Classical music is slow to change, but change is happening. According to the classical music website Bachtrack, which last week released its look back at 2019, there are more women conductors than ever. And more women composers. More variety in operatic repertoire, and more contemporary music being performed.
Beethoven is still the most-performed composer, and with 2020 his 250th birthday year, that won’t change anytime soon. In 2019, over 13 percent of all classical concerts featured a work by Beethoven.
Meanwhile, over 24 percent of concerts in the USA included works by living composers. We’re second in the world, after Sweden.
It’s just beginning
Since the calendar flipped on Jan. 1, the Twin Cities has been a nexus of new music. We can’t remember ever hearing as much new music as we have so far this year – or missing as much, because we can’t be in two places at once.
The Minnesota Orchestra rang in the New Year with British composer Hannah Kendall’s “The Spark Catchers.” The following week brought the orchestra’s annual MusicMakers concert (formerly Future Classics), where all the music was new, all the composers were young and three were women. This weekend’s concerts will feature music from the canon by Mahler, Debussy and Ravel, but the conductor will be Simone Young, one of eight women included in Bachtrack’s list of top 100 conductors.
With violinist and Artistic Partner Pekka Kuusisto playing and conducting, the SPCO opened 2020 with two U.S. premieres: of Nico Muhly’s violin concerto “Shrink” and young Swedish female composer Andrea Tarrodi’s “Paradisfåglar II – Birds of Paradise.”
Future concerts by both the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO are peppered with new music. The Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra prides itself on commissioning and premiering new works; it had a long relationship with Dominic Argento. Next up for the MSO: the March 29 world premiere of the large orchestra version of Russian-born composer Polina Nazaykinskaya’s “Fenix.”
Outside the concert halls, many smaller venues are featuring new music. On Jan. 9, Icehouse hosted the third annual SongSlam, a night of all-new art songs by emerging classical music composer/performer teams. That night, we had an early listen at a new work by a new production company, Orpheus Music Project: a music-drama based on a historical novel by New York Times best-selling author Sharyn McCrumb, interwoven with selections from the requiem mass. It will premiere in concert at the Ordway Concert Hall in Fall 2020,
Last weekend, the new music ensemble Zeitgeist presented St. Cloud State University professor Scott L. Miller’s latest virtual reality work, “The Blue in the Distance,” a combination of film, poetry, electroacoustic and live music. Saturday brought us to the Hook and Ladder for the fourth installment of “Outpost,” an excellent new music/spoken word series created by Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman and soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw. All of the music there was by living composers, including two works for soprano and bassoon, a combination we couldn’t imagine until we heard it in person. And the Hook’s theater was filled to capacity.
Also sold out: Sunday’s Liquid Music concert with Kuusisto and Muhly, an experience both exquisite and intimate. Two friends playing music they love (including works by Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt, both listed among Bachtrack’s Top 10 contemporary composers for 2019), before a rapt audience in a comfortable room with excellent sound. (At least, it sounded great where we were sitting – we could hear every whisper from Kuusisto’s violin – and a friend in the back row said it sounded good there as well. And this was an acoustic performance.)
What to see and hear in the new year
Coming up (and this list is nowhere near comprehensive): Minnesota Opera will open the modern opera “Flight” on Jan. 25 and present the world premiere of “Edward Tulane” in March. Its Project Opera program will offer the new (2017) one-act “Belongings” starting Feb. 8. On Feb. 21-23, 113 Composers Collective will premiere an experimental opera, “The Golden Ass,” at Nautilus Music-Theater, home to much new music in the making.
On Feb. 4, the chamber music ensemble Accordo will give a concert that has become an annual audience favorite: silent films shown with original music by Stephen Prutsman. Also on this year’s program: “Make the revolution irresistible,” a new work by deVon Russell Gray, the Schubert Club’s composer-in-residence. On Feb. 19, the Schubert Club’s Mix series will present Russian Renaissance, grand prize winners of the 2017 M-Prize Competition, the world’s largest prize for chamber music.
Feb. 21 and 22 will bring the ninth annual Cedar Commissions, with all new work by six Minnesota composers. Zeitgeist’s Early Music Festival will explore the music of Frederic Rzewski from April 16-19. The legendary Kronos Quartet and Terry Riley, one of the most influential composers in American music, will be at the Walker on April 25.
Many people consider jazz America’s classical music, and many vociferously don’t. If you enjoy and appreciate jazz, it doesn’t really matter which side of that spat you’re on. Just don’t try to tell us that Maria Schneider’s music, for instance, isn’t as profound, serious and sophisticated as anything being composed by a living composer of classical music and/or opera. The Minnesota-born multiple Grammy winner will perform with her orchestra at Hopkins Center for the Arts on April 21. She’ll be touring behind her new double album, “Data Lords.”
Good places to hear new jazz are Icehouse on Mondays, where composer, bandleader and trombonist JC Sanford is curating the month of January. (Other 2020 curators with months of their own include Liz Draper, Michelle Kinney and Erik Fratzke.) And Mac Santiago’s Jazz Central Studios almost any night of the week. And Khyber Pass Café on Thursdays. And the Black Dog on Saturdays, where Steve Kenny keeps the music coming. And Studio Z, where Zacc Harris curates the Jazz at Studio Z series. And the Dakota, where Kneebody will play on Jan. 22, and Atlantis Quartet on Feb. 5, and Bill Frisell on March 2, and Benny Green on April 22, and Charles Lloyd on April 28.
Cutting-edge guitarist Mary Halvorson will bring Code Girl and Thumbscrew to the Walker’s Performing Arts series on Feb. 8. Kamasi Washington will play First Avenue’s Fitzgerald Theater on March 4, Brad Mehldau on April 8. Crooners is finding success with tribute shows and classic jazz, but it also brings new music to its Dunsmore Jazz Room, like the Chris Speed Trio on New Year’s Day and, coming up, Brazilian guitarist Badi Assad on Jan. 28 and Red Planet with Bill Carrothers on Feb. 10.
It’s a new year, and the new music has only just begun.