15 classical music stories everyone was talking about in 2015

Osmo Vanska conducts a rehearsal in CubaMPR Photo / Nate Ryan

December 29, 2015

Some people think of classical music as stately and unchanging — but far from it, every year brings its share of ups and downs. Here are 15 stories everyone in classical music was talking about this year.

The Minnesota Orchestra goes to Cuba

The American and Cuban national anthems sounded in succession as the Minnesota Orchestra visited Cuba in May for the first performances there by an American orchestra since President Obama moved to normalize relations between the two countries.

Avery Fisher Hall becomes David Geffen Hall

Avery Fisher Hall, the longtime home of the New York Philharmonic, was officially renamed David Geffen Hall after the orchestra bought back the naming rights from Fisher's family so as to raise money for a $500 million renovation that's about to get underway.

Bach is back

Well, he never really left — but the portrait representing the best surviving likeness of the great master returned to Leipzig in June after spending decades in exile due to a pre-WWII evacuation. What's more, it went on public display for the first time in 267 (!) years.

Clash at Carnegie

After less than a year as chair of Carnegie Hall, Ronald Perelman announced his resignation in September. While programming at the hall continued, the turmoil troubled those who saw it as evidence of an escalating clash between an institution-building old guard of classical music leaders and a new guard that pays closer attention to the bottom line — for better and for worse.

Drama at Bayreuth

The Wagner family has been providing drama for even longer than the Skywalker family has, and this year was no exception. Richard Wagner's great-granddaughter Eva Wagner-Pasquier announced her intention to step down as festival co-director, leaving her half-sister Katharina Wagner as sole director. Their cousin Nike Wagner spoke at the reopening of Wagner's restored home, only to implicitly criticize the restoration — then volunteered to occupy a glass case herself, to be put on display as an exhibit. Newly-appointed music director Christian Thielemann reportedly refused to go anywhere near Bayreuth unless Eva was kept well away, which Daniel Barenboim regarded as "inhumane." Meanwhile, rising star Kirill Petrenko complained about the last-minute replacement of his Siegfried and — in the understatement of the year — called the situation "wholly undignified."

Harnoncourt retires

In a touching hand-written note tucked into concert programs earlier this month, 86-year-old early music great Nikolaus Harnoncourt announced his retirement, effective immediately. "My bodily strength," he wrote, "requires me to cancel my future plans."

Metropolitan Opera stops staging Otello with blackface

After commenters observed that a publicity photo featuring tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko in costume as opera's most famous Moor left him looking like "he'd had a bronzer malfunction," the Metropolitan Opera decided to forgo blackface in this and all future productions of Otello — thus ending a controversial tradition that had been in place at the Met since 1891.

Mobile opera in L.A.

The New Yorker's Alex Ross led a chorus of critics who lauded Los Angeles company The Industry's innovative production of a collaboratively-composed opera called Hopscotch, "a mobile opera for 24 cars." Ross called the piece "a combination of road trip, architecture tour, contemporary-music festival, and waking dream."

Philharmonic Hall opens in Paris

Jean Nouvel's 2,400-seat concert hall opened in January with a performance of Faure's Requiem — in honor of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack that had taken place just a week earlier. Sadly, even worse attacks were to befall the City of Lights later in the year.

Movie and video game music booms

When Classic FM polled its readers about their favorite pieces just 20 years ago, only two of the top 100 were film scores. In this year's poll, fully 22 of the top 100 were film scores — and 12 video game scores also made the list. The results were evidence not just of the continuing strength of music composed for films and video games, but of the fact that such music is being taken increasingly seriously by the classical music establishment. (According to the poll, the most popular living composer, bar none, is movie maestro John Williams.)

Become Ocean rolls on

John Luther Adams added a Grammy to his Pulitzer for Become Ocean. The piece, "which juxtaposes three mini-orchestras within the larger ensemble," wrote Anastasia Tsioulcas, "operates in a hauntingly familiar and visceral fashion, as Adams submerges listeners in surges of briny sound."

Taylor Swift gives $50K to the Seattle Symphony

Inspired by the Seattle Symphony's recording of that very work — Become Ocean — pop star Taylor Swift donated $50,000 to the orchestra. Swift said she has fond memories of attending classical music concerts with her grandmother, and a portion of her gift will be used to support the orchestra's educational efforts.

Berlin picks Petrenko

After a mysteriously aborted attempt at picking a new principal conductor in May, the musicians of the world's most prestigious orchestra decided the following month to name Kirill Petrenko their new leader, effective in 2018. Outgoing maestro Simon Rattle will head back to his native England, where he'll become music director of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Valentina Lisitsa tweets up a storm

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra canceled two performances by Valentina Lisitsa after the pianist wrote a flurry of social-media posts criticizing Ukrainian leaders in extraordinarily harsh terms. The orchestra called Lisitsa's posts "deeply offensive," but the decision created such a firestorm of criticism that the concerts — which were to have gone on with a substitute soloist — were ultimately canceled entirely.

Kurt Masur dies at 88

Revered for his musical talent and for restoring the New York Philharmonic to greatness during his tenure as music director, conductor Kurt Masur died in December at age 88. "What we remember most vividly," said the orchestra's president Matthew VanBesien, "is Masur's profound belief in music as an expression of humanism."