London Classical and Opera highlights 2018
The best playing, singing, conducting and composing of the passing year. It was a boom year for women, but Brexit started to bite...
In reality, most of these artists spend more time on trains, planes and behind the wheel of the car than they do in front of an audience, a willingness to travel being pretty much as vital to the performer as their musical talent.
The year ended with a spectacular ‘airlift’ to the Royal Opera House for the opening night of Carmen by French singer Gaelle Arquez, who stepped into the title role at hours’ notice. The same question was on everyone’s lips: how is this to be managed if Brexit happens? Nipping across borders without a blink is essential to all musicians, and to producers and promoters too.
Carmen was revived at Covent Garden
As composer Howard Goodall told Culture Whisper in May, music in Britain has a turnover of £4bn – rather more than the fishing industry – and absolutely depends on unimpeded movement from country to country.
On the move in a more permanent way are two important conductors, one into London, one out. Vladimir Jurowski announced at the beginning of the year that he would be ending his transformative years with the Southbank-based London Philharmonic Orchestra, where he has been principal conductor and artistic adviser, and going to Munich State Opera in 2021.
But another Russian packing his bags, this time for London, is Vassily Petrenko, who has done wonderful work in with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and who, it was announced in July, is going to become music director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 2020.
Petrenko, who appeared in 2013 to insult women conductors, has been at pains since to encourage girls to take up music. He will be as delighted as anyone, then, by the number of impressive appearances by women conductors in London in 2018.
La Bohème ushered in the winter at English National Opera
Notably, in the pit at the Royal Opera House for that Carmen rescued by Arquez was Keri-Lynn Wilson, while down the road at the Coliseum the Italian Valentina Peleggi took on some of the performances of La Bohème.
Women composers, too, had a good year. Tansy Davies made waves at the Printworks with Cave – a picture in music of a dystopian, post-apocalyptic society. Elena Langer marked the centenary of women’s suffrage with her music-hall comic opera Rhondda Rips It Up!, at Hackney Empire. And Roxanna Panufnik scored a notable hit with her Last Night of the Proms commission, songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light, which was performed from the Royal Albert Hall to a worldwide audience.
At the Proms, other highlights included performances of West Side Story, marking the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, and by the Jewish-Palestinian players of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim.
Music broke out of its normal environments on some memorable occasions. At Temple Church in the Inns of Court, English Touring Opera stepped off the stage and out into the audience for a heart-felt St Matthew Passion by JS Bach. And at the Barbican, film and music worked hand in hand at Other Worlds, a multi-media event that brought in a younger audience.
Baritone Roderick Williams in the title role of the Royal Opera's Monteverdi's Ulysses
Also on the road was the Royal Opera, taking its Monteverdi’s Ulysses to the Roundhouse, where baritone Roderick Williams took the title role. This most popular singer was to the fore again at English National Opera’s deeply moving staging in November of Britten’s War Requiem.
Both opera houses have had strong years: ENO got off to a spirited start to the calendar year with its Iolanthe directed by Cal McCrystal, and its 2018/19 has started strongly too, with the War Requiem, the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, and solid revivals of Puccini's La Bohème and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.
At Covent Garden, Royal Opera repertory favorites worked alongside new work such as George Benjamin's Lessons in Love and Violence. The Royal Opera year ended with a satisfying and wholesome new Hansel and Gretel.
Vanessa was produced for the first time at Glyndebourne Festival Opera
As always, the unstoppable Opera Holland Park punched far above its weight with new productions in the summer, notably a heartbreaking Verdi La Traviata with Lauren Fagan in the title role. Lauren rapidly went on to sing in Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Royal Opera House, which also starred tenor Stuart Skelton. And at the prestigious International Opera Awards in April, Opera Holland Park won the Education and Outreach category for its outstanding and continuing work in connecting with local young people from all backgrounds in Kensington and Chelsea.
Out of town, Puccini's Madama Butterfly was staged for the first time at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, as was Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, which was very stylishly done: listen out for revivals of this. At Garsington Opera, a new commission, David Sawer's The Skating Rink, with real ice skating, was a showstopper, and Strauss’s Capriccio, was beautifully sung.
But none of this would have happened without our other ever-resourceful composers. At the British Composer Awards in December, there were nominations for, among many others, Roxanna Panufnik and Julian Anderson, who are the forefront of London's composing scene. Their names are sure to come up again next year.
Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason played at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May
Artist of the year was undoubtedly the young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who topped the charts with his eclectic CD Inspiration and played at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex at Windsor in May. Orchestra of the year? Chineke!, Europe's first BAME orchestra, founded by London-based baroque double bass player Chi-chi Nwanoku; Sheku has been a Chineke! soloist.
Watch Culture Whisper for Sheku's and Chineke! London dates in 2019, and all the other classical and opera headlines.