best of 2014: women in music

I’ve been reading all of these “top 10 of 2014” year-end lists and getting a little flustered. At first I thought it was because there were a few performances that kept popping up that I personally disagreed with: The Death of Klinghoffer, which I assume is being put on the lists for journalistic rather than musical reasons (because as stunning as the production was, it wasn’t memorable enough to live up to all that ridiculous hype); John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean, which I thought was dull as dishwater–and I’m saying this as someone who enjoys much of JLA’s other output–and which, once again, probably made the lists for journalistic reasons rather than musical reasons, as the (compositionally conventional) piece won the Pulitzer this year; and Marino Formenti’s recital at Lincoln Center, which was an admittedly baller program centered around Liszt and his widespread influence, but which required a better pianist to pull off than Formenti is. But there were performances mentioned on the lists, such as Billy Budd at BAM and David Lang’s collected stories series at Zankel Hall, that I thought were truly stellar, so I kept wondering why two of these lists in particular had me so miffed off.

Then I realized: there was a distinct lack of women on the lists. The New York Times mentions one woman (Joyce DiDonato) among dozens of men, and New York Magazine mentions only two (Eva Maria Westbroek and Emma Thompson). Whereas Alex Ross over at the New Yorker managed to pull together a list that was pretty fairly balanced between men and women. So you know that there wasn’t, like, an absence of women on the stages this year. The authors of these two lists, who happen to be dudes, apparently just seek out events written by, composed by, conducted by, and performed by other dudes. Huh.

Well, I decided to pull together my own list of pretty much exclusively women in music. I didn’t go to nearly as many performances as the critics at any of the above publications, but I went to a lot for someone who works full-time, and I can tell you that there were many, many wonderful concerts and operas featuring women on the programs.

1. Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields at the New York Phil Biennial: I actually saw several of Julia Wolfe’s pieces performed live in the past year, including at David Lang’s collected stories, but Anthracite Fields was the most enormous as well as the most impressive. It’s political, it’s poetic, it’s loud and strange and fierce. With this hour-long piece, Julia Wolfe created something new, both in her musical language and in the multi-sensory experience that strikes you right at your core. Full review here:

2. Diana Damrau in La Sonnambula: The woman SANG AN ARIA (exceptionally well, I might add) WHILE TURNING CARTWHEELS, IN HEELS. If you need to know more than that, my full review is here:

3. Yuja Wang’s Rach 3 with the LA Phil: I texted my boyfriend at intermission something along the lines of, “I feel like I just had a 45-minute long orgasm.” Having seen several of Yuja’s solo recitals (most of which I left with my jaw hanging down to the floor), I was eager to see her interact with an orchestra, and the balance she achieved with Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil–not to mention her dazzling technique–was nothing less than phenomenal. I don’t even remember what happened during the second half of the concert; I gave it five stars for the concerto alone:

4. Meredith Monk at Carnegie, Bang on a Can, etc.: Meredith Monk is the Debbs composers’ chair at Carnegie Hall this year, so you’d think she at least would merit a word or two from the critics. Her vocal duets with Theo Bleckmann at the Bang on a Can marathon were so infectious that I’m still humming them months later; her incredible composition Night was performed just a few weeks ago at Zankel Hall at the end of a program of performances suffused with her influence. Full review here:

5. Frederika Brillembourg and Alessandra Ferri in The Raven: In what was one of the most acrobatic and beautifully eerie performances I’ve ever seen, mezzo Frederika Brillembourg and dancer Alessandra Ferri paced behind and around each other, their bodies at times intertwining and at others casting long shadows across opposite sides of the stage in Toshio Hosokawa’s monodrama. Full review here:

6. Ana Cervantes at the Americas Society: The brilliant (both in mind and talent) pianist performed a program of music written specifically for her by composers she had commissioned to write piano works with a Mexican muse in mind. What resulted was an extraordinary and widely varying series of sounds and ideas:

7. Mitsuko Uchida’s Beethoven 4 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: This was my first time hearing Mitsuko Uchida play live, and I was astounded by the fluidity, the delicate yet urgent playing, the intelligent but also deeply emotional artistry. This is a common concerto to see on concert programs, and she managed to make it her own. Full review here:

8. Joyce DiDonato in La Cenerentola: Okay, so my friends and I were there on the second night, in family circle seats that we had bought way ahead of time as I wasn’t able to review the opening night, and at intermission we were of course FREAKING OUT because Javier Camarena sang an encore, and who even knew people did that anymore, and oh my god, he’s so amazing and we came for DiDonato but we’re staying for Camarena, etc. But then by the end of the performance, our minds had changed. Yes, Camarena was amazing and his performances in Cenerentola & Sonnambula were two of the best I saw this year. But the true star was Joyce DiDonato, as we’d originally expected. Her voice was so unbelievably lovely, so convincingly carried, that we forgot about Camarena’s encore and spent the rest of the night raving about Joyce.

9. Hélène Grimaud in tears become… streams become… at the Park Avenue Armory: Hélème Grimaud did what in my opinion Marino Formenti couldn’t. In the cavernous drill hall, which was filled with 122,000 gallons of water making it even MORE echo-y than usual, she played the water-inspired works of Liszt, Berio, Debussy, and others not only with virtuosity but with careful craft. Full review to come.

10. Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone, etc.: I’ve been reading Music & Literature issue 5, featuring 150 pages of Saariaho translations and interviews, and I find myself continually inspired by her approach to composition–literary yet intuitive, thoughtful yet also very ambitious. I didn’t get to see any of her works live this year (not that there were any in NYC…?) so I’ve been listening to the Dawn Upshaw et al recording of La Passion de Simone pretty much every day. The music is even more sublime than you would expect an oratorio about Simone Weil to be. It’s rumored that Saariaho will write an opera for the Met (to be performed in 2016), the first time the Met has programmed a woman composer since 1903. (1903. You know, ONE HUNDRED AND ELEVEN YEARS AGO. Whew.)

A few honorable mentions, just because there were THAT MANY options to consider for this list: Renée Fleming’s enchanting Rusalka at the Met (review here:, the ICE Ensemble’s Sofia Gubaidulina portrait at Mostly Mozart (review here:, Caroline Shaw’s Partita at the Bang on a Can marathon, and Anonymous 4’s performance of David Lang’s love fail, also at the Bang on a Can marathon.

And I didn’t even get a ticket for Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth, or Laurie Anderson at BAM, or Mavis Staples, or… you get the idea.

To come: best books (by women) read in 2014.

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3 thoughts on “best of 2014: women in music

  1. Rain Worthington

    Yes, thank you so much for these alternative bests. It’s a great spectrum of styles and genres, from Meredith Monk to Sofia Gubaidulina to Hélène Grimaud to Kaija Saariaho. And so nice to have the mix between performing musicians and composers, or, of course, sometimes both. And thanks to Ana Cervantes (note: Ana, not Ava) for her passionate performances and commissioning of music by contemporary composers.
    P.S. A great resource for music by women composers is the NYWC ( Hope you’ll take a browse through.

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