Best classical music performances of 2023

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Best classical music performances of 2023
In an undated image provided by Da Ping Luo, the Emerson Quartet’s last hurrah, from left: Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Paul Watkins and Lawrence Dutton. There were feats, farewells and musical treasures in a year of post-pandemic financial pressures. (Da Ping Luo via The New York Times)

NEW YORK, NY.- Financial Challenges, but Abundant Riches

Last year ended with something approaching normalcy for the performing arts after a long crisis. It turns out, though, it was normalcy with an asterisk: The pandemic may be over, but orchestras and opera companies have emerged struggling with ticket sales, and the cost of goods and labor has spiraled; putting on shows is now more expensive, with less revenue coming in to square the books. These financial challenges notwithstanding, there were abundant musical riches in 2023 — as these favorites, in chronological order, make clear. — ZACHARY WOOLFE

‘L’Elisir d’Amore’: Revivals of Donizetti chestnuts don’t usually make it onto this kind of list, but the tenderly funny “Elisir” is one of my favorite pieces, and in January, it showed off the best of the Metropolitan Opera. Tenor Javier Camarena, glowing with sincerity, and the gentle yet spunky soprano Golda Schultz, led with spirit by conductor Michele Gamba, trusted the piece to reach every corner of the vast theater without overstatement or caricature.

Yuja Wang: The phrase “once in a lifetime” gets thrown around, but really: How often will you get to hear all five of Rachmaninoff’s works for piano and orchestra in a single concert? Let alone with forces on the level of this dazzling pianist and the Philadelphia Orchestra — with all its historical ties to Rachmaninoff — under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who pulled off the feat at Carnegie Hall in January. A long, giddily virtuosic afternoon.

Felipe Lara: The New York Philharmonic gave some remarkable concerts this year: I’ll particularly remember the very young (pianist Yunchan Lim, 19, blazing in, yes, Rachmaninoff) and the very old (Herbert Blomstedt, 95, keenly conducting Ingvar Lidholm and Berlioz). But perhaps most notable was the New York premiere, in March, of Felipe Lara’s 2019 Double Concerto, which made Claire Chase (on many flutes) and Esperanza Spalding (vocalizing while playing double bass) into a seething and exuberant, if not always sunny, organism. My other choices for new works of the year: Kate Soper’s sneakily sagacious chamber opera “The Hunt,” at Miller Theater in October, and Steve Reich’s energetic yet meditative “Jacob’s Ladder,” which the Philharmonic premiered that month.

‘Treemonisha’: Three recent re-imaginings of Scott Joplin’s ambitious, flawed opera have converged at a moment of intense interest in bringing back works by underrepresented composers. Most intriguing is a version that premiered in Toronto in June, developed by the theater company Volcano with a core creative team of Black women. They took Joplin’s score, characters and setting, and grafted onto them a vastly revised, dramatically stronger plot, with new words adroitly matched to the original rhythms and melodies. And they added African instruments to the strings and winds, for a landscape that felt both mysteriously distant from Joplin and surprisingly friendly to him.

Sandbox Percussion: In early fall 2021, I watched this quartet rehearse Andy Akiho’s “Seven Pillars,” a brooding, thrilling, Mahler-length taxonomy of noise that Sandbox had already captured on a vivid recording. But it wasn’t until nearly two years later, in June at Caramoor, that I finally saw these four musicians burn through the Akiho, in a spectacle of flashing lights and constant motion.

‘Henri VIII’: Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, is one of the country’s leading champions of lesser-played segments of the repertory. In 2012, he led a concert performance of this grand yet restrained Saint-Saëns opera, popular in its day and now rare. But in July, a full production at Bard, lovingly staged by Jean-Romain Vesperini, made an even better case for the opera, at a time when ever fewer companies and presenters, even in a cultural center like New York, are doing ambitious work like this.

Christian Gerhaher: For all the elaborate opera productions and sprawling symphonies at the Salzburg Festival, the best performance I saw there this summer was a recital of Schumann songs by this peerlessly eloquent baritone and his longtime collaborator, pianist Gerold Huber. The songs’ scenes and characters could have been merely picturesque, but Gerhaher — with his hauntingly airy voice — and Huber achieved profundity by rendering happiness and melancholy alike through the veil of memory.

