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The Best Classical Music of 2018

Category: Entertainment,Music

A one-two punch this year brought this young composer firmly into the New York musical spotlight. First, at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival in the summer, “The Force of Things,” her glacial, scary “opera for objects,” used harrowing softness — even inaudibility — to evoke the permeating anxiety of our mounting ecological crisis. Then, at the concert that opened Jaap van Zweden’s tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, came “Filament,” a slyly ominous drone of a fanfare.

Brooding on the impossibility of the American dream, Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s tense, creepy new opera, which came to the Miller Theater at Columbia University in September, shows the fracturing of a homestead family suffering on the brutal Nebraska plains. The setting is the middle of the 19th century, but the lessons — about prosperity, virility, patriotism and cycles of violence — are crushingly contemporary. And Ms. Mazzoli’s score, for just a dozen or so players, is a landscape of shimmering aridity.

An era ended with the November premiere, after many false hopes over the past decade, of this opera by the 92-year-old Hungarian master Gyorgy Kurtag at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. A series of scenes and monologues extracted from the Beckett play “Endgame,” it is a work of utterly assured starkness — confident and patient. The music seems to wrap around and subtly trail off the words; the lucid orchestra is neither bullying nor reticent, producing an atmosphere of gnomic, melancholy beauty. It is, like its Beckett source, tender, transparent, unsentimental and unsparing.

The year ended with the release of two essential documents of two of the 20th century’s greatest divas. “Maria by Callas” is an impressionistic, melancholy portrait — primarily a self-portrait, heavy on candid, little-read letters — of a meteoric rise and agonizing decline. “Amazing Grace” is a sweatily veristic immersion in the recording of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel album — with choir, in front of amazed, raucous audiences in an intimate Los Angeles church. We hear Callas sing “Ah! non credea” from Bellini’s “La Sonnambula,” rapt in hurt. We hear Franklin close with “Never Grow Old,” her tone focused, her phrasing transcendently free. The passing details that bring these giants to human life are what catch your heart: Aretha clasping the Rev. James Cleveland’s hand behind her back while she sings; a jokey glance from Callas as she walks backstage. “Maria by Callas” is crushing; “Amazing Grace,” a teeming potluck of virtuosity and heart.

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