At the close of a catastrophic year in the performing arts, the annual ritual of cobbling together a list of highlights takes on a woeful cast. To begin with, I saw only three in-person events after mid-March. Although I watched dozens of performances online, sitting at my desk day after day lent the experiences a sense of sameness, of solipsism. The power of joining an audience resides in yoking your individuality to a collective, however temporary or disparate. In our electronic watchtowers, we seem to command a wide landscape, but ultimately we rarely leave the cocoon of the self. The COVID-19 year has trapped us all the more completely in the digital bubbles from which we so often long to break out. In a related development, the tech monopolies that already control too much of the cultural landscape have tightened their grip.
The damage that performing-arts groups and working performers have suffered is more severe than we can measure, and years will pass before even a partial recovery takes hold. Union rights were already under sustained attack, and organizations may opportunistically use the crisis to degrade those rights further. The Metropolitan Opera, which furloughed around a thousand employees in the spring, has offered to resume sending paychecks to unionized employees but only if they accept long-term reductions in salary. Elsewhere, institutions have managed to avoid gutting their employees’ livelihoods. The case of the Columbus Symphony is worthy of note: remarkably, it has made no cuts for any of its full-time musicians or staff. Admittedly, that orchestra is a far smaller organization than the Met. As I commented in a piece on pandemic-era string-quartet activity, the hulking dinosaurs of the musical world may face the gravest danger.
Listeners can play a role in the recovery, as well. For more than twenty years, since Napster gave people the idea that music should be free for the taking, a radical devaluation of musicians’ work has been under way. Spotify and other streaming services have perpetuated and normalized that iniquity: the royalties they offer to non-superstar musicians are insultingly small. It was all the more welcome, then, when, beginning in mid-March, the enlightened music site Bandcamp began running a series of altruistic sales, the proceeds of which went directly to artists. It’s also worth bearing in mind that streaming music is more destructive to the environment than any technology of musical reproduction that has come before.
I feel compelled to erect a memorial for eagerly anticipated performances that never took place. Phantom highlights that come to mind: Alban Berg’s “Lulu” at the Cleveland Orchestra; a new production of the “Ring” at Bayreuth; the world première of Kaija Saariaho’s opera “Innocence,” in Aix-en-Provence; a revival of Peter Sellars’s staging of “Tristan und Isolde” at the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Barrie Kosky’s production of Prokofiev’s “The Fiery Angel” at the Met; and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s inaugural concerts at the San Francisco Symphony. John Keats notwithstanding, heard melodies are sweeter than the other kind.
Ten Notable Performances of 2020
Trevor Bača at Monday Evening Concerts, January 13th
Monday Evening Concerts, the venerable Los Angeles new-music series, has experienced a spectacular creative surge under the direction of the percussionist and conductor Jonathan Hepfer. I had planned to write about the organization last spring, on the occasion of a series of programs with the immensely gifted baritone Davóne Tines. M.E.C.’s January concert, with Hepfer’s Echoi ensemble, would have been occasion enough: Trevor Bača’s new piece “( H A R M O N Y ),” based on an austerely beautiful, Beckett-like text by Paul Griffiths, created a liminal world at once gorgeous and ominous, with an A-major chord shimmering like a mirage of hope at the end. When it faded out, the narrator, Paul Holdengräber, softly intoned, “Not yet.”
Jennifer Walshe at National Sawdust, March 1st
The Irish composer and vocalist Jennifer Walshe, one of the most volcanically inventive forces in twenty-first-century arts, came to Brooklyn at the beginning of March to perform her voice-and-string-quartet work “EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT”—an audiovisual pandemonium that gets close to the heart of the contemporary condition. At the beginning of the fall, I made a virtual trip to the National Concert Hall, in Dublin, to hear and see “Ireland: A Dataset,” an alternately hilarious and haunting meditation on Irish reality and myth.
“Sweet Land” in Los Angeles, March 7th
Productions by the Los Angeles-based opera visionary Yuval Sharon have appeared on my end-of-year lists in five out of the past six years, and with good reason: no one in the field has been as consistently creative or daring. The first of two astounding Sharon projects in 2020 was “Sweet Land,” an outdoor opera that meditated on the plundering of Native American lands by colonizers. The score was a joint effort by the composers Du Yun and Raven Chacon—the first is Chinese-American, the other of Navajo descent. Scenes from the work lingered in my mind as two ineradicable national crimes unfolded: the separation of children from their parents at the American border and the destruction of sacred Native sites by border-wall construction.
Igor Levit’s House Concerts in Berlin, March 12th to May 4th
In the summer of 2019, I began work on a Profile of the brilliant German pianist Igor Levit, whose political outspokenness has given him a prominence far outside the classical field. The shutdown prevented me from travelling to see Levit perform Busoni’s titanic Piano Concerto, which was to have been the culmination of the piece, but a different ending materialized: beginning in mid-March, Levit gave a series of nightly Hauskonzerte, or house concerts, in his apartment, in Berlin. In the fall, he released a glowingly sombre album titled “Encounter,” pairing arrangements of Bach and Brahms with Morton Feldman’s “Palais de mari,” which had figured in one of his more memorable home broadcasts.
Oslo Philharmonic, May 7th
Few streaming concerts can attain anything like the presence and atmosphere of a live event. But there was something exceptional about the Oslo Philharmonic’s rendition of Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” which I singled out in a May column on Zoom-era music: the mixture of beauty and melancholy, longing and loss, brought me to the brink of tears. My mother had died a few months earlier, and although she never cared for Wagner I thought of her all the same.
“Lift Every Voice: A Conversation Hosted by J’Nai Bridges,” June 5th
In the wake of nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd, the soprano J’Nai Bridges organized an online discussion with five fellow African-American singers: Julia Bullock, Lawrence Brownlee, Russell Thomas, Karen Slack, and Morris Robinson. Their candor rocked the complacent world of American opera, encouraging an outwardly liberal establishment to see how systemic racism cuts through the heart of their institutions.
Mainly Mozart in San Diego, July 11th
My first experience of live music during the pandemic took place in an unpromising locale: the Del Mar Fairgrounds, north of San Diego. The Mainly Mozart series organized a performance of Mozart’s Divertimento in D (K. 136) and Mendelssohn’s Octet, involving musicians from the L.A. Phil and the San Diego Symphony. Audience members sat in cars and honked their applause. The event was a scrappily joyous affair, showing that the classics can make an impact outside formal settings.