Anna Netrebko: Under fire after Russia invaded Ukraine because of her longstanding support for Vladimir Putin, this superstar soprano faced protests as she came to the Berlin State Opera in September in Verdi’s “Macbeth” — her first appearance in the city since the war began. She was in glamorous voice, but the most indelible part of the evening came after her first aria, when boos — isolated but loud and sustained — mixed with the cheers. Netrebko stood near the edge of the stage taking it all in, arms crossed and lips pursed, staring out at the audience, until she blew kisses to the conductor and orchestra and finally made a decisive gesture with her hand that quieted even the boos: “OK, let’s carry on,” it seemed to say. This minute or so of confrontational metatheater may have been the performance of the year.

Emerson String Quartet: After nearly a half-century of warm, vibrant performances and definitive recordings, this classic American ensemble bid farewell at Alice Tully Hall in October. Its former cellist, David Finckel, joined for Schubert’s Cello Quintet, an ideal finale; even more moving was Beethoven’s Opus 130 quartet, its rending Cavatina led by the violinist Eugene Drucker with end-of-journey vulnerability. The afternoon reminded me of Michael Tilson Thomas, living with brain cancer and conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Mahler’s all-encompassing Ninth Symphony in January; and of another maestro, Riccardo Muti, closing his tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in June with Beethoven’s radiantly dignified “Missa Solemnis.”

And Two More Goodbyes: To very different, very memorable figures in music. Kaija Saariaho, who died in June at 70, was a composer whose dark alchemies of electronics and acoustic instruments were somehow both vaporous and as dense as the churning sea. “Innocence,” her bleakly beautiful 2021 opera about a school shooting, was for me her masterpiece, and reviewing it was one of the honors of my career. James Jorden, who died in October at 69, founded and edited Parterre Box, which began as an irreverent yet deeply informed, fierce yet deeply loving opera zine, Xeroxed and dropped in bathroom stalls and brochure cases at the Met — before he grew it into an influential blog that captured the art form’s sublimity and absurdity. Both he and Saariaho will be missed.

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Best theater of 2023

The Performances That Stick

If a performance sticks with me, it tends to have an element of surprise: the familiar made fresh, the jolt of a promising debut, the power of this art form to change the way you see the world. Here are 10 such moments from the year, in chronological order. — JOSHUA BARONE

Mitsuko Uchida: With so much music to take in on any given evening — especially premieres — it can be easy to take stalwarts for granted. For example, I went into a recent trio recital by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, violinist Lisa Batiashvili and cellist Gautier Capuçon with few expectations, only to be impressed by one of the most exhilarating chamber concerts of the year. The starkest reminder of why we shouldn’t write off standard repertoire revisited by veterans, though, was Mitsuko Uchida’s Carnegie Hall performance in February, of Beethoven’s final three piano sonatas: Time-earned, multidimensional clarity gave way to cosmic transcendence.

‘War and Peace’: When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Bavarian State Opera had already been planning a new production of Prokofiev’s Soviet-era, propagandistic adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic. The house was faced with a difficult decision: to push ahead despite controversy or to postpone and feed President Vladimir Putin’s claims of Russia’s culture being canceled in the West. The company went ahead with a brilliantly interpreted, smartly abridged production that proved a triumph for its music director, Vladimir Jurowski, and director Dmitri Tcherniakov, both Russian-born, who made the work a fervently anti-nationalist statement that turned Russian history against its leader.

Lise Davidsen: Robert Carsen’s decadent yet wistful staging of “Der Rosenkavalier” was first brought to the Metropolitan Opera as a vehicle for Renée Fleming’s farewell to the Marschallin, a signature role. But when the production returned in March, it was as a milestone for another great soprano: Lise Davidsen, making her Marschallin debut. Her incandescent high note at the end lingers in my memory, but more affecting were the details: the cool confidence and dignity; and the poignancy, befitting this moment of Davidsen’s career, of having so much to look forward to while already knowing there will be so much to look back on.

