Best Classical Music of 2020

A host of livestreamed concerts, the sounds of silence, time-hopping quartets and at-home divas were among the highlights.

By Anthony Tommasini, Zachary Woolfe, Joshua Barone, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, Seth Colter Walls and David Allen

Best of 2020 | Best At-Home Divas | What’s New | Sounds of Silence | Standout Quartets

Anthony Tommasini

Trying to Keep the Art Form Going

“Then everything stopped.”

This was the grimly honest way the mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges described to me what happened this year — to her fast-rising career, and to all of classical music after the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of opera houses and concert halls everywhere. Careers were halted, incomes decimated; musicians with coveted orchestra jobs faced severe salary cuts or furloughs. Still, there were inspiring performances before and, especially, after that showed dedicated artists trying to keep the art form going.

1. ‘The Mother of Us All’

In early February, a month before the pandemic closures, the New York Philharmonic, the Juilliard School and the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented a production of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s opera “The Mother of Us All,” a fanciful yet profound historical pageant centered on the suffragist Susan B. Anthony. The staging celebrated the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Though the cavernous Charles Engelhard Court, at the entrance to the museum’s American Wing, proved acoustically problematic, the Juilliard singers were wonderful. At a time of bitter partisanship and disturbing xenophobia, it was chilling to hear the commanding soprano Felicia Moore, as Anthony, in a powerful soliloquy pondering why men oppose efforts on behalf of voting rights. Men “are afraid,” she sang; they fear women, each other, their neighbors, other countries. Eerily anticipating social-media behavior, the character asserts that these fearful men bolster themselves by “crowding together” and “following” each other.

2. Danish String Quartet

Also in February, the Danish String Quartet performed Beethoven’s 16 quartets in six concerts over 12 days at Alice Tully Hall, presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Maybe classical music is too obsessed with greatness and the canonical composers. Still, this series offered artists from a new generation in fresh, insightful and exciting accounts of seminal pieces that drew capacity audiences and showed why this music matters so much.

3. Early Livestreams

On March 12, when many shutdowns began, institutions including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Berlin State Opera, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Philadelphia Orchestra went ahead with livestreamed programs, playing to empty halls. I caught portions of six performances that day, and was inspired both by the determination of the musicians and by the richness of the work. A seismic shift had taken place: Suddenly, the online audience was the only audience. Sadly, it took just days for institutions to realize that it wouldn’t be possible for performers to gather at all, even in an empty auditorium.

4. Jennifer Koh

A flood of free streams immediately started, mostly from determined musicians playing from their homes. One ambitious and heartening standout was the violinist Jennifer Koh’s “Alone Together” project, for which she played 40 new solo works, half donated, half commissioned, broadcasting them over Instagram from her apartment in Manhattan.

5. The Metropolitan Opera’s At-Home Gala

In April, the Metropolitan Opera returned online, presenting a four-hour “At-Home Gala” featuring 40 leading singers performing live from around the world. Quite a few took part through iffy mobile phone connections. But there were some technical feats, like a stirring performance of the chorus “Va, pensiero” from Verdi’s “Nabucco,” featuring about 90 choristers and players, all at their homes, yet grouped together onscreen. While the company was about to furlough its chorus and orchestra, the gala was an intensely moving reminder that these artists remained devoted to the Met.

6. Berlin Philharmonic

In May, the Berlin Philharmonic poked a toe out of lockdown, presenting a superb livestreamed program of works for chamber orchestra by Arvo Pärt, Gyorgy Ligeti, Samuel Barber and Mahler. The performance employed social distancing onstage and no audience. Here was an early attempt to explore whether a concert involving just 15 players could take place safely.

7. Daniil Trifonov

The pianist Daniil Trifonov ended up demonstrating the before-and-after realities of the pandemic with two performances of Bach’s “The Art of Fugue.” The first took place in early March at Alice Tully Hall, and he played magnificently. He played the work again in June, without an audience, in a studio at Tanglewood. It was broadcast in August. This time, though he wasn’t required to, he wore a mask, which came across as a gesture of solidarity with viewers around the world.

8. Jonas Kaufmann

The tenor Jonas Kaufmann offered a livestreamed program of favorite tenor arias from an abbey outside Munich to inaugurate the Met’s series of stars in recital. Accompanied by the elegant pianist Helmut Deutsch, Mr. Kaufmann sang with such sensitivity and fervor that these familiar pieces came across with new poignancy. With this venture the Met was testing the market to see if music lovers who had become accustomed to free digital offerings would pay for programs.

9. Caramoor

Other institutions, like Caramoor, in Katonah, N.Y., brought artists together — with safety precautions, without audiences — for streamed concerts. This series included several premieres, among them Christopher Cerrone’s concerto for prepared piano and percussion quartet, which received an exhilarating performance by Conor Hanick and Sandbox Percussion.

