Musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen once quipped: "The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition." But it's tough to see much gloom when faced with the diversity of premieres and provocative programming around the country in the 2014-2015 season.
John Adams reboots the Thousand and One Nights story in a new violin concerto called Scheherazade.2. Two Pulitzer winners — Jennifer Higdon and Kevin Puts — continue the trend of taking books and films to the opera stage with Cold Mountain and The Manchurian Candidate. And conductor Michael Tilson Thomas re-creates the famously long 1808 concert where Beethoven premiered his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and his Choral Fantasy.
We've pored over hundreds of listings in compiling this guide to compelling premieres and creatively programmed concerts. Have we missed something monumental? Let us know in the comments area or on Facebook or Twitter.
Although opera companies big and small have taken their lumps lately, there are fresh ideas and plenty of new works in the wings. Two of the most anticipated world premieres ahead this season are from recent Pulitzer winners Jennifer Higdon and Kevin Puts.
Higdon's Cold Mountain, with a libretto by Gene Sheer, is based on Charles Frazier's best-selling novel and debuts Aug. 1 at the Santa Fe Opera. Nathan Gunn stars as Confederate soldier W. P. Inman, who deserts the army for his beloved Ada, played by Isabel Leonard, and his home on Cold Mountain in North Carolina. Anthony Minghella's 2003 movie adaptation earned a Best Supporting Actress award for Renée Zellweger. Cold Mountain is Higdon's first opera and she says she's both excited and nervous. "I'm anxious to see if it works on the stage and with orchestra," she told NPR Music. "When it comes down to it, the music has to carry the weight of the responsibility." Nothing was easy about composing her first opera, but there was one unexpected consequence. "I didn't realize that I would be carrying these characters in my head and heart for about two and a half years," she says. "But in many ways, living inside the opera, which it felt like I did, was not like anything I've ever experienced before. The entire group stayed with me day and night. I've been pretty absent from the present day world for quite some time. That type of concentrated creativity has been amazing to experience."
Kevin Puts' Manchurian Candidate opens at Minnesota Opera March 7. The political thriller is perhaps best known via the 1962 film of the same name that starred Frank Sinatra as a brainwashed Korean War POW. Puts and his librettist Mark Campbell base their opera on the 1959 Richard Condon novel. Puts won the music Pulitzer for his first opera Silent Night, also a collaboration with Campbell at the forward-thinking Minnesota Opera. With the orchestration of the new work almost complete, Puts told NPR Music the hardest part of writing the opera was to achieve balance. "This is a thriller," he said, "so the challenge has been in maintaining a breathless pace and still finding moments to sing, reflect and to give the audience a breather."
Lyric Opera of Chicago launched its outreach initiative Lyric Unlimited in 2012, bringing mainly contemporary operas to intimate venues throughout the area. Two promising entries in the series this season will resonate with Chicago's Mexican and Polish communities.
El Pasado Nunca Se Termina (The Past is Never Finished), opening March 28, is a mariachi opera set on the eve of the Mexican Revolution. It's another collaboration between composer Pepe Martinez and librettist Leonard Foglia (the director of Higdon's Cold Mountain), the same team responsible for the earlier mariachi-inspired Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, a Houston Grand Opera commission from 2010. The Property, by composer Wlad Marhulets and librettist Stephanie Fleishmann, is based on a graphic novel by Rutu Modan and opens Feb. 25. It tells the story of a woman and her granddaughter retracing their steps back to modern day Warsaw to regain property lost during World War II.
Los Angeles Opera will explore a single character through three operas across several centuries. Figaro Unbound: Culture, Power and Revolution at Play celebrates the wily Figaro as he appears in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (opening March 21), Rossini's The Barber of Seville (opening March 8) and John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles (opening Feb. 7). The operas were inspired by the 18th-century playwright Beaumarchais, whose work was considered radical in the years leading up to the French Revolution. The Figaro Unbound series includes additional theater works and activities Feb. 7-April 12.
