Was 2016 the year women stormed the citadels of classical music?

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, the new music director of the CBSO
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, the new music director of the CBSO Credit:  CHRIS CHRISTODOULOU

Where does the best hope for classical music lie? In gifted, passionate and engaged musicians – not in grand plans for swanky new buildings. The year started with excitement over plans for a new concert hall at the Barbican in London. Simon Rattle, incoming music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, whose home this was to be, was over the moon.

By November, the project was in tatters. The Treasury withdrew support, noting drily that “London is already home to world-class culture and music venues”. In the same month the government put its money into something much more creative: a network of “music hubs”, which will provide education services to schools around the UK, was given a £300 million boost.

Pierre Boulez (left) and Peter Maxwell Davies both passed away this year Credit: David Rose/Rex

Of course, the year also offered plenty of reasons to be gloomy about classical music, for those inclined that way. The orchestral scene in the United States slid further into crisis, with two venerable orchestras in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh edging towards bankruptcy. At the start of the year, the deaths of composers Pierre Boulez and Peter Maxwell Davies created a melancholy sense that in contemporary classical music the era of the giants was over, leaving us in a landscape with no landmarks.

It’s tempting to look back nostalgically to the blazing certainty of Boulez, and his conviction that modernism was the one true path. That’s no longer the case, as was shown by Deep Minimalism at London’s Southbank Centre, in June. This festival was notable for its works by female composers such as Daphne Oram, putting forward an entirely different vision of what contemporary music could be – meditative, slow and tranquil, rather than hectically assertive.

Xian Zhang was appointed as principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales  Credit: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty

That was one piece of evidence that women were finally storming the citadels of classical music. More came with the appointment of the 43-year-old Chinese Xian Zhang as principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and the 30-year-old Lithuanian Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla as chief conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, to much fanfare.

The young performers who dominated 2016 weren’t the crossover starlets who made the headlines but the deeply serious pianists who seemed to be making a conscious effort to emulate the Schnabels and Richters of old. Daniil Trifonov, Instrumentalist of the Year at the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, proved to be a pianist of tremendous sensitivity and insight. Even more serious is Igor Levit, who gave a recital of Busoni and Bach at the Wigmore Hall that was ostentatiously high-ground. Yet Levit also plays music by great modern radicals such as Frederic Rzewski and Cornelius Cardew.

This gradual penetration of new music into mainstream concert programmes has been going on for decades, but thanks to artists like Levit, orchestras like the London Philharmonic and festivals like Aldeburgh, it seemed closer than ever this year to being the norm – and that is a wonderful thing.