Top Ten Performances of 2021

Mon Dec 20, 2021 at 1:21 pm

Ashraf Sewailam and Leah Crocetto in Rossini’s Maometto II, presented by Washington Concert Opera. Photo: Caitlin Oldham

To say 2021 has been quite a year is an understatement. Coronavirus vaccines became available in January, in the midst of a classical music season with events that had been canceled or adapted virtually for months. By May many presenters were announcing a return to live performances as the pandemic seemed to fade in the U.S. at the start of the summer. Another wave soon emerged, peaking in September, but with strict policies on masking and proof of vaccination, the music has largely returned. As we appear to be facing another bad coronavirus winter, it is time to give thanks for the music we could hear.


1. Rossini, Maometto II. Washington Concert Opera. It took until the end of November for a full-length opera to return to the District of Columbia. After nearly two years since its last live performance, Washington Concert Opera beat out its rival at the Kennedy Center with a stirring rendition of the original 1820 version of this Rossini tragic opera. Soprano Leah Crocetto, who had moved back to her home state of Michigan to take a teaching position during the pandemic, made a sensational return to the stage.

James Conlon. Photo: Bonnie Perkinson

2. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, James Conlon. The advent of artistic advisor James Conlon at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra coincided perfectly with the reopening of concert life this fall. The esteemed conductor began a three-year tenure co-helming with music director laureate Marin Alsop, while the BSO conducts a multi-year international search for a new music director. Debuting with two major, neglected works for large orchestra, Conlon inaugurated an exciting new era for Charm City.

Wu Han. Photo: Christian Steiner

3. Wu Han, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Wolf Trap. Wolf Trap made a smart call to appoint Wu Han as the artistic advisor of its chamber music series in 2018. When the pandemic closed down the Barns, she quickly made the transition to presenting streamed concerts, drawn from her work with Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. This fall she led the return to live performance, with a program combining Brahms with a composer he championed, Dvořák, and another whom Dvořák championed, Josef Suk.

Scott Christian, Jeff Stern, and Sam Seyong Um with Constellations Chamber Concerts. Photo: Steven Balis

4. Constellations Chamber Concerts. Pianist Ellen Hwangbo started this feisty new house series with an independent streak in 2019. What might seem like bad timing may have played to the presenter’s benefit, as it was able to expand to broader audiences when it shifted to online performance. In September the series had its first post-pandemic live concert, with a fascinating program for combinations of flute, guitar, and three percussionists.

Gianandrea Noseda. Photo: Scott Suchman

5. National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda. Gianandrea Noseda returned to the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra in March, at first with a series of virtual concerts. As with the NSO’s first live performances, in May and June, the unusual circumstances may have encouraged more intriguing programming. Although the full orchestra would not return until the Wolf Trap anniversary concert led by JoAnn Falletta in July, Noseda helmed a quirky “Name That Tune”-inspired program in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in June, heard in person by about 250 intrepid listeners.

Lise Davidsen. Photo: Ray Burmiston

6. Lise Davidsen. Vocal Arts DC. Vocal Arts DC went online for the lockdown period, presenting its usual line-up of excellent vocal recitals recorded in high-quality audio and video at venues around the world. The best of the best was the local debut of the extraordinary Lise Davidsen, who confided in the interview portion of her streamed concert that she had fallen ill with Covid-19 in March 2020. A gorgeous selection of songs by Grieg, Brahms, Strauss, and Schumann, crowned by Sibelius’s Luonnotar confirmed that the Norwegian soprano’s voice suffered no long-term effects.

András Schiff

7. András Schiff. Washington Performing Arts. There are few things one can count on, but one is that Washington Performing Arts will invite András Schiff to the area for a recital every few years, as the presenter has done regularly since 1984. Although the eminent pianist’s performance was canceled in the spring, we were able to watch a sublime recital he recorded last December, for a small, socially distanced audience in St. Peter’s Church in Zurich. With a curator’s expertise, he selected music centered on the two piano sonatas Beethoven composed in the key of A-flat major.

The Chiarina Chamber Players

8. Chiarina Chamber Players. Capitol Hill has embraced this plucky ensemble’s concert series, founded in 2016. The group’s flexible roster of crackerjack musicians continued to mine mostly unexplored corners of the chamber music repertory, keeping its livestream option alongside returning to live performance this fall. Their last program of the spring season, combining swooning Rachmaninoff, mystical Pēteris Vasks, and Paul Schonfeld’s madcap Café Music, was a particular delight for music fans starved for live music.

Ensemble Correspondances

9. Ensemble Correspondances. The Library of Congress adapted to the pandemic with an outstanding series of online concerts, all free to the public as its in-person concerts always have been. The highlight of the institution’s year was a streamed concert by one of the best French early music ensembles, Ensemble Correspondances, founded in 2009. The program featured the rarefied courtly music performed for Louis XIII and Louis XIV in the Louvre, streamed from the museum’s auditorium. This storied concert series has remained virtual, with a return to live performances possible next year.

Laura Choi Stewart

10. Laura Choi Stuart. While the pandemic upended the lives of musicians, from local freelancers to globe-trotting superstars, it also encouraged enterprising musicians to dig deeper into their work. The restrictions in some ways encouraged innovation, as with a bold program of American music by Laura Choi Stuart, streamed from the Church of the Epiphany. The unifying theme was songs composed in the years around the last time that the United States faced a pandemic, the 1918 outbreak of Spanish flu. The idea of music as a way to weather a global health crisis was inspirational.

Best New Works

This year even the most staid ensembles shook up their repertory by adding engaging works by women and black composers. Gianandrea Noseda led the NSO’s first performance of Louise Farrenc’s Third Symphony this spring. The NSO also collaborated with Wolf Trap Opera Company for the local premiere of Joseph Bologne’s forgotten opera L’Amant Anonyme. The virtual recital by bass-baritone Davóne Tines, presented by Vocal Arts DC, spotlit daring works by Tyshawn Sorey, Moses Hogan, Margaret Bonds, and Julius Eastman. Baritone Joshua Hopkins performed Songs for Murdered Sisters, a moving new song cycle by Jake Heggie and Margaret Atwood, also presented by Vocal Arts DC.

Best New Opera

In spite of the pandemic, a number of new operas still managed to see the light of day, although none premiered here. The best one to reach my eyes virtually was the latest stunning work by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, Innocence, streamed from the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in July. There is nothing simple about the way its libretto, by Finnish novelist Sofi Oksanen, handles its subject matter, a mass shooting at an international school. With powerful music and staging, the opera explores this tragedy from multiple angles, making its eventual debut at the Metropolitan Opera a major event.

Sugar Plum Award

The winner of this coveted honor given to the year’s best holiday concert is the Folger Consort, which came back from months of pandemic silence with a delightful program of medieval Christmas music. Silvery-voiced soprano Emily Noël sang in Old English, French, and Latin, with multi-faceted instrumental contributions from Dan Meyers on bagpipe, mouth harp, recorder, ocarina, and more.

Lux Aeterna Luceat Eis

This year, like last year, was a year of mourning, and not only for the victims of Covid-19. In 2021, the music world lost composers Frederic Rzewski, Louis Andriessen, Carlisle Floyd, and Stephen Sondheim; conductors Bernard Haitink and Udo Zimmermann; singers Christa Ludwig, Jean Kraft, Carmen Balthrop, and Edita Gruberová; as well as Peter G. Davis, American opera and classical music critic; Jeanne Lamon, violinist and leader of Tafelmusik; British opera director Graham Vick, who died of Covid-19; and the brilliant Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire.

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