Delicious quirks abound at this annual weekend-long event in an eccentric valley east of Santa Barbara, Calif. Each year a different artist organizes the festival; this June brought the earnest, raucous violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who dived into organizing and performing alike with gusto. She corralled the JACK Quartet into performances of sumptuous serenity; early-morning Morton Feldman followed late-night John Luther Adams. And she persuaded Markus Hinterhäuser, the pianist who runs the Salzburg Festival, to join her in duets by the reclusive Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya; he then played alone the hourlong cycle of Ustvolskaya’s six piano sonatas, a dumbfounding achievement of concentration and dignity.
A re-encounter that demanded a re-evaluation. I had remembered John Adams’s 2005 opera about the Manhattan Project as stolid and overlong. But in a pared-down production by Peter Sellars (also the work’s librettist) this summer at Santa Fe Opera — an enormous sphere hung above a bare stage — it was lean and surreal, alternating lush, ominous sensuality and pummeling intensity. A superb cast led by Ryan McKinny and Julia Bullock was conducted, with an instinct for tension, by Matthew Aucoin.
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,” the glacial, scary “opera for objects” she created with her brother, the architect Adam Fure, 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.
‘Fin de Partie’
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.
‘Maria by Callas’ and ‘Amazing Grace’
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.