Classical and Opera 2021: our pick of the year
From outstanding singers and thrilling players to imaginative innovations and artists who do things differently. Here are our musical highlights of 2021
As Culture Whisper too returned to live music events, some outstanding artists, venues and initiatives emerged. Here are our musical landmarks of 2021, chosen for their brilliance, and yes – their ability to change lives:
The Kanneh-Mason family goes from strength the strength, changing the face of classical music and demonstrating that a career in music begins with solid practice at home. For the BBC Proms, reinvigorated for 2021, seven of the siblings were joined by a handful of player friends to perform Camille Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals. Take a bow, violinists Braimah and Aminata, cellists Sheku and Mariatu, and pianists Isata, Jeneba and Konya. You inspire young musicians everywhere.
Isata Kanneh-Mason, joined by six siblings at the Proms
Several London orchestras saw changes at the top, as new conductors started to put their stamp on established ensembles. But Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon, broke out in a different way, seeking new venues and new audiences in its continuing drive to refresh the classics. Playing from memory is its USP, and this exciting feat electrifies familiar pieces. At the BBC Proms Aurora gave two performances of Stravinsky's colourful and dramatic Firebird Suite, and later in the year played an immersive Beethoven's Symphony No 7 at new venue Printworks. Whatever will Aurora get up to next?
Aurora, under Nicholas Collon, does things differently
The London Philharmonic Orchestra welcomed an old friend in its new principal conductor Edward Gardner. But the conducting team doesn't stop there. Principal guest conductor Karina Canellakis, appointed in 2020, thrilled the orchestra's Royal Festival Hall audience with her reading of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 3, soloist Stephen Hough, and Shostakovich's Symphony No 10. The New Yorker, who is also a violinist, is back on the podium early in 2021. Listen out and look out for her throughout the rest of the 2021/22 season, and discover for yourself her beguiling mix of rhythmical drive and trust in her players.
Karina Canellakis is principal guest conductor of the LPO. Photo: Chris Christodoulou
Favourite opera production
In a busy year again for country house opera, one production dazzled audiences and critics with its wit, musicality and sheer glamour. Richard Strauss's love story Der Rosenkavalier, with Miah Persson and Hanna Hipp as the graceful older lover of an eager younger man. Gary McCann's ravishing designs and Bruno Ravella's intelligent direction, and wonderful singing and playing all round, attracted five-star reviews for Garsington Opera. If you make one wish this Christmas, put in a bid for a revival. In the meantime, you can watch it here.
Romantic and stylish: Der Rosenkavalier at Garsington. Photo: Johan Persson
Favourite opera company
Throughout lockdown, Grange Park Opera came up with fresh ways to take music into the home, but with the resumption of live music hasn't stopped it widening its audience with innovative streamings. Its Kensington Church Street filming of Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole was a delight. Look out in the new year for Puccini's hilarious comedy of greed, Gianni Schicchi, filmed in a lavish Chelsea home with an all-star cast. And you can still see the new opera that was the talk of the summer season – Anthony Bolton's The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko on YouTube: click here to view.
Grange Park Opera staged The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko
Opera Holland Park, London's own country house opera hub, turned a challenge into a triumph with designer takis and a rethink about audience spacing. Throughout its 2021 season, with performances of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz, Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen, Verdi's La Traviata and, with Charles Court Opera, Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, audiences took to elegant single seats, instead of the usual tiered rows. This salon atmosphere, safe and stylish, paradoxically brought audience and cast closer together than ever, to great effect. We're already looking forward to OHP's 2022 season.
L'Amico Fritz continued the tradition of Italian verismo at a new-look Opera Holland Park
Favourite female singer
With her innocent Gilda in Oliver Mears's new production of Verdi's Rigoletto at the Royal Opera House, swiftly followed by a worldly-wise Violetta in the same composer's La Traviata, Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa took Covent Garden by storm. You can hear her as the society hostess who finds true love in this BBC Radio 3 broadcast of La Traviata, available until 28 December. Just listen to those high notes and marvel at the singer's wonderful phrasing. The same production returns to Covent Garden with two different casts in the spring.
Lisette Oropesa as the innocent Gilda, seduced in Verdi's Rigoletto. Photo: Ellie Kurtzz
Favourite male singer
After vaccinating thousands against Covid, tenor Nicky Spence wrestled with his conscience as Laca in the Royal Opera House's Jenufa, notched up his first heroic Siegmund in Wagner's Die Valkyrie for English National Opera, and is now preparing for the ROH's 2022 production of Samson et Dalila. His flexible, burnished voice, magnetic stage presence and superb diction mean that there are several prestigious overseas engagements ahead too. But he keeps one foot in south London with his passionate support for Blackheath Opera. Look out for him as mentor on Sky Arts' new music programme, Anyone Can Sing, around Christmas time.
Tenor Nicky Spence will share the joy of music in Anyone Can Sing for Sky Arts
Worst for music
The dead hand of Brexit makes international touring almost impossible, blights careers, throttles revenue, and reduces the global influence and prestige of the once impressive British arts scene. Then we have, in Nadine Dorries, a new culture secretary apparently uninterested in music and unconcerned about the plight of musicians, many whom were penniless during the pandemic. What an excruciating duo. Three cheers, then, for all our wonderful, hard-working music-makers: 2022, here we come!