Music, as we know, is always slipping away from us, the sounds vanishing almost as soon as they arrive. I’ve often then wondered whether an extra sense of meaning attaches to those few concerts that push back against this radical ephemerality, those programs that, against all odds, stay with you. This year many of these more memorable performances angled music’s powers outward into a darkened world.
On Feb. 24, Putin launched his brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, and as Russian missiles pounded civilian targets, Boston Baroque was one of many local organizations that encouraged patrons to donate toward humanitarian relief. Before the group’s March concert, music director Martin Pearlman led the orchestra and chorus in an unannounced performance of Mykola Lysenko’s “Prayer for Ukraine,” a simple, beautifully harmonized 19th-century hymn for peace. It lasted all of three minutes, but it addressed the moment with moving directness, and, as a community’s gesture of its own collective hopes, the music’s resonance lingered in the mind.
Over at Symphony Hall, the Boston Symphony Orchestra started 2022 with a program led by composer Thomas Adès and featuring pianist Kirill Gerstein, who gave electrifying performances of both Adès’s own Piano Concerto and Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. The latter was written for a pianist maimed by the First World War. Gerstein’s account had the urgency of breaking news.
A few weeks later, on the same stage, BSO music director Andris Nelsons led a concert performance of “Wozzeck,” Alban Berg’s searing expressionist masterwork that premiered one century ago. Its tragic portrait of a German soldier done in by a dehumanizing world remains all too relevant, and in Nelsons’s hands, with the Danish baritone Bo Skovhus in the title role and the American soprano Christine Goerke as Marie, it all came through with devastating force. So did the music’s extraordinary compassion for its characters, the almost subversive sense of humanity that glows within its dissonance.
The BSO had a strong year overall, seemingly buoyed by the return of audiences in real numbers to Symphony Hall. That said, on at least a few occasions, something of that galvanizing sense of energy that Nelsons exuded when he first assumed his post seemed to be in shorter supply, a shift that can’t help but impact the music-making. Happily, the stars all aligned this fall when the orchestra delivered a tightly focused, superbly dramatic performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.
The Tanglewood summer was also strong, with a particularly rich infusion of visiting piano talent. The summer ended with a deeply moving performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas, weakened by his struggle with brain cancer while artistically unbowed. And Bard’s nearby SummerScape festival mounted a revelatory staging of Strauss’s rarely spotted opera “Die Schweigsame Frau,” conducted by Leon Botstein and directed by Christian Räth.
This year also marked the return to international touring for the BSO, which embarked on a four-city tour of Japan, and for other ensembles, which stopped by Massachusetts Avenue. Among the latter was the mighty Berlin Philharmonic, which delivered a roof-raising Celebrity Series performance of Korngold’s little known Symphony in F-Sharp as part of an artistically and historically meaningful program offering a glimpse of Berlin’s new era under its chief conductor Kirill Petrenko. He led with a relaxed authority and was notably met more than half way by the Berlin players, who perform with a level of individual participation and investment that American orchestral musicians, Boston’s included, rarely seem to muster. It was as if they knew they were the real stars of the show.
This was also a year in which classical music institutions continued to grapple with how to make the art form more inclusive and equitable. Two particular efforts stood out for how they reckoned with the country’s painful racial past through the medium of the art itself.
First was the collaboration between Odyssey Opera and Boston Modern Orchestra Project for a performance of Anthony Davis’s “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.” Premiered at New York City Opera in 1986 and then more or less forgotten, “X,” with Davóne Tines in the title role, drew a riveting portrait of an entire era with the particular dimensionality and psychological shadings that only opera can bring. Some lines from its libretto felt like they could have been written yesterday. After performing the opera, BMOP recorded it in a release that release that’s now been nominated for a Grammy.
Secondly, on the smaller canvas of chamber music, Carlos Simon’s “Requiem for the Enslaved” called for just seven performers but its deftly conceived layering of rap, spoken word, solo trumpet writing, and chamber music for piano and quartet, made an impression far disproportionate to its size. Commissioned in response to revelations about Georgetown University’s role in the sale of 272 enslaved men, women, and children, the work both summons the individuality of these vanished lives while powerfully indicting a much larger swath of American history. With the composer (on piano) joining Hub New Music and guest artists, the piece received an excellent performance at the Gardner Museum.
As in past years, the classical season tended to measure out its life not in coffee spoons but in anniversaries, and this year brought its own fresh crop: Fifty years for Boston Baroque. Twenty-five years of BMOP. Fifty years of conducting in Boston for Benjamin Zander. And 50 years of Collage New Music. Collage celebrated its five decades of bringing new art into the world in the best way possible: by bringing more new art into the world. Among the works it commissioned was John Harbison’s “Winter Journey,” a remarkable setting of three poems by Louise Glück on themes of beauty and loss. On a celebratory fall program, Kendra Colton, performing with a mixed chamber ensemble under David Hoose’s direction, sang it luminously. The music somehow came across as both austere and generous, and also wise. “Some of you,” writes Glück, “will know what I mean.” The music at least knew, and told the rest of us.