10. ‘Lift Every Voice’

If in March “everything stopped,” then in late May everything changed. After the killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality, institutions across society felt compelled to reckon with racial disparities within their ranks — and that includes classical music. A bevy of online panels explored the troubled legacy of the art form, which remains overwhelmingly white. The most powerful was “Lift Every Voice,” a panel of six Black singers hosted by the Los Angeles Opera at the suggestion of Ms. Bridges, who moderated. The discussion exposed the discomfort, slights and pain artists of color have faced even during careers that might seem like success stories.

Orchestras and opera companies have announced plans to perform works by composers of color and to find ways to make their ensembles more reflective of the diverse communities they serve. If these moves bring about real change, this could be at least one great benefit of the most devastating year ever for classical music.

Zachary Woolfe

The Best of the Year’s At-Home Divas

The essence of the diva is that she isn’t homebound. She levitates; she globe-trots; she is placeless. We may want to see the occasional Architectural Digest-style spread of a prima donna’s lair, but we don’t really want to imagine our favorite Brünnhilde as having a leaky toilet or a ratty armchair. Divas, we hope, are above and beyond such things that plague the rest of us.

The past months, of course, have more or less grounded the entire world — and that includes the superstars. But they haven’t vanished. In some cases, they’ve even taken us into, yes, their dining rooms and bedrooms, some more fancily appointed than others, for performances that have been remarkable for their gracefulness and intimacy, spreading magical divadust over an anxious year.

1. Justin Vivian Bond

Alternately — OK, simultaneously — imperious and self-deprecating, this dryly undefinable performer, best known as half of the wild cabaret duo Kiki and Herb, holed up in March in upstate New York with a couple of friends and collaborators. On Thursdays at 5, they broadcast boozy happy hour performances, with “Auntie Glam” as the central character, that grinned and powered right over the fear that seized those early weeks of the pandemic — much as Kiki had done in the early 1990s, as AIDS raged. I hope I never forget the climax on April 9: a hilarious, unexpectedly stirring, finally tear-inducing rendition of “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,” one of the Carpenters’ loopiest, most transcendent hits, sent out to suffering New York City.

2. Julia Bullock

One of the few opera stars who retains her voice’s seductive potency as she scales down for small rooms, this American soprano was in Germany with her husband, the conductor Christian Reif, for the first part of lockdown. He joined her on piano in a memorable series of songs they posted on social media. None was more moving than a dreamy, quietly commanding version of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Brill Building classic “Up on the Roof,” rising to rapture. Like Mx. Bond’s “Calling Occupants,” it was a love letter to New York as the crisis was at its most intense.

3. Renée Fleming and Erin Morley

The Metropolitan Opera’s ingenious At-Home Gala brought viewers into the (very) various domestic spaces of some favorite singers. Miraculously, there were no major technical snafus, and the performances were uniformly good, too. But among the highlights, there were highlights. Ms. Fleming, for whom Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello” was once a signature role, gave an eloquent account of the “Ave Maria,” a kind of benediction over the gala. If that brought serenity, Ms. Morley then whipped up the energy level in “Chacun le sait” from Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment,” playing piano and tossing off coloratura while asking those watching to join in the choruses, a moment of joyful defiance.

4. Stephanie Blythe

There was an encompassing sense of safety in the pop standards this eminent mezzo-soprano posted on Facebook from her couch, accompanying herself on the ukulele. This was truly person-to-person communication through music: comfort-food consolation of the highest quality, warmed by Ms. Blythe’s palpable love for her invisible audience. I keep thinking about her sweet, deep take on David Bowie’s “Changes,” which she put up on April 27, and how she turned Bowie’s “float” to “flow” in a line that was newly resonant at that relentless moment: “Though the days flow through my eyes, still the days, they seem the same.”

5. Igor Levit

Divas, it goes without saying, don’t have to be singers. And perhaps no musician of any kind made the most of an agonizing year like this pianist, who livestreamed dozens of little recitals out of lockdown from his apartment in Berlin. He stopped for a bit and then, as the caseload spiked once more this fall, recommenced, with a beautifully considered, poised yet yearning performance of Bach’s Partita in E Minor on Nov. 16.

Joshua Barone

The Glimpses of Change

Classical music has never been more accessible. But in 2020, every taste of good news came with a buffet of horrors; no matter what we celebrate, we can’t forget that in what seemed like an instant, the industry was paralyzed by the pandemic. For so many artists, this year ended the second week of March.

If we take a moment to appreciate the positive, though, remember that, as people became homebound en masse, they suddenly had the world’s greatest musicians available on demand through livestreams and archival videos put online at no cost. As live performance crept back, the New York Philharmonic offered itself to the city from the back of a pickup truck. Yuval Sharon, the most innovative American opera director, transplanted the blaze of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” to a parking garage, for Michigan Opera Theater; when the shows sold out, the company opened the cavernous Detroit Opera House to the public for free live screenings.