Houston Grand Opera puts a new spin on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, premiering Dec. 5. Simon Callow, best known as an actor in such movies as Amadeus and A Room With a View, directs an operatic version of the beloved story; he wrote the libretto as well. The music is by Iain Bell.
Anything new from John Adams is worthy of attention. This season the New York Philharmonic, with music director Alan Gilbert, premieres Scheherazade.2 for violin and orchestra March 26. Adams says the piece "imagines a modern woman storyteller/hostage whose strength of character and powers of endurance are tested over and over by male hegemony." Violinist and MacArthur fellow Leila Josefowicz will premiere the piece.
Upstate at the adventuresome Albany Symphony, music director David Allen Miller leads the orchestra in the Dec. 20 world premiere of The Winter's Tale for cello and orchestra by Michael Torke. He's the composer of sparkling orchestra pieces like Bright Blue Music.
Pulitzer winner David Lang's new piece man made debuts Oct. 2 on the first subscription concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic season. (We'll webcast the concert at NPR Music.) On Jan. 16 the LA Phil gives the U.S. premiere of the late Henryk Górecki's Fourth Symphony. The work was left unfinished when the composer died in 2010; his son completed the piece, which debuted in London earlier this year.
James Levine has championed music by the late Elliott Carter. March 8, Levine leads the MET Chamber Ensemble at Carnegie Hall in the world premiere of The American Sublime, a piece written especially for him that uses texts by Wallace Stevens.
The Alabama Symphony has commissioned Caleb Burhans, a young multi-genre musician to keep an ear on, to write his first orchestral piece, which premieres May 8. Sept. 19 the orchestra premieres a work by Serbian composer Đuro Živković, winner of the 2014 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.
Michael Tilson Thomas, who turns 70 next year (can that be?), leads the San Francisco Symphony in a Beethoven flashback. MTT re-creates the 1808 extravaganza wherein Beethoven premiered not only his Fifth Symphony but also his Sixth, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy. Several movements from his Mass in C major and the concert aria Ah! perfido also received their Viennese premieres at that famed event and will appear on MTT's program, which features pianist Jonathan Biss and soprano Karita Mattila as soloists.
The Grand Rapids Symphony presents the world premiere of Dialogues of Love, a new choral symphony by Avner Dorman, which it commissioned. Music director David Lockington conducts the piece Nov. 21-22 in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Two pieces by the prolific young composer Nico Muhly will receive their world premieres. An orchestral work commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra is slated for a May 13 debut in Philadelphia. His Second Service (Magnificat & Nunc dimittis), a work for chorus and organ, premieres 30 miles southwest at the Christ Church Christiana Hundred in Wilmington, Del. Oct. 19. An orchestrated version follows in Liverpool, England Oct. 25.
Somewhere between an oratorio, an opera and a symphonic work is Peter Sellars' staging of J.S. Bach's sublime St. Matthew Passion for the Berlin Philharmonic with conductor Simon Rattle and a starry cast of soloists. Sellars' riveting vision of the work makes its U.S. premiere at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan Oct. 7-8, as part of the White Light Festival. Sellars sees Bach's Passion in communal terms, as a ritual or prayer, with choristers, soloists and some orchestra players having memorized the music in order to blend in as organic characters in the drama. The Berlin Philharmonic's DVD of this production, from 2012, was on many best of the year lists. The New York performances include nearly all of the same soloists, including Magdalena Kožená, Christian Gerhaher and a heart-wrenching Mark Padmore as the evangelist.
This year's Pulitzer winner for music, John Luther Adams, teams up with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider for a premiere of Veils and Vesper, a six-hour sound installation that incorporates the movement of audience members on March 25-26 at Carolina Performing Arts. This marks the first time the piece has been performed with live musicians.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center new music series at the Kaplan Penthouse (Dec. 11 – May 7) features an impressive lineup of composers, from Toshio Hosokawa and Vivan Fung to Andrew Norman, Jörg Widmann and Derek Bermel. The series includes U.S. and New York premieres.
