The collapse of Tower Records was, as much as anything, a failure of relevance. The new generation, which in the past would have become the next record-buying public and the next, now download the infinite riches of the market onto their iPods. The hi-fi crowd of my youth, with their 6L6s in push-pull and their floor-to-ceiling Tannoys and Klipschorns, now have given way to something you wear in your shirt pocket. The paradox is that the few remaining quality classical-record producers — Harmonia Mundi with their Gloryland, Anonymous 4 singing old-timey American gospel songs in wrenching harmonies with guitar and fiddle; Nonesuch with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s heartbreaking singing of her husband Peter’s Neruda Songs; major works by Osvaldo Golijov on several labels — are exactly what I would have greeted in the past as ongoing evidence of the continued health of the record industry.
The Tower collapse came just in time to end the supply of discs to the Disney Hall gift shop — which had drawn its stock of recordings from the chain — and, thus, to temporarily deny concertgoers’ access to Salonen and the Philharmonic’s new disc on DG. This was its first recording made in the hall (noise grandissimo, leading off, as you might guess, with The Rite of Spring) and it merited a champagne sendoff, but without any CDs to hand out and/or sell, there wasn’t much point. But don’t forget it: If you want to know why The New York Times assessed the emergence of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Philharmonic and the Los Angeles music scene in general as a “Continental Shift,” you might start with this disc.
The year saw the usual punctuations, struggles in the underbrush to fulfill earlier rumors and generate a new crop. From the Philadelphia Orchestra, a hard-luck ensemble ever since the opening of its new, afflicted Kimmel Center (replacing its ancient, afflicted Academy of Music), came word that Christoph Eschenbach would resign as music director after only three seasons. The report was garlanded with the usual set of news items, if more vehement than usual: Eschenbach at odds with the orchestra, orchestra members at odds with him, Philadelphia at odds with his scheduling of new music, with the cut of his jib on the podium, with the city’s cultural stature as the shadow of New York.
In the latter city, too, the shadows danced restlessly. The New York Philharmonic’s Lorin Maazel, at 76 not yet retired but no spring chicken, made it known to board members that Daniel Barenboim, only a dozen years younger, would be his choice as successor — a choice that Barenboim himself, so far, has tossed aside. More than that, rumors fly thick and fast that Zarin Mehta, the New York Philharmonic’s managing director, has his own choice, the Venezuelan whiz Gustavo Dudamel, who has been burning his way across Europe to the adoration of audiences and players alike. Young Gustavo, two weeks short of 26, has already been here once, at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005 when he did, indeed, provide a one-man fireworks display. He returns for an indoor engagement, starting January 4. Twenty-six? Didn’t our own Philharmonic have a music director that age once?
Prodigies, hmmm . . . While wishing young Gustavo Dudamel all the good fortune in the world, I pause to wish him an equal measure of lasting talent. This has been a year of prodigies going fizzle or, at least, a year when I’ve really begun to have my fill of overpampered one-time whiz-bang soloists who, as the years press down and the wrinkles come, attempt to ride the prodigy wagon one time too many and come ever closer to falling off. Joshua Bell hit me that way, and the matchup between the fresh-faced schoolboy of his latest set of publicity shots and the tired routinier wandering through the Brahms Violin Concerto was most disheartening. A few weeks later came Sarah Chang, equally adrift in the Bruch Violin Concerto. Both, as kids, had been the exciting, youthful stars of their generation; perhaps, along the way, they simply neglected to learn the musical side of their music-making. Sad.
Wherever you looked — for a time, anyhow — it seemed that George Tsypin had you trapped. First there was Grendel at the opera. Elliot Goldenthal’s garish, ponderous score to John Gardiner’s wonderful retelling of the Beowulf legend reduced the piece to Saturday cartoon; Julie Taymor’s puppetry and other stage tricks have been around before. Tsypin’s humongous wall, once they got it to work, was . . . well, a humongous wall. Tony Tommasini of The New York Times aptly reduced the novelty of it all; the Met, he suggested, must have a dozen of these in its warehouse. Came October, and Tsypin was back with the home crew: his reimagining of Wagner’s Ring — all of it, headless giants, mudbaths, schmoolike dwarfs, huge, hulking structures, everything you’d want to see in a Ring except perhaps magic fire, galloping Valkyries, an all-purpose sword and the other crucial elements on which Wagner’s plot actually turns. Valery Gergiev imposed what sounded like an eloquent vision of Wagner’s score, but onto an orchestra rendered inept by an overcrowded Orange County venue, all in the name of inaugurating a new concert hall where the performance didn’t even take place. Oh yes, and there is a gorgeous Tsypin Ring on DVD from the Netherlands Opera, directed by Pierre Audi with the same imaginative use of space and minimal props as in Audi’s Coronation of Poppea that just ended its run at the L.A. Opera.
That was the event that lingers longest — that, and the Philharmonic’s “Minimalist Jukebox”; Golijov’s Ainadamar at Ojai; every note from the pen, the fingers and the baton of Thomas Adès during his two “residencies”; the “marathon” — eight hours culled from the past century, splendidly performed all by local musicians to inaugurate the new; “Jacaranda” concert season; Falla’s Master Peter’s Puppet Show led by Salonen to start the new Philharmonic season; his Mahler Third the next night; Alan Gilbert conducting the Mahler Ninth and the audience’s absolute silence that greeted it; Lucy Schaufer’s Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro and — surprise! — Nikolaj Znaider’s reading of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, music I usually abominate but which came gloriously to life on this occasion. That’s why I keep going to concerts; you just never know.