Out of necessity, orchestras and other organizations eventually began to charge for admission. That was one of many changes that came, to borrow a White House phrase, at warp speed. The jolting circumstances of the pandemic made for quick, welcome improvements. Talk about racial inequity went from platitudes to earnest conversation. Programming went from rigid and Eurocentric to flexible and more inclusive. Video departments went from promotional afterthoughts to full-fledged media operations.

Let none of this be an aberration. The year was one of crisis, but also of adaptability, invention and lessons that cannot be forgotten as the industry rebuilds itself in 2021 and beyond.

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

The Sound of Silence

Music has always been as much about silence as sound. Normally, the two feed one another in an exchange of energy, resonance, expectation.

This year, the silence smothered music. And while many artists rose to the challenge of closed concert halls with creative ventures offered online, over the phone, out of doors or one-on-one, the two performances that defined 2020 for me crystallized the silencing of music. I experienced both as videos: One shows a voiceless choir, the other a soundless orchestra.

In April the Netherlands Radio Choir and Radio Philharmonic Orchestra commissioned a work from the poet Vrouwkje Tuinman and Vincent Cox, a composer and percussionist in the orchestra, that would speak to the fear of choral singing as a source of contagion.

The result was “My heart sings on,” an elegiac song for string quartet, musical saw and signing singers. As the disembodied keening of the saw floated over sighing strings, Ewa Harmsen, a deaf member of the Dutch Signing Choir, performed the words with lyrical gestures. Behind her, safely spaced out, members of the Radio Choir joined in, performing the song in Dutch Sign Language. The sign for singing is two hands, facing each other, floating diagonally away from the torso.

In November, the Berlin Philharmonic released a video filmed during a concert in front of a carefully distanced audience. The orchestra had just received the news that new restrictions would once again shut down performances. So its chief conductor, Kirill Petrenko, added John Cage’s “4’33”” as an encore, conducting the silence with focused intensity. When the piece was new it scandalized audiences; since then it has become something of a mark of sophistication to enjoy it as a bit of a palate cleanser alongside other music. In Berlin, though, it became a heartbreaking symbol for the pandemic’s cruel toll on culture.

David Allen

The Broadening Canon

Are we getting there? Are we finally building a more inclusive culture in classical music? Nobody could possibly argue that the work is done, particularly when it comes to race, but there has been evidence this year — on record at least — that female composers are starting to get more of their due.

Start back in the Europe of the mid-19th century. The music of Louise Farrenc, professor of piano at the Paris Conservatory for three decades after 1842, has been taped before, but never quite so well as in Joanne Polk’s sample of her solo piano music (Steinway & Sons), or in Christoph König’s accounts of her First Symphony and two fine overtures with the Solistes Européens, Luxembourg (Naxos). If you want to hear the works of Emilie Mayer, Farrenc’s German contemporary, you will have a tougher time, so let us hope that Leo McFall’s bracing take on her first two symphonies with the NDR Radiophilharmonie (CPO) leads to a survey of all eight.

Amy Beach has long been on the edges of the chamber music canon, even if it was her “Gaelic” Symphony and Piano Concerto that made her famous — but Garrick Ohlsson and the Takacs Quartet, the world’s best, gave a haunting beauty to her 1908 Piano Quintet (Hyperion). Ethel Smyth, the British suffragist, has found another advocate in the conductor James Blachly, whose recording of her last major work, “The Prison,” from 1931, exudes quality (Chandos) — an album of the year, by any measure. And there has been plenty of new music, too, best of all an overdue portrait of Ash Fure’s inimitable explorations of tactile sound (Sound American).

More, please.

Seth Colter Walls

The Time-Crossing Quartets

Including older and contemporary works on the same program is nothing new. But two string quartets took such era-spanning perspectives to fresh heights this year.

Brooklyn Rider had the temerity to sequence new pieces between the movements of Beethoven’s Opus 132 on their double-disc set “Healing Modes.” And the Spektral Quartet’s digital-only double album, “Experiments in Living,” invited listeners to hit “shuffle” on their streaming service of choice. (Alternately, one could use the group’s specially designed tarot cards to determine a new sequence during each listen.)

On Brooklyn Rider’s album, the playing of Beethoven’s tender slow movement seemed to gain additional poignancy when coming after detours into the sounds of today’s avant-garde from composers like Du Yun and Matana Roberts.

On one randomized tour through Spektral’s playlist, I was astonished to discover how some of the players’ darting articulations during the first movement of Brahms’s String Quartet No. 1 proved a perfect appetizer for the serrated edges of Sam Pluta’s “binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state.”

You can, of course, go through both albums such that every work proceeds in its correct order. But these scrambled yet crisply played recordings also manage to suggest that different eras and styles might have something useful to offer each other.

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