As we settle into what looks like another wave of closed concert halls, cancelled performances, and scarce audiences, it is time to reflect upon the challenges and triumphs of the classical music world over the past 12 months.
For classical music lovers all over the world, the new year opened quietly, and with intimate listenings to the newest recordings from Frank Peter Zimmermann’s clean and articulate performance of Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin to a stylish interpretation of Mozart’s Gran Partita from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The challenges of 2020 still remained deeply resonant until spring or even summer in some countries, when classical festivals resumed and full audiences gathered to experience the joys of sharing in live music-making.
Whilst two recordings have made it onto this list, this year has shown us that classical music is hinged on live performance and on the spectacle of bodies, real people, in performance.
It must be noted that the pandemic has made musical livelihood impossible. For the freelance performer, it has been a disaster, with cancelled events leading to loss of work and consequently no pay.
Statistics from before the pandemic revealed that in the US, around sixty thousand people are employed by orchestras. These figures do not include the thousands of freelance musicians who fall under the self-employed category and had nothing to fall back on. Live streaming and working with new videoing technologies began as new endeavours but the majority of them were just disappointing half-hearted attempts to replicate the concert experience and these soon fizzled out.
Navigating what was hoped to be the “post”-pandemic landscape of 2021 has been incredibly challenging for the classical music industry. From stories of live-streams freezing on TV screens to last-minute event cancellations, the position of the entire music world remains fragile. However, the performances and recordings listed below are emblems of hope for classical music; they show that when challenges are met appropriately, the industry can hit the high notes and awaken us from our never-ending COVID nightmare.
Ehnes Goes Solo
One such artist that rose above the challenges presented by the pandemic, was violinist James Ehnes. He gracefully took on the challenge of performing from his living room at home in Florida during the first lockdown with the single goal of recording six recitals of Bach and Ysaÿe’s solo sonatas. The sound quality of these recordings rivals that of a recording studio; the product of many hours of trialling equipment and not stopping until the sound was just right for capturing the purity of these works.
Ehnes’ domestic recording project has resulted in an album of all six of Ysaÿe’s violin sonatas, released in April 2021. He has been recognised as “Artist of the Year” by Gramophone who praised his “warm, golden sound [which] is as much a constantly changing story of articulation and timbre as ever, but sounding even more emotionally up close and personal than ever before” in this album.
This is truly a pandemic success story for classical music.
BBC Proms 2021
Images of the Royal Albert Hall filled once again to capacity flood into my mind, transporting me back to the pre-pandemic world.
The Proms made a comeback this year, truly celebrating the value of live music, of a hundred bows on string, of choirs labouring the high notes, and the appreciation of an audience who has been taken on a musical ride.
The eight-week-long festival also had another challenge to meet. Following years of criticism over the lack of diversity in its programming and especially after last year’s widely-publicised controversy surrounding the Last Night of the Proms with its patriotic anthems rooted in Britain’s colonial past, the Proms attempted to diversify.
South African cellist Abel Selaocoe performed a program that blended traditional playing styles with improvisation, singing and body percussion. British saxophonist, composer, DJ and bandleader Nubya Garcia, one of the brightest of a new generation of UK jazz talent, took audiences on a journey through a programme with Africa, Latin America and Caribbean influences. Even the outwardly nationalistic last night of the Proms included a work by Iranian-born Gity Razaz.
The Proms have received criticism for being overly tokenistic, lacking enough thought concerning the issues at hand. However, these are steps in the right direction that align with the pace of the global movement to decolonise classical music.
Even with eight weeks packed full of large or orchestral performances, the situation for freelance performers remains dreary. A big factor in this is that the concert hall seems to have suffered disproportionately to other large events including big sports matches, across the world throughout the pandemic. For example, in Australia, a National Rugby League final was allowed to reach 50% capacity in the outdoor venue capable of seating more than 80,000 people. A music gig a few weeks later was restricted to 25% capacity.
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Turnage Turns to Sport
It seems quite fitting now to discuss possibly the strangest scene in classical music this year: hundreds of Arsenal football fans poured into London’s Barbican concert hall to witness the premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s newest composition Up for Grabs. Perhaps this is the way to get crowds back into the concert hall following the pandemic’s classical music hiatus?
Up for Grabs celebrates one of the most famous moments in the premier league team’s history, an evening in 1989 when they won the First Division title on goal difference, beating their closest rivals Liverpool 2-0 with virtually the last kick of the game. Up for Grabs was designed to be played alongside a specially edited film of highlights of the Anfield game, but the composer insists it can also be performed without the video footage.
A musical alternative to the original commentary, the score follows the emotional twists and turns of the game with such precise detail, that it is almost as if the music had been an underscore to the live match itself back in 1989.
‘The Power of the Dog’
Classical film scores are one of the modes of classic music that have been readily available throughout the pandemic in their original form: accompanying movies, viewable on Netflix and a host of other viewing platforms.
Jonny Greenwood has joined fellow film composer Hans Zimmer’s No Time to Die on the Academy’s shortlist for the best original score with his score for the 2021 Western drama film The Power of the Dog.
With its luscious string textures and carefully chosen dissonances, the Radiohead star who is famed for filling packed arenas with the idioms of the classical genre, perfectly captures the essence of this particular Western. The solo horn opening of the second cue ‘Requiem for Phil’ instantly connects the psychology of the characters to the expansive landscape of rural Otago where the film is shot.
The cue titled ‘Mimicry’ makes use of a solo violin without vibrato or shimmer, its gutsy sound eerily ringing in the ears of audiences as it comes to a close. Greenwood’s training in classical harmony and composition throughout his upbringing has now not only infiltrated his career as a ‘pop’ musician but also as a film composer. His score for ‘The Power of the Dog’ has cemented Greenwood’s status as a leading film composer and we await news of the awards which are sure to follow soon.
New directions of opera
Equally relying on the intrinsic combination of audio and visual is opera. Kaija Saariaho’s new opera Innocence premiered on the 3rd of July at the Aix-en-Provence festival. The libretto by Finish-Estonian novelist Sofi Oksanen tells the story of a shooting at an international school in Helsinki: ten students and one teacher have been killed. With this, Saariaho introduces the psychological thriller genre to opera, marking a change for the composer who is famed for using modernist and avant-garde techniques to conjure up ethereal and dream-like atmospheres. This is a scarily realistic, raw and hard opera.
Perhaps, its success with critics and audiences alike can be put down to its shock factor. With orchestral mayhem and terrifying chanting from the chorus, this is most definitely not what regular opera-goers expect to experience. Described by the New Yorker’s Alex Ross as “by a wide margin, the great new work of the year”, it is safe to say that inspiring terror in audience members has worked a treat for Saariaho.
It seems that success in the classical music world this year has its roots in watching bodies in performance – closely linking the audio to the visual – whether that be James Ehnes’ relatable ‘at-home’ video recitals or watching an orchestra move in time to the rhythm of an iconic football match. Notable performances have modulated the tones of challenges and trials into opportunities.
If the classical music industry is to survive in this continuing uncertainty, it must continue to meet the demands of the audience and give people the spark of hope they need in these difficult times.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: BBC Prom. Featured Photo Credit: Paul Hudson.