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The New York Times - Best Classical Music of 2020

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Trying to Keep the Art Form Going "Then everything stopped."

This was the grimly honest way the mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges described to me what happened this year - to her fast-rising career, and to all of classical music after the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of opera houses and concert halls everywhere. Careers were halted, incomes decimated; musicians with coveted orchestra jobs faced severe salary cuts or furloughs. Still, there were inspiring performances before and, especially, after that showed dedicated artists trying to keep the art form going.

1. ‘The Mother of Us All'

In early February, a month before the pandemic closures, the New York Philharmonic, the Juilliard School and the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented a production of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's opera "The Mother of Us All," a fanciful yet profound historical pageant centered on the suffragist Susan B. Anthony. The staging celebrated the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Though the cavernous Charles Engelhard Court, at the entrance to the museum's American Wing, proved acoustically problematic, the Juilliard singers were wonderful. At a time of bitter partisanship and disturbing xenophobia, it was chilling to hear the commanding soprano Felicia Moore, as Anthony, in a powerful soliloquy pondering why men oppose efforts on behalf of voting rights. Men "are afraid," she sang; they fear women, each other, their neighbors, other countries. Eerily anticipating social-media behavior, the character asserts that these fearful men bolster themselves by "crowding together" and "following" each other.

2. Danish String Quartet

Also in February, the Danish String Quartet performed Beethoven's 16 quartets in six concerts over 12 days at Alice Tully Hall, presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Maybe classical music is too obsessed with greatness and the canonical composers. Still, this series offered artists from a new generation in fresh, insightful and exciting accounts of seminal pieces that drew capacity audiences and showed why this music matters so much.

3. Early Livestreams

On March 12, when many shutdowns began, institutions including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Berlin State Opera, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Philadelphia Orchestra went ahead with livestreamed programs, playing to empty halls. I caught portions of six performances that day, and was inspired both by the determination of the musicians and by the richness of the work. A seismic shift had taken place: Suddenly, the online audience was the only audience. Sadly, it took just days for institutions to realize that it wouldn't be possible for performers to gather at all, even in an empty auditorium.

4. Jennifer Koh

A flood of free streams immediately started, mostly from determined musicians playing from their homes. One ambitious and heartening standout was the violinist Jennifer Koh's "Alone Together" project, for which she played 40 new solo works, half donated, half commissioned, broadcasting them over Instagram from her apartment in Manhattan.

5. The Metropolitan Opera's At-Home Gala

In April, the Metropolitan Opera returned online, presenting a four-hour "At-Home Gala" featuring 40 leading singers performing live from around the world. Quite a few took part through iffy mobile phone connections. But there were some technical feats, like a stirring performance of the chorus "Va, pensiero" from Verdi's "Nabucco," featuring about 90 choristers and players, all at their homes, yet grouped together onscreen. While the company was about to furlough its chorus and orchestra, the gala was an intensely moving reminder that these artists remained devoted to the Met.

6. Berlin Philharmonic

In May, the Berlin Philharmonic poked a toe out of lockdown, presenting a superb livestreamed program of works for chamber orchestra by Arvo Pärt, Gyorgy Ligeti, Samuel Barber and Mahler. The performance employed social distancing onstage and no audience. Here was an early attempt to explore whether a concert involving just 15 players could take place safely.

7. Daniil Trifonov

The pianist Daniil Trifonov ended up demonstrating the before-and-after realities of the pandemic with two performances of Bach's "The Art of Fugue." The first took place in early March at Alice Tully Hall, and he played magnificently. He played the work again in June, without an audience, in a studio at Tanglewood. It was broadcast in August. This time, though he wasn't required to, he wore a mask, which came across as a gesture of solidarity with viewers around the world.

8. Jonas Kaufmann

The tenor Jonas Kaufmann offered a livestreamed program of favorite tenor arias from an abbey outside Munich to inaugurate the Met's series of stars in recital. Accompanied by the elegant pianist Helmut Deutsch, Mr. Kaufmann sang with such sensitivity and fervor that these familiar pieces came across with new poignancy. With this venture the Met was testing the market to see if music lovers who had become accustomed to free digital offerings would pay for programs.

9. Caramoor

Other institutions, like Caramoor, in Katonah, N.Y., brought artists together - with safety precautions, without audiences - for streamed concerts. This series included several premieres, among them Christopher Cerrone's concerto for prepared piano and percussion quartet, which received an exhilarating performance by Conor Hanick and Sandbox Percussion.