2010 was not the most eventful of years for Atlanta’s classical music ensembles, which in many ways tracked national trends as a result of the Great Recession: fewer concerts, reduced attendance, a just-hang-on attitude. A few notable happenings:
10. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra named Stanley Romanstein its new CEO in April. Now nine months on the job, he’s made friends with just about everyone, especially donor constituencies that were said to have felt alienated by former ASO leadership. Despite the general gloom that hangs over some corners of the classical industry — where a few communities can no longer afford an expensive orchestra — the ASO remains an optimistic place. (Somehow, the ASO’s looming $9 million debt hasn’t shaken the sense of forward progress.) A comfort-inducing personality, different from the typical buttoned-up orchestral manager, Romanstein emits a laid-back, almost New Agey vibe. He works at a tall office “desk” standing up; there are no chairs. “We get meetings over in a hurry,” he told me. “And it’s great for focusing the mind.”
9. The city’s new-music ensembles — Bent Frequency, Sonic Generator and NeoPhonia — are as essential to our musical health as the much bigger institutions. In February, Sonic Generator, which gains authority each year, offered a concert devoted to Bang on a Can composer Michael Gordon. It was revelation to hear a crack performance of “Weather 1″ and much else. In October, NeoPhonia presented a concert of three Atlanta composers, a snapshot of where the local scene stands. (The post-concert consensus: We must do better.)
8. Although conductor Arthur Fagen had been the Atlanta Opera’s music director in all but title, he’s now official. He gives solid, often inspired interpretations in many styles, and he comes with sophisticated tastes and international connections. Fagen’s ability to build the orchestra and help recruit exciting singers — all done on a tight budget — will be his most important initial contribution. Sagging ticket sales and slumping donations forced the opera to cut its output to just three shows a season — with no improvement in sight — but its artistic mission continues to inch forward. (An Atlanta co-production of Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas,” leaked on the gloATL website and scheduled for 2012, will be another milestone for the company.)
7. Declarations that the classical recording industry is (almost, almost) dead continue apace, with 2010 marking another decline in CD sales, which hasn’t been offset by downloads. Yet there were many excellent new releases, many from the smaller independent labels or self-produced by the musicians themselves.
>> Record of the Year: Tristan Perich’s “1-Bit Symphony” stands apart: a music-creating 1-bit microchip and an earphone jack, it makes various profound and whimsical statements on the evolving relationship between music and technology, and its lasting appeal will be from the euphoria-inducing music. “1-Bit Symphony” is an introduction to a substantial classical composer.
>> The John Adams Generation Comes of Age: Timothy Andres (on Nonesuch) and Nico Muhly (on Decca), two 20-something American composers given too much attention at too young an age, finally emerged in 2010 as solid craftsmen with ears tuned to the paradigms of today, which seems to mean tapping the aesthetic of Adams. But their bristling energy, cultural optimism and personal style suggest they’ll be creating important works for years to come.
>> Handel’s “Messiah” and “Water Music” we know; his epic English-language oratorios and sublime Italian-language operas have come into vogue everywhere (except in Atlanta, but we’re working on that). Now La Risonanza, a period-instrument ensemble with singers, is recording all of Handel’s youthful cantatas with instrumental accompaniment, about 30 works, and has reached Volume 6 (on Glossa). These are essential works in Handel’s output, written in Italy for influential patrons. They’re the fountainhead of his music, and he’d borrow from them melodies and whole movements again and again throughout his career. In many ways, these cantatas are the freshest and most arrestingly beautiful music Handel ever composed.
>> Sondra Radvanovsky’s “Verdi Arias” (on Delos) is a CD I listened to a hundred times. In an age when too many singers sound well-trained but bland, Radvanovsky is emotion-charged and honest, a fusion of glamorous vocalism and crafted storytelling.
6. In October, a Canadian bassoonist named Dantes Rameau founded the Atlanta Music Project, a music-education plan modeled after Venezuela’s El Sistema: “In North America we sometimes have the mindset that we go through the system, take what we can get and don’t see the need to nurture the next generation behind us,” says Rameau. “I want to be in a world where music can change attitudes, where art and policy are linked and everyone benefits.”
5. Paula Peace and her Atlanta Chamber Players had an epiphany about the necessity of contemporary music — full of risk, adventure and deep satisfaction — which led to “Rapido! A 14-Day Composition Contest.” 2010 was the competition’s second year, proving it can be an enduring model for generating new music and for exciting audiences. This has become one of the most thrilling developments on Atlanta’s music scene.
4. A single donor, Patti Wallace, funded Atlanta Ballet‘s orchestra to return to the pit — after several seasons with no or limited orchestra activity — for all performances requiring live music. One enlightened donor can make a huge impact for the whole city. Brava.
3. The Atlanta Baroque Orchestra appointed Julie Andrijeski, a violinist and Baroque dancer, as its artistic director. Dance and opera are the cornerstones of Baroque music, and much of the repertoire was meant to be danced or sung or both. This could be the start of a dynamic new era for one of the region’s most essential groups.
2. Memorable concerts: the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with pianist Piotr Anderszewski at Emory; Donald Runnicles and the ASO in Bruckner 7; the Jupiter String Quartet in wondrous Kurtag and Beethoven; Angela Hewitt and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in perfect Bach; Robert Spano and the ASO and Chorus supreme in Arvo Pärt, Belá Bartok and Leos Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass.”
1. 2010 was the year the ASO and Spano’s 10-year-old “Atlanta School” of composers came of age. It became clear that the “school” is not a starting point of a larger process — leading audiences toward increasingly complex, abstract or otherwise “difficult” music, as some assumed — but is its own steady state. In June, the ASO offered world premieres by Jennifer Higdon and Michael Gandolfi, and then added young composer Adam Schoenberg to the roster. These three, plus Chris Theofanidis, make a stylistically homogeneous school, more or less, derived from a base of Copland’s cinematic Americana, Stravinsky’s rhythmic drive and Bernstein’s jazzy populism. (Osvaldo Golijov, another “official” member who sounds nothing like the other four, has yet to be commissioned by the ASO and is less of a presence in Atlanta than the others. The orchestra still performs much of his music but, of course, it also performs John Adams in abundance.)
The school’s overall ambition, however it is marketed by the ASO, is to restore the audience’s wishes in contemporary music. We’ve heard your complaints and we’ll provide what you want. In political terms, you’d say the ASO is trying to fire up the base — to appeal to people who already attend concerts and get them re-excited about the experience, like fickle voters in the primaries — after years of taking them for granted.
Spano and Co. shrewdly realized that symphony orchestras, in cities like Atlanta, are not places people visit for cutting-edge art, even if many musicians and critics demand it. They can gripe all they like. Symphony-going audiences — who buy tickets and donate money — are not ignorant of the traditions of the art form. They know and love the canon that stretches from Handel’s “Messiah” through Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” In the past half-century, a scant few new works have joined the repertoire, and typical audiences think “new music” is a pejorative. The “Atlanta School” attempts to fix that. The composers write for the concert hall and regular symphony audiences. A key to success: their music is highly digestible on first listen. By definition, it’s not “difficult.” In sum, these composers are not experimenters but craftsmen, who work within the boundaries of what audiences already know and love about classical music. Given the fired-up reaction to Higdon’s “On a Wire,” playing to a capacity audience in June, the “Atlanta School” mindset is proving its worth.