MORE PREMIERES (And Provocative Performances)
19 – Houston Symphony Orchestra: Karnavalingo by Gabriela Lena Frank (world premiere)
23-30 – New York Philharmonic: Clarinet Concerto by Unsuk Chin with soloist Kari Kriikku (U.S. premiere)
9-14 – New York Philharmonic: Thunderstuck by composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse (world premiere)
10 – Eastman Wind Ensemble: Music for Wind orchestra (No Strings Attached) by André Previn (world premiere)
30–Nov. 1 – New York Philharmonic: Flute Concerto by Christopher Rouse (New York premiere)
13-18 – Boston Symphony Orchestra: Dramatis personae, for trumpet and orchestra by Grawemeyer Award winner Brett Dean with soloist Håkan Hardenberger (American Premiere)
20-22 – Boston Symphony Orchestra: new work for chorus and orchestra by Erik Esenvalds (world premiere)
20-22 – Detroit Symphony Orchestra: DSO Music Director leads the world premiere of his own Endgames, as well as performances of a trombone concerto by his wife, Cindy McTee, with DSO Principal Trombone Kenneth Thompkins as soloist
20-22 –Los Angeles Philharmonic: Symphony No. 4, "Organ" by Stephen Hartke (world premiere)
21-22 – Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra: Double Concerto for Violin and Cello by André Previn with soloists Jamie Laredo and Sharon Robinson (world premiere)
11-13 – Seattle Symphony: Cello Concerto by Mason Bates with soloist Joshua Roman (world premiere)
9-11 – Los Angeles Philharmonic: Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, staged version with video (world premiere)
22-23 – Philadelphia Orchestra: Piano Concerto by Mark-Anthony Turnage with soloist Marc-André Hamelin (North American premiere)
12-14 – Boston Symphony Orchestra: Responses: Of sweet disorder and the carefully careless by Harrison Birtwistle (American premiere)
20 – American Symphony Orchestra: Mona Lisa (opera) by Max von Schillings
21 – Alabama Symphony: Transylvanian Seasons by Cristian Bence-Muk (world premiere)
5, 7 – Boston Symphony Orchestra: King Roger (opera) by Karol Szymanowski, with conductor Charles Dutoit
6 – Alabama Symphony: new orchestral piece by Ellis Ludwig-Leone (of the band San Fermin) (world premiere)
26-31 – Boston Symphony Orchestra: new work for organ and orchestra by Michael Gandolfi, with soloist Olivier Latry (world premiere)
27-28 – Colorado Symphony: The Raven by William Hill (the orchestra's principal timpanist), based on Edgar Allan Poe (world premiere)
19 – Juilliard Orchestra: David Robertson conducts a 90th birthday tribute to Pierre Boulez
23-25 – Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: Creation/Creator for chorus, vocal soloists and orchestra by Christopher Theofanidis (world premiere)
8-9 – New York Philharmonic: Senza Sangue (one-act opera) by Peter Eötvös (U.S. premiere)
14-17 – Los Angeles Philharmonic: new work for baritone and orchestra by Kaija Saariaho with soloist Gerald Finley (world premiere)
18-20 – Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Anthology of Fantastic Zoology by Mason Bates (world premiere)
19-31 – Los Angeles Philharmonic: The Next on Grand: Contemporary Americans festival includes Ritornello by Caroline Shaw (West Coast premiere), a new work for orchestra by Bryce Dessner (world premiere), Concerto for Two Pianos by Philip Glass (world premiere)
20, 22-23 – San Francisco Symphony: new work by Samuel Carl Adams (son of John Adams) (world premiere)
28, 30 – Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Violin Concerto by Anna Clyne (world premiere) with soloist Jennifer Koh
5-14 – Opera Philadelphia: Charlie Parker's Yardbird by Daniel Schnyder, with tenor Lawrence Brownlee (world premiere)
10-13 – New York Philharmonic: Joan of Arc at the Stake by Arthur Honegger, with actors including Marion Cotillard (U.S. premiere of this staging)