Birthdays, boos for 2013 classical music

In the past 12 months, several major composers had milestone anniversaries, including Wagner, whose music caused one of at least two controversies at La Scala, the famed Milan opera house, writes Feargus O’Sullivan

A dress rehearsal of Lohengrin at La Scala in Milan, Italy. The choice of a Wagner rather than a Verdi opera to open its season this year was an affront to some Italians. Monika Rittershaus, La Scala / AP Photo
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Feargus O’Sullivan

It’s been a strange year for classical music. Two 200-year-old composers got involved in a posthumous catfight, conductors ditched their ties, opera lovers were told off for booing like football fans and the most high-profile classical music benefactor was actually a twentysomething pop star. At the very least, you can’t say it was boring.

Above all, classical music in 2013 was marked by major centenaries. Nineteenth-century opera titans Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner both blew out 200 candles apiece, while fans of Benjamin Britten marked his 100th birthday. As these three created some of the most perfect music ever, opera houses quite sensibly packed their schedules with it – and 2013 was definitely a year where opera grabbed most of the classical limelight. An odd fallout from these anniversaries was a much-discussed spat at La Scala in Milan, home not just of great opera but of catcalling and bad blood. This happened when La Scala opened its season not with a Verdi opera, but with Wagner’s Lohengrin, a choice many patriotic Italians took as an affront. La Scala director Daniel Barenboim was behind the choice – he’s a Wagner advocate who doesn’t like toeing the party line and perhaps felt the opera house’s opening shindig could do with shaking up. While shake-ups have their plusses, poor Verdi was probably turning in his grave. When he saw the Italian premiere of Lohengrin in 1873, he wrote one word on his programme: “Mad”.

Not content with one battle, La Scala’s unruly audiences were in the headlines once more later in the year. Polish tenor Piotr Beczala swore he’d never sing in Italy again after being booed by some of the audience there. The spectators were jeering what they felt was an unsympathetic update of Verdi’s La Traviata – perhaps they were still smarting from the Lohengrin season opener? – but Beczala’s anger was more than just pique. La Scala’s general manager complained to the Italian press that a tiny minority of vocal, diehard conservative audience members were increasingly discouraging major talent from signing up to sing. Personally, I’m with Beczala on this one. I hate it when old-guard audiences think they have the right to police classical music – it scares off anyone who sees things differently.

The year also saw Richard Wagner’s difficult legacy raked over yet again. A notorious anti-Semite and (after his death) Nazi favourite, it’s not surprising a protester disrupted a Wagner symposium in Jerusalem this month. The problem for me with this ongoing discussion is that Wagner’s status as a Nazi icon perversely gets him more attention, not less. The truth is, he was as vile a man as he was sublime as a composer, but we’d be unquestionably worse off without him. I can’t think of a more perfect work of art than his Tristan and Isolde.

Elsewhere, Liverpool Philharmonic conductor Vasily Petrenko earned himself the unofficial Classic Bigot of the Year Award for comments about female conductors. Petrenko told the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten that: “A cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things,” managing cleverly to insult both female conductors and male players’ professionalism in one tidy sound bite. Petrenko was roasted in the press for these comments, but sadly, he wasn’t the only one to suffer. Many reviewers also ignored his blameless orchestra’s final album instalment of a Shostakovich symphony cycle.

Petrenko seems out of sync with the times. If anything, 2013 was a year when conductors were looser and more relaxed than usual. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin drew notice when he performed in Rotterdam tieless, with my personal favourite conductor, Frenchman Marc Minkowski, going open-collared around the world. Could this be the beginning of a trend for a more laid-back performing style? It’s a sign of how uptight the classical world can be that a tie-free performance is significant, but every revolution has to start somewhere.

The year also had unexpected bright moments. In one unlikely twist, it turned me into a Taylor Swift fan (OK, I’m lying – I was actually quite partial to her already). The 24-year-old singer showed her gracious side when she stepped in to donate US$100,000 (Dh367,300) to her hometown’s Nashville Symphony Orchestra in November. She thus made sure that Nashvillians still have plenty of alternatives to listening to her songs. What a nice woman.

There was also great news about one of the most sensational instrument thefts of recent years. Korean violinist Min-Jin Kym had her extremely rare Stradivarius violin stolen from a cafe near London’s Euston Station in 2010, by thieves as lucky as they were ill-informed – they apparently had no idea how valuable their trawl was. Two clueless teenagers were convicted a year later but it was not until July that the actual instrument was recovered, from a house in Britain’s Midlands. The violin ended up being sold, and made $2.26 million at auction this month. Given all the angst it caused, that strikes me as pretty cheap.

When it came to recording, 2013’s clamour was a little quieter than on the live circuit. As ever, I was disappointed that the number of new albums (as opposed to re-releases of historical recordings) remained relatively small, but there were some recordings that may make classic status. Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos’s gorgeous complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas – his first album with Decca – won rave reviews for the sweetness and muscularity of Kavakos’s playing. Meanwhile, Austrian tenor Christian Gerhaher sealed his reputation as one of the greatest of the new generation of lieder singers, with a magical recording of Mahler songs with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony. If you haven’t yet heard Gerhaher, I’d advise looking out for this. His rich, measured voice is utterly haunting, powerful without being bombastic, and it invariably makes me stop what I’m doing and listen in awe.

Given the major anniversaries this year, it’s not surprising that albums of music from Verdi and Britten were among 2013’s best. Rolando Villazon in particular showed he has the talent to back up his growing star status. The Mexican tenor seems comfortable as a television personality (he’s presented with Katherine Jenkins in the past) but can also deliver the vocal goods as a serious operatic contender. This was really on show on his soaring, barnstorming collection of Verdi arias – Deutsche Grammophon’s Villazon Verdi – an album that rippled with colour and passion. British tenor Mark Padmore also did the honours for Benjamin Britten with a powerful, sensitive performance of the composer’s unforgettable, eerie Serenade and Nocturne, put out by Harmonia Mundi. When it came to orchestras, another anniversary brought us one of 2013’s best releases. Stravinsky’s intoxicating Rite of Spring premiered to near riots 100 years ago, and British conductor Simon Rattle’s new recording with the Berlin Philharmonic got the piece’s spiky lyricism sounding as fresh as ever. If you think you don’t like musical modernism, buy this album and prove yourself wrong.

The classical music year to come looks more low-key, with slightly less well-known composer anniversaries. Richard Strauss will have his 150th birthday, opera reformer C W Gluck will be 250 and we’ll also be commemorating the 250th anniversary of the death of criminally underexposed French composer Rameau. Strauss is getting a major season in London and celebratory jubilee in his Munich hometown, while Rameau’s many European concerts will include dates at the Palace of Versailles. Personally, I prefer these smaller anniversaries – classical music fans don’t need to be asked to listen to Verdi when his operas are already everywhere.

The Middle East will also get some exciting new firsts. Critics and audiences have been swooning over Venezuelan wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel for years now, and local audiences will finally be able to judge for themselves when he conducts the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra at the Emirates Palace next month. Personally, I can’t wait to see what comes next year – let’s just hope audiences learn to behave themselves.

Feargus O’Sullivan is a regular contributor to The National.