The sad ending to James Levine’s tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was of course the biggest local story in classical music this year. Levine conducted only one BSO program in 2011, a double bill of Bartok and Stravinsky operas, before another setback to his health forced his withdrawal from performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony - and he never returned, to Boston or to Tanglewood. His resignation went into effect Sept. 1, marking the end of a remarkable era of revitalization at the BSO that he launched but could not see to fruition.
Because the conductor search that found Levine did not involve much real searching - both parties knew they wanted to work together - the BSO now faces its first open-ended conductor search in decades, and it is probably looking at three seasons or more without an artistic leader. The challenge awaiting the next director will be to consolidate the artistic gains of the Levine era while making Symphony Hall a less insular place. The challenge facing the BSO as a whole will be to invest the interim period with its own sense of artistic ferment and growth.
The music director search appears to be wide open. Next month had promised at least two important new data points: the prominent Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly was due to make his BSO debut over two weeks of performances, and the fast-rising Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, who had an auspicious first meeting with the BSO in Carnegie Hall this year, was set to lead his first Symphony Hall subscription program. But in a patch of almost cartoonishly bad luck, both Chailly and Nelsons have canceled, the former citing health reasons and the latter because he’s expecting his first child. Nelsons is at least on the Tanglewood schedule this summer, but who knows when the orchestra will see Chailly.
Looking back on the BSO’s year that just passed, one gem of an evening stood out during another bewildering stretch of concerts impacted by cancellations (Sir Colin Davis and Maurizio Pollini’s among them). It was when the composer Thomas Ades came to conduct his own remarkable Violin Concerto (with soloist Anthony Marwood) and music from his opera “The Tempest” alongside “Tempest”-themed works by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. It’s rare to find such an accomplished composer who can also conduct and program on such a high level, and the BSO palpably flourished under his baton. The results on display made the strongest argument possible for the importance of a composer-in-residence position at the BSO, specifically now during its leader-less interim seasons.
Despite all the Sturm und Drang in Symphony Hall, the city’s wider classical music scene - which is really more like an archipelago of mini-scenes - kept up its steady hum. The year in opera started strong, with Boston Lyric Opera scoring its most memorable success of the year in its innovative Opera Annex series. Here the company made a moving case for Viktor Ullmann’s “Emperor of Atlantis,’’ composed at the concentration camp of Terezin, proving this piece can speak to audiences not only as commemorative Holocaust art but as a potent work of modern opera. One month later Opera Boston staged “Cardillac,’’ Hindemith’s riveting expressionistic score from 1926. Even if the vocal performances were not as uniformly strong as they might have been, bringing before the public a work so neglected yet so musically compelling was a great reminder of how essential this company remains.
In the land of period performance, the Boston Early Music Festival pulled off another ambitious biennial bash with a mainstage production of Steffani’s “Niobe’’ and a host of festival concerts that showed how creatively artists can approach the meticulous curating of the past. Meanwhile, Boston Baroque gave us stylish Rameau and the Handel and Haydn Society delivered a superbly sung account of Handel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt.’’ H&H has wisely extended the contract of artistic director Harry Christophers for an additional four years, through the group’s bicentenary in 2015.
Naturally, Boston’s student energy also pulsed through its music scene, at least on stages if more rarely in the audience. New England Conservatory pulled off an impressively wide-ranging Mahler festival, and the Discovery Ensemble, the youthful orchestra led by Courtney Lewis, performed with personality and flare. (My list of memorable performances for 2011, which includes a Discovery concert, accompanies this article.)
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, composer Evan Ziporyn helped Bang on a Can and its kindred-spirited colleagues establish a beachhead for experimental and post-minimalist styles of contemporary music, long underrepresented on the city’s new music scene.
And it was a turbulent stretch, institutionally speaking, for the nascent music education movement modeling itself on the Venezuelan Sistema. Early in the year came news that NEC had decided not to fund El Sistema USA’s planned expansion, and that the network center was looking for a new home - seemingly a major missed opportunity for NEC, which at least continues to support the movement through its Abreu Fellowship program. Then this fall, the Longy School of Music, fresh from a merger with Bard College, announced it will participate in a new El Sistema-inspired initiative called Take a Stand, in partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This would seem a boon for Longy, a community music school in the process of redefining itself. Looking back, it’s a shame that the institutional politics have not more often played out in the spirit of the movement itself, but at least the actual grass-roots music education work at its core continues to gain momentum in community programs around the country.
The musical figures with significant local ties who departed this year included the composer Peter Lieberson, the longtime Harvard conductor and composer James Yannatos, and two chamber music pillars, cellist Bernard Greenhouse and violist Raphael Hillyer. Elliott Carter, who sometimes feels like an honorary Bostonian, just turned 103. And there’s a sense of anticipation in the air, as next month, classical fans will hear the first notes of music in a new performance space at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. A new island joins the archipelago.
JEREMY EICHLER’S PICKS
■BEST BSO PERFORMANCES Works by Ades, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, led by Thomas Ades; Harbison’s Fifth Symphony under Jiri Belohlavek; Beethoven’s “Eroica’’ Symphony under Christoph von Dohnanyi at Tanglewood
■BEST SOLO RECITAL Jeremy Denk performing Ligeti and Bach, presented by Gardner Museum
■BEST OPERAS Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “The Emperor of Atlantis’’; Opera Boston’s production of “Cardillac.’’
■BEST LOCAL VOCAL PERFORMANCE Philippe Jaroussky with Apollo’s Fire under Jeannette Sorrell, presented by Boston Early Music Festival.
■BEST PERIOD BAROQUE PERFORMANCES Handel and Haydn Society’s “Israel in Egypt’’ under Harry Christophers; Boston Baroque’s “Les Indes Galantes’’ under Martin Pearlman; BEMF’s Charpentier double bill
■BEST ORCHESTRAL PERFORMANCES OUTSIDE OF SYMPHONY HALL Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony with Boston Philharmonic under Benjamin Zander; Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with Discovery Ensemble under Courtney Lewis.
■BEST NEW SCORE “It Happens like this’’ by Charles Wuorinen, Tanglewood Music Center’s Festival of Contemporary Music
■BEST NEW MUSIC PERFORMANCE Clarinetists Evan Ziporyn, Rane Moore, Eran Egozy, and Alicia Lee, in Ziporyn’s “Hive,’’ presented by Rockport Music.
■MOST CREATIVE PROGRAMMING (CHAMBER MUSIC) The Brentano Quartet “Fragments’’ project, presented by Rockport Music
■MOST CREATIVE PROGRAMMING (EARLY MUSIC) Solamente Naturali, presented by BEMF