood Bowl, especially a similar sound system. Payare opened the orchestra’s season with Mahler’s first symphony in the Rady Shell rather than at its less inviting concert hall, and it proved a thrilling affair.

NEWLY EMERGING BARRIE KOSKY. However much an international presence the Australian opera director already may be, his stepping down this year as the head of Komische Oper in Berlin puts him more directly on the world stage. He has proven that already in 2021, evident in livestreams from Bavarian State Opera (a marvelous “Der Rosenkavalier”), Aix-en-Provence (a hilarious “Falstaff”) and, this month, Vienna State Opera (a shocking “Don Giovanni”). Kosky’s revelatory, bare-bones Komische production of “West Side Story,” an antidote to Steven Spielberg’s new film, reaches Strasbourg in May, courtesy of l’Opéra National du Rhin.

EMERGING EXTRAS. A lot of digital content necessitated by the lockdown proved a necessary yet unsatisfactory stopgap to live performance. But what also emerged on the websites of many arts institutions that are well worth enduring are all kinds of extras, sort of like the extras you get on Criterion Collection home video. These can be educational videos or podcasts (great for listening to in the car on the way to performances) or short films in their own right. It has taken practice to get it right, and two of the latest happen to be the best — Carlos Simon’s compelling “The First Bluebird in the Morning,” one of L.A. Opera’s “On Now: Digital Performances,” and Dudamel’s searing performance of Mahler’s arrangement of Beethoven’s “Serioso” String Quartet on the L.A. Phil’s “Sound/Stage.” Both performances enhance, rather than distract, from the musical vision.

REEMERGING “ORLANDO.” Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth’s fabulously over-the-top “Orlando,” a spectacular trans spin on Virginia Woolf’s novel and the first major opera by a woman in the legendary Vienna State Opera’s history, shocked the Viennese to their traditional operatic boots with its vivid sexuality and liberal political advocacy. But this month, Neuwirth — whose operas include one based on David Lynch’s film “Lost Highway” yet have little presence in the U.S. at the moment — was awarded the $100,000 Grawemeyer Award for “Orlando,” all but assuring it more performances.

REEMERGING PIANO. After spending the last couple of decades in Europe, Thomas Mann’s piano came home to the Nobel Prize laureate German author’s Pacific Palisades home, now a cultural center. The return was marked in October with a goose-bump-giving recital by pianist Igor Levit, himself a great pandemic emerger via both Zoom concerts and live ones, that made the Thomas Mann House seem a magnificently haunted house enlivened by ghosts of the German L.A. emigrant community past.

NOSES EMERGING FROM MASKS. Concert life began coming back in the second half of 2021, with strict vaccination and mask requirements as a way to entice nervous audiences. It has worked well but not perfectly. As fall has moved toward winter, more and more masks in theaters have begun drooping to lip level and even below. With a winter surge likely, may we make a masks-up New Year’s resolution.

SUBMERGING MUSIC AT THE ACADEMY MUSEUM. The new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opened to huzzahs from movie and architecture fans and critics but not us music folk. The academy, incredibly, left out a dedicated display of film music.

THE IMPERMANENCE OF EMERGENCE. Three new music giants, who together transformed the idea of music as we know it, died this year. They were Frederic Rzewski, Louis Andriessen and Alvin Lucier. Their lives were long, and what surely will emerge is a growing appreciation of the enormous body of essential music they’ve left behind. As proof, a radiant Andriessen harpsichord solo and a shimmering Lucier triangle solo showed up recently on programs at Disney. Piano Spheres has planned a tribute for Rzewski in February.


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