The best of classical music in 2023


Ranked lists are designed to give a sense of objectivity to a retrospective evaluation of the year. However, when it comes to sorting my musical experiences into a neat top 10, I can't help but feel subjectivity. Despite the challenges faced by orchestras and opera companies in regaining their pre-pandemic audiences, 2023 was a year filled with remarkable performances, exciting premieres, and promising developments for the future of the art form.

10. Apple Music Classical
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Perhaps it's because of my profession, but I am truly impressed with Apple's solution to the long-standing issue of classical music's metadata. Apple Music Classical, a spinoff/companion to Apple Music, may appear extravagant with its elegant serif fonts and clichéd portraits of renowned composers. However, beneath its surface, Apple Music Classical offers a satisfyingly detailed search system that allows users to navigate and organize hundreds of thousands of high-quality classical recordings effortlessly. It provides an easy way to engage with classical music and opera without the flaws, oversights, omissions, and metadata confusion found in other platforms.
9. The revival of 'Madama Butterfly'
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Opera companies just can't seem to let go of Puccini's perennially problematic love story, "Madama Butterfly," which remains one of the most frequently performed operas worldwide. However, in 2023, we witnessed a wave of inventive and fresh interpretations of this opera. New productions were staged by esteemed companies such as the San Francisco Opera, Detroit Opera, and Cincinnati Opera. Yet, it was Phil Chan's reimagined "Madama Butterfly," presented by the Boston Lyric Opera, that left a lasting impact on me. Set between 1940s San Francisco and a Japanese internment camp in Arizona, this opulent production served as a powerful indictment of the American Dream and who is allowed to pursue it.
8. Renée Fleming's exceptional year
This was a remarkable year for the beloved soprano, Renée Fleming. She earned a Grammy win for her album with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, delivered a moving portrayal of Clarissa Vaughan in Kevin Puts's ambitious operatic adaptation of "The Hours" at the Metropolitan Opera, and recently enchanted audiences with a dazzling and intimate recital alongside the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra. Just days ago, she was honored with the Kennedy Center Honors. However, my favorite moment featuring Fleming occurred unexpectedly this summer when she stepped in for a COVID-positive Yo-Yo Ma at Tanglewood. With Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Fleming delivered a breathtaking performance of Strauss lieder, showcasing her unparalleled talent as an interpreter of Strauss's music.

7. 'Blue' at Washington National Opera
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Although "Blue" was recognized as the best new opera of 2020 by the Music Critics Association of North America, its premiere at the Washington National Opera was postponed to 2023 due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, when it finally arrived at the Kennedy Center in March, Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson's poignant exploration of police violence remained as relevant as ever. The production assembled a remarkable cast, including Kenneth Kellogg, Briana Hunter, and Aaron Crouch, who brought the story to life with their exceptional performances. "Blue" served as a subtle yet necessary step forward for contemporary American opera.
6. 'Universal Longings | Anhelos Universales'
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"Universal Longings | Anhelos Universales," a collaboration between the National Philharmonic and the Washington Chorus, has stayed with me since its performance on November 5th at Strathmore. Under the direction of TWC Artistic Director Eugene Rogers, the chorus and orchestra joined forces for the Washington, D.C. premiere of James Lee III's "Breaths of Universal Longings" and Venezuelan composer Antonio Estévez's "Cantata Criolla." The concert was a truly magical experience that left a lasting impression.

In one of the most thrilling vocal collaborations I heard all year, tenor Scott Piper and baritone Juan Tomás Martínez Yépez faced off as Venezuelan folk hero Florentino and The Devil himself. However, it was the audience who emerged as the true winners in this battle.

5. Carlos Simon’s ‘Four Black American Dances’
This year marked a major breakthrough for Carlos Simon, the Kennedy Center's composer-in-residence. In September, he released "Brea(d)th," an orchestral response to the tragic killing of George Floyd by the police. The piece featured the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra under Jonathan Taylor Rush and poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who also serves as the Kennedy Center's artistic director of social impact. Simon also released the album "Together," which included collaborations with violinist Randall Goosby, mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges, baritone Will Liverman, and cellist Seth Parker Woods. Additionally, he premiered several works, including "American Sonnets" with the Brooklyn Art Song Society, "Giants" for Imani Winds, "Go Down, Let My People Go" for the University of Michigan Symphony Band, and "Songs of Separation" commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra and featuring Bridges. However, my personal favorite music from Simon this year was his commission for the Boston Symphony Orchestra titled "Four Black American Dances." This action-packed and intricately detailed composition served as a powerful history lesson and showcased Simon's talent as one of the most dynamic composers of our time.
4. Susanna Malkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic
In May, conductor Susanna Malkki brought her Helsinki Philharmonic to the Kennedy Center for a program that showcased music from her homeland with remarkable clarity and vividness. Flutist Claire Chase joined the orchestra for a hauntingly beautiful performance of "L'Aile du songe," a concerto by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, who sadly passed away in June. However, the highlight of the evening, presented by Washington Performing Arts, was Malkki and her orchestra's profound understanding of the Sibelius works that opened and closed the program: "Lemminkainen's Return" and Symphony No. 2, which was undeniably the most captivating, revealing, and thrilling rendition I have ever experienced.

3. National Symphony Orchestra's 'Beethoven and American Masters'
The National Symphony Orchestra has had an incredible year. Maestro Gianandrea Noseda and the NSO made a powerful impression at Carnegie Hall in April, receiving a thunderous applause from the audience. They also announced an exciting European tour scheduled for February 2024 and welcomed Jean Davidson, formerly of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, as their new executive director. Additionally, the orchestra showcased standout performances under the leadership of guest conductor Tarmo Peltokoski, a young Finnish prodigy. However, what truly highlighted the progress of this orchestra was their return to the basics: the completion of their "Beethoven and American Masters" series in May and June. This series paired Beethoven's symphonies with companion works by William Grant Still and featured George Walker's remarkable sinfonias. Each installment not only showcased exquisite playing but also revealed the orchestra's evolving personality and playful spirit under Noseda's guidance.

2. Opera Lafayette's 'Io'
Every time I close my eyes, I am reminded of the explosively vibrant costumes designed by Machine Dazzle for Opera Lafayette's double-feature presentation of "Io." This production included the long-lost 1745 opera-ballet by Rameau and the modern premiere of Pierre de la Garde's "Léandre et Héro," providing a delightful conclusion to the company's season-long exploration of "The Era of Madame de Pompadour." "Io" was a visually stunning and creatively reimagined opera, bursting with life and leaving the audience in awe. It achieved the remarkable feat of being tastefully extravagant.

Rene Orth's "10 Days in a Madhouse" may not have been the main attraction of Opera Philadelphia's Festival O23, but Joanna Settle's premiere production at the Wilma Theatre provided a thrilling introduction to a bold new composer. Orth's adaptation of journalist Nellie Bly's story, where she went undercover in an asylum in 1887 to expose the mistreatment of patients, was skillfully composed, creatively orchestrated, and passionately performed by a talented cast including soprano Kiera Duffy, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis, baritone Will Liverman, and soprano Lauren Pearl. Orth's music pulsates with raw energy and purpose, a combination that the opera world could benefit from.

Ahmed Hakim
By : Ahmed Hakim
Ahmed Hakim is a professional journalist since 2019, a media graduate from Iraqi University, a technology expert, a media consultant and a member of the International Organization of Journalists - a member of the fact-checking team at Meta Company. He writes in the fields of entertainment, art, science and technology, and believes that the pen can change everything
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