Every year has its high and low points, but the better years also have a spirit that goes beyond individual accomplishments or failures. It is that spirit that gives the year its sense.
And so what follows is not necessarily the 10 "best" of 1997 as much as 10 phenomena collectively meant to offer a whiff of a passing year's fleeting spirit.
1. Gorecki Grooves. "Gorecki Autumn" at USC came, seemingly, out of the blue, not unlike the way the Polish composer's Third Symphony did when it hit the classical charts a couple of years ago. A fussy and unpredictable character, Gorecki had only once before conducted his symphony, and that was in Poland. But there he was, in front of the USC orchestra and an overflow audience that paid a mere $5 a ticket, digging deep into profound music and getting the student players to give what had to be the most the committed, probing, intense performance of their young lives. A lot of grandchildren will be hearing about this some day.
2. Anniversary Watch. Schubert was born 200 years ago; Henry Cowell, 100 years ago, the same year Brahms died. Lou Harrison turned 80. It was, however, the Brahms death watch that got the Los Angeles Philharmonic's attention. Most notably, the orchestra sponsored a "Brahms Experience" featuring Roger Norrington's loopy flights of period-practice fancy in all four symphonies played during a single weekend. Still, the most memorable Brahms performances turned out to be Maxim Vengerov's lofty account of the Violin Concerto to open the Hollywood Bowl and soprano Gundula Janowitz's tender and communicative song recital one "Brahms Experience" afternoon.
Schubert got far less--a symphony here, a song or sonata there--but Thomas Hampson did offer a powerfully personal approach to the great song cycle about a winter's journey of the soul, "Die Winterreise," at the Music Center.
Meanwhile, Cowell (who pretty much invented California music) and Harrison (our great senior composer) should have meant the most to us, but they got their acknowledgment exclusively from the Bay Area and New York instead.
3. Death . . . : The passing of three of classical music's great postwar individualists late in the summer put a certain amount of closure on the 20th century. Sviatoslav Richter, the intense and idiosyncratic Russian pianist able to produce a palate of mystically glowing colors from the keyboard, was the last of the great old-school, Old World pianists. Georg Solti, the ferocious Hungarian conductor and longtime music director of the Chicago Symphony, was the last of the larger-than-life old-time conductors. And Conlon Nancarrow, the American-born composer who emigrated to Mexico and devoted his life to creating eccentric but powerfully influential rhythmic experiments on the player piano, was the last of his generation of cranky American eccentrics.
4. . . . And Resurrection: Toru Takemitsu, Japan's leading composer, made the 1996 year-end list for the shock the music world felt at his death at age 65. He makes this year's list for the way his extraordinary music began to significantly enter the repertory. Carl St.Clair programmed Takemitsu pieces at the Pacific Symphony all through the first part of the year and recorded them for release on Sony early next year. The Los Angeles Philharmonic remembered that it had once commissioned a small masterpiece from Takemitsu, "riverrun," and gave it an exquisite revival when conductor Oliver Knussen and pianist Peter Serkin came to town. And Takemitsu tributes also came from the Asia American Symphony, the Concordia Orchestra and the Southwest Chamber Players.
5. The American Century, Life to Life: Three exceptional new biographies of American composers were published that go a long way toward helping us understand not only the kind of music we make but the kind of people we are and the kind of society we enjoy. Anthony Tommasini's engrossing "Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle" is a wonderful character study of a sometimes not-quite-so-wonderful character. Judith Tick's "Ruth Crawford Seeger" is both a startling reminder of what a fine composer Pete Seeger's stepmother was and of all the social issues, from gender to radical politics, that affected music and life in the first half of the 20th century. Ken Emerson's "Doo Dah!: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture" provides a gripping account of our cultural roots.
6. L.A. Philharmonic Gets Its Act Together: After more than a year of seeming to do little to replace its retiring managing director, Ernest Fleischmann, the Los Angeles Philharmonic acted with remarkable suddenness. Within weeks of Esa-Pekka Salonen's having met Willem Wijnbergen in Amsterdam last summer, the Philharmonic managed to lure him away from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He begins here in March.