‘Tao of Glass’: Phelim McDermott, one of the most imaginative directors of Philip Glass’ stage works, collaborated with Glass for the first time in this autobiographical show that teases the universal out of the personal. Each of us has a cultural artifact — a movie, a song, a book — that course through our lives like a river. For McDermott, it’s an album of Glass’ music, which inspired a career-long obsession that, here, took form as fantastical set pieces to a new score by the composer. At NYU Skirball in March, the scenic collage was by turns spiritual, discursive, funny and so touching that I wasn’t the only one in the audience holding back tears.

‘Stranger Love’: Hats off to Dylan Mattingly and Thomas Bartscherer for the sheer audacity of their opera “Stranger Love,” a six-hour epic with a libretto the length of a one-act. That’s because words matter less and less as the work luxuriates in specific feelings and phrases, stretching them to metaphysical extremes. For all its abstraction and timelessness — what is more ageless than the opera’s themes of love and beauty? — this work is absolutely of its time, slowing down emotion in a world that moves uncontrollably fast. The premiere run, at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in May, was just a single evening, but “Stranger Love” deserves a life far beyond that.

‘Adriana Mater’: Kaija Saariaho, a singular composer at the height of her powers, died from brain cancer less than a week before her 2006 opera “Adriana Mater” opened at the San Francisco Symphony in June, put on by two close collaborators: conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and director Peter Sellars. The performance was emotional, of course, but it was also a fitting memorial. Salonen’s shaping of the score — piercing the atmospheric writing with rending flashes of musical violence — was a testament to Saariaho’s genius. What resonated more, though, was the work as a document of her worldview, in which grace and salvation are the answer to cruelty.

‘Indra’s Net’: How lucky for New York that Meredith Monk’s “Indra’s Net,” which had its stage premiere at the Holland Festival in June, is coming to the Park Avenue Armory next year. Inspired by Buddhist and Hindu legend but broadly about inter-relatedness — and at any rate communicated in wordless singing, as universal as language gets — this show reveals Monk as no less imaginative, searching and earnest as she enters her ninth decade. And no less essential: She has always had wisdom to offer, and here, without being so clumsy to say it out loud, she argues for connectedness in an increasingly fractured world.

‘Gay Guerrilla’: While visiting Paris this summer on vacation, I impulsively went to a staged performance of Julius Eastman’s “Gay Guerrilla,” a work of barbed drive and insistent beauty, conceived and choreographed by Gerard & Kelly in a ground-floor gallery of the Pompidou Center. Outside the museum, bass-baritone Davóne Tines began by singing Eastman’s Prelude to “The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc” with a hellfire intensity that confused and fascinated passersby, before coming inside for an account of “Gay Guerrilla” that included members of the Paris Opera Ballet and Soa de Muse, a drag performer of titanic presence. Theatrical, queer, combative, true to Eastman, it was not only a life-affirming jolt, but also a vision for new ways to present this composer’s music.

‘Wozzeck’: The year in opera often felt like one of caveats: a good score performed poorly, a bad staging performed well, and so on. But the stars aligned in July at the Aix Festival in France, where “Wozzeck” stunned in a sophisticated, often shattering production by Simon McBurney, under the baton of Simon Rattle and played by what I described at the time as “a virtually unimpeachable London Symphony Orchestra” — a description that held up when it was broadcast on the radio. At the heart of it all, in the title role, was Christian Gerhaher, who never left the stage and seemed to trace Wozzeck’s harrowing journey into each despairing line of his face.

Randall Goosby: August was bittersweet at Lincoln Center. The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra gave its final performances under that name, and its music conductor, Louis Langrée, came to the end of two transformative decades with the ensemble. It was at one of those concerts that young violinist Randall Goosby made his debut with the group. In a perfect balance of intelligent artistry and showmanship, he brought down the house, prompting a standing ovation in the middle of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and minutes of cheering afterward. Audiences are too quick to cheer these days, but the rock-star greeting he received was entirely deserved.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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