“Typically history is written without much regard for music, and music is often heard as residing outside history.” So writes my colleague Jeremy Eichler in the introduction to his new book “Time’s Echo.” This divorce of music from the context in which it’s created or performed is how so much classical music gets reduced to background noise; to something “relaxing” for relaxation’s sake; or to some meaningless indicator of elegance or classiness. (Can anyone listen seriously to the minuet from Boccherini’s String Quintet anymore?)
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Music can profoundly reflect the world around us, and this year, many moments felt like they could belong only to the present. These are the musical experiences for which I am most grateful, those I will remember when I think of 2023.
Music as a gateway to the past
Several local events this year reflected on, confronted, or unveiled obscure or deliberately obscured episodes in history. This spring, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Uri Caine Trio saluted a 19th-century civil rights activist with Caine’s emotional “The Passion of Octavius Catto,” and composer Anthony R. Green presented “It Must All Be Done in Darkness,” a harrowing opus in honor of abolitionist Harriet Jacobs (c. 1813-1897). In September, an Asian American-led team of artists at Boston Lyric Opera presented a new production of Puccini’s popular and controversial “Madama Butterfly,” and turned a glaring spotlight on the period during World War II when the United States uprooted and incarcerated over 120,000 people of Japanese descent.
A youth-led initiative for ‘From the Top’
As teenage violinist Julia LaGrand spearheaded a special initiative for musicians with disabilities with the radio program “From the Top,” she saw a chance to represent the “complexity and nuance” of disabilities without the “pity mind-set” she often senses when non-disabled people discuss the subject. LaGrand was the first blind performer to appear on “From the Top,” a long-running showcase of classical music’s next generation.
A concert for the city
In May, the BSO family flung open the Symphony Hall doors for the free ”Concert for the City,” which celebrated music in Boston with selections by composers past and present such as Florence Price, Chick Corea, and John Williams; and Boston mayor Michelle Wu performing one movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with the BSO and music director Andris Nelsons.
Composer/librettist Rhiannon Giddens and composer Michael Abels’s opera “Omar” adapted the life of Omar ibn Said, a 19th-century Islamic scholar who was kidnapped from West Africa in his 30s and sold into slavery in the United States. The duo were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music approximately 24 hours after the last performance of the local run by Boston Lyric Opera, one of the opera’s co-commissioners. If you saw it here, you saw it when . . .
After 47 years of touring and recording together, the Emerson String Quartet bid farewell to performing as a group and released a staggering final album, “Infinite Voyage”, with the adventurous soprano Barbara Hannigan. British vocal group Orlando Consort also disbanded after 35 years, taking its final bow at Jordan Hall during June’s Boston Early Music Festival biennial.
Sadly, 2023 was also a notable year for losses. These included era-defining performers such as diva Renata Scotto, 89, and Beaux Arts trio founder Menahem Pressler, 99; the singular compositional voices of the whimsical David Del Tredici, 86, and the incisively thoughtful Kaija Saariaho, 70; and two irreplaceable musicians and educators who inspired generations at New England Conservatory and beyond — pianist Russell Sherman, 93, and composer/flutist John Heiss, 83. They will be missed.
When a recital is more than a recital
It’s always a treat when a soloist and accompanist decide to make a recital program an experience, not just a selection of pieces. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s spring program “Rising” commissioned songs set to poetry from the Harlem Renaissance. Bass-baritone Davóne Tines and pianist John Bitoy transported the audience to church with “Recital No. 1: MASS,” where the service included music by J.S. Bach, Julius Eastman, and Lauryn Hill. It’s a shame soprano Renée Fleming’s intriguing “Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene” program was postponed until February due to COVID, but now you have time to buy tickets.
Sublime Shostakovich, barnstorming Beethoven
The bar for BSO soloists was elevated even further when cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Paul Lewis appeared in back-to-back weeks. Ma, who appeared in mid-October, made an eloquent plea for humanity amid the violence of the Israel-Hamas war before traversing both of Shostakovich’s cello concertos with grace and gravitas. Lewis cemented his place as my favorite interpreter of Beethoven with a three-day concerto marathon, in which every moment sounded like an affirmation of life. In both weeks, the air crackled with that transcendent symbiosis between orchestra, conductor, and soloist that cannot be faked or forced.
The impact of Genshin Impact
In the few articles I’ve written about my love of video game music, I’ve nodded to but not expounded on my affection for the lush orchestral music of Chinese company miHoYo’s “Genshin Impact,” an online adventure game that has expanded continuously since its initial 2020 release. When the game’s France-inspired region of Fontaine opened in August, I was expecting to hear accordions, and I wasn’t disappointed. But I wasn’t prepared for the deluge of exquisitely crafted musical tributes (they sure sound like tributes) to composers including J.S. Bach, Tchaikovsky, Dowland, and Debussy. Engaging the London Symphony Orchestra for the soundtrack was a smart idea.
For me, no 2023 event has been so unforgettable as Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera’s one-night run of “Awakenings,” an opera by composer Tobias Picker and librettist Aryeh Lev Stollman. A 1960s period piece based on the writings of neurologist Oliver Sacks, “Awakenings” deploys its haunting, evocative score to tell a compassionate and profound story which could have otherwise easily staggered under the weight of scientific jargon or fairy-tale conceits. The night I saw it, my concert buddy warned me that he usually falls asleep during operas, but he was wide awake throughout. Odyssey and BMOP don’t often reprise events, but I’m hoping this will be an exception. Till then, there’s the album.
Pass that baton!
One of the BSO’s lesser known and most delightful traditions is the 24-hour Tanglewood Relay Run, in which teams of BSO musicians, staff, and friends run 150 miles from Symphony Hall to the Tanglewood main gate in Lenox. This year, poor air quality caused by Canadian wildfires prompted the organizers to suspend the event halfway through, but several runners stayed in it for the long haul, and a reduced but determined crew made it to the finish line.