Best of 2021
The 25 Best Classical Music Tracks of 2021
“Alone Together”; Jennifer Koh, violin (Cedille)
When the pandemic made in-person performances impossible, the superb violinist Jennifer Koh began an inspiring project to commission short solos, which she premiered online from her Manhattan apartment. “Alone Together” offers the results: 39 strikingly diverse pieces, among them Angélica Negrón’s playful, inventive “Cooper and Emma.”
Ten Notable Performances of 2021
Julius Eastman’s “Femenine” in Orange County, June 18th
Eastman’s seventy-five-minute minimalist juggernaut resurfaced in 2016, more than twenty-five years after the composer’s death. Since then, it has become a modern warhorse, with no fewer than four recordings in circulation, on the Frozen Reeds, Another Timbre, Sub Rosa, and New Amsterdam labels. The last album, performed by the L.A.-based ensemble Wild Up and overseen by Seth Parker Woods, Richard Valitutto, and Christopher Rountree, is the most vital of the lot—an ode of and to joy. An outdoor performance in Orange County turned into a kind of agnostic service, with an orchestra of bells ringing into the night.
Notable Recordings of 2021
“Time Traveler’s Suite”: works by Bach, Handel, Ravel, Ligeti, Barber, Brahms, Couperin, Rameau, Adès; Inon Barnatan (Pentatone)
The 50 Best Albums of 2021
Top 10 Classical Albums of 2021
Christopher Rountree, Wild Up, Julius Eastman Vol. 1: Femenine
For Those Who Like: Terry Riley, free jazz, jam bands The Story: Being a Black composer in the 1970s was tough enough. Being boldly gay as well added another layer of complexity to how audiences understood this particular brilliant composer and performer whose fame and success crested and ultimately crashed too soon. Julius Eastman collaborated with Pierre Boulez, Meredith Monk and other key figures in experimental music; his performances won him acclaim, and a Grammy nomination. His compositions, with their provocative titles and quirky instrumentation, earned him a reputation as distinctive and uncompromising. After a stint of homelessness and substance abuse, Eastman died alone in a Buffalo, N.Y. hospital in 1990. He was 49. The Music: Femenine, from 1974, is a 67-minute groove based on a 2-note theme in the marimba that blossoms into a forest of captivating sounds, excursions for solo instruments and ecstatic episodes. This jubilant performance, by the Los Angeles-based ensemble Wild Up, marks a sparkling beacon in the current Eastman revival.
Chicago’s Top 10 moments in classical music, opera and jazz that defined 2021
Christine Goerke, Morris Robinson
“Twilight: Gods,” Lyric Opera, April 28 to May 2, streamed July 29 to Oct. 29: Chances are, on a night out, your visit to the parking garage isn’t going to be the evening highlight — unless you were one of the lucky few to attend this abbreviated reimagining of Richard Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.” For three performances, the Nibelheim that is the Millennium Lakeside Parking Garage briefly, beautifully became its own opera hall, with audiences taking it all in from their cars. (Raphael S. Nash’s dreamy film of the project, streamed for three months after the production wrapped, is a stand-alone artwork in itself.) Long before the pandemic, “Twilight: Gods” director Yuval Sharon built a career out of such site-specific, immersive projects, but none to date have felt quite so symbolically laden: Audiences remained in their vehicles, shut their windows tight, and took in the music via live radio broadcast, drive-in style, while Valhalla crumbled around them.
“Florencia en el Amazonas,” Lyric Opera, Nov. 13-28: Daniel Catán and Marcela Fuentes-Berain’s opera has been praised for its popular appeal since its Houston premiere in 1996, and it’s easy to see why: You’ve got a meta “opera singer as protagonist” storyline, a sumptuous score, and a tidy run time of about two hours. Oh, and magic — plenty of magic. (Yes, that’s the hunky boatswain who just transformed into a river spirit, then back again; no, we will not be taking further questions at this time.) Strong performances across the board — including that of soprano Ana Maria Martínez, tenderly portraying the eponymous diva — made for a great night out, but what made this redux of director Francesca Zambello’s original 1996 “Florencia” unmissable was its credo that theater magic is the most potent enchantment of all. When the revolving steamboat set piece, the locus for all the opera’s action, heaves off from shore in the opera’s first few minutes, I was astonished to feel myself, too, buckle in my seat. The thrill of the voyage never abated.
Top 10 Performances of 2021
3. Collaborative Works Festival: “Strangers in a Strange Land”.
The enterprising Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago explored the migrant experience as reflected in classical vocal music from the English Renaissance through Schubert to Ruth Crawford Seeger and the local premieres of absorbing song cycles by Errolyn Wallen and Nico Muhly.
The performers for the opening recital of CAIC’s 10th anniversary festival in September included tenor and CAIC artistic director Nicholas Phan and mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms. Both were superb. Migrant journeys were explored, painful truths lost to history unearthed and timely resonances created, and Phan and friends have brought us no more thoughtful or absorbing a program.
The closing recital of the Collaborative Works Festival was a stand-out on this year’s calendar. Artistic director and tenor Nicholas Phan joined soprano Helen Zhibing, mezzo Amanda Lynn Bottoms, pianist Shannon McGinnis, and violinist Adriane Post for a thoughtful program at Ganz Hall. This roster gave superb advocacy to songs in the folk tradition from Bartok, Britten, Gabriela Lena Frank, Ginastera, and others, capping the festival with intelligence and trademark vocal splendor. (Tim Sawyier)
Garrick Ohlsson reopened the Ravinia Festival (which had been shuttered in 2020) with the first of four recitals devoted to solo piano works of Brahms. The veteran American pianist delivered deeply considered renditions of Brahmsiana both familiar and seldom-heard.
Top Ten Performances of 2021
2. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, James Conlon. The advent of artistic advisor James Conlon at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra coincided perfectly with the reopening of concert life this fall. The esteemed conductor began a three-year tenure co-helming with music director laureate Marin Alsop, while the BSO conducts a multi-year international search for a new music director. Debuting with two major, neglected works for large orchestra, Conlon inaugurated an exciting new era for Charm City.
Classical music: My 5 favorite things from 2021
La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest
In 2020, La Jolla Music Society reduced its annual SummerFest to six livestream programs because of the pandemic. But in 2021, the arts organization — led by CEO Todd Schultz, Artistic Director Leah Rosenthal and SummerFest Music Director Inon Barnatan — presented 16 live concerts, with several also live-streamed. Despite artists’ changing schedules, a shorter planning period and the uncertainties of COVID, SummerFest’s lineup was stellar and its programming admirably diverse. The two Takeover @ The JAI concerts were curated by the boundary-blurring, Latin-American Grammy-winning composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Only one of the 16 scheduled concerts at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center was cancelled — due to a featured (and vaccinated) artist’s positive COVID test — but the rest of SummerFest continued successfully.
International Artist of the Year, People’s Choice