It’s that time of year again, when we at Bachtrack Towers take a deep breath and immerse ourselves in a deep dive into the statistics of last year’s performances. In 2019, we listed nearly 35,000 performances of concerts, opera and dance – more than ever before.

Bachtrack listings in 2019

It’s not unknown for us to groan in despair at how slow classical music is to change and, indeed, some of the stats for 2019 show, shall we say, a degree of continuity (Beethoven and Mozart the top two composers, with Brahms and Bach in the top five). But look into the numbers more closely and you’ll see that slowly but surely, there’s progress: more women composers and conductors, more contemporary music being played, more variety of operatic repertoire. The whole scene feels pretty vibrant from where we’re sitting, with our reviewers getting every bit as excited about the music and the musicians they’ve seen during the year.

You can read the full infographic here, but here are some thoughts from us and from some of the people in the news.

Beethoven year, with more to come...

With Bernstein’s anniversary over, Beethoven has reclaimed the top slot for “most performed concert work” (as well as his usual “most performed composer”). In a year of political upheaval, perhaps the world needed a bit of uplifting heroism, because the symphony that made it was the Eroica, displacing the pounding fate of the Fifth. Perhaps we also needed some return to nature and some escape, since Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition also made the top six. And with his 250th birthday coming up this December, you can expect plenty more Beethoven in 2020 as Bonn (his birthplace), Vienna (his home for the bulk of his mature career) and Prague (home of several of his patrons) lead concert halls around the world in programming celebratory events.

Susanna Mälkki, JoAnn Falletta, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla © Simon Fowler, Heather Bellini, CAMI
Susanna Mälkki, JoAnn Falletta, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
© Simon Fowler, Heather Bellini, CAMI

More progress for women...

Over recent years, we’re not the only ones to have pointed out the paucity of programming of classical music written by women composers. It’s too late to repair the damage for past centuries, but women have also been underrepresented in contemporary music. However, we're beginning to see an improving trend. When we first looked at this in 2016, there were just seven women in the top fifty contemporary composers. In 2019, that figure had nearly doubled to thirteen, with Cecilia McDowall leading the pack. A lot of the new works performed are choral, so we asked McDowall for her thoughts on the scene:

There is much interest in choral music nowadays which is so encouraging; it seems in good health. Composers are writing in innovative and exciting ways for choirs and this, I feel, engages and draws the listener in to that very particular sound world.

Although I write orchestral, chamber and solo works I have always loved writing for the voice, and looking for just the right text to set is all part of the fun. I very much enjoy working with choirs which commission me: in 2019 Wimbledon Choral Society commissioned my Da Vinci Requiem to mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, and in 2020 I shall be writing works commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society, the BBC Singers and the Kansas City Chorale.

Ceclia McDowall © Karina Lyburn
Ceclia McDowall
© Karina Lyburn

It’s the seventh year that we’ve been looking at the number of women on the concert podium. Back in 2013, the number of women in the top 100 busiest conductors was an abysmal ONE. In 2019, it was eight, with JoAnn Falletta, Susanna Mälkki and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla all featuring strongly. There’s a long way to go to some sort of parity, but at least things are moving in the right direction at a somewhat less glacial pace.

...but the top conductors are men

One thing hasn’t changed: the top conductors are men and there’s so much demand for the biggest names that a select number of conductors have several big jobs each. Take Paavo Järvi, for instance, who conducted no less than 88 concerts in 2019 and whose current CV boasts no less than eight jobs, four of them at Chief Conductor or Artistic Director level. Conducting is a highly physical activity and Järvi is doing it in the USA, Japan and countless European cities. How does he stay fit enough to do it?

I find conducting a pure joy. The travel is something I could do a little bit less of but conducting concerts gives me only energy and joy. If you are lucky to have have four world class orchestras as your family there is nothing better that one can dream of – so I never think of it as a burden but a joy: it gives me energy. What else can a musician want – if you are able to explore so much repertoire with such as a high level of musicians.

Staying fit is not a problem because conducting IS my main exercise routine but, because it is pure joy, it doesn’t feel like a “workout”. As for the travel – that is the arduous bit especially when you have a lot of luggage including scores which weigh you down. But I am fortunate not to have the same amount of travel as an instrumentalist whose tour schedule can be gruelling. Being in one place for longer periods certainly helps although the downside for me as a conductor is that I don’t get enough time at home. Those moments are sacred.

Paavo Järvi © Julia Bayer
Paavo Järvi
© Julia Bayer

Are opera tastes finally getting broader?

The list of top ten operas isn’t going to surprise anyone: Zauberflöte, Traviata, Butterfly, Bohème, Carmen, Rigoletto, Tosca, Don Giovanni, Barbiere, Figaro. But look more carefully and there are signs of change: the percentage of opera performances that were from the big three (Verdi, Puccini and Mozart) dropped from 34% in 2017 to 29% last year – that’s 500 more performances of operas by other composers.

Our reviewers have been finding more to get their teeth into. We reviewed 14 world premieres in 2019, more than ever before, and nearly a third of the productions we reviewed were new – that compares to 14% in 2016 and just 4% in 2015.

It’s not an earthquake, but maybe it’s the first few tremors. We can only hope that the houses who are being bold and broadening their repertoire discover that their audiences are happy to go along with them.

Flexible opera stars

Finally, in an opera world full of specialists, we’d like to pay tribute to some artists who have shown themselves to be true all rounders. There are, of course, plenty of opera singers who are employed on the staff of a repertory house and sing a large number of roles. There are also plenty of singers who have international careers at many different houses. But there are just a few who keep a wide variety of roles actively in their repertoire and sing them across the world.

Amongst the ladies: Sondra Radvanovsky may be a stalwart at the Met, but has also sung in Paris, London, Edinburgh, Vienna and Barcelona, her repertoire ranging from bel canto (Bellini’s Il pirata and Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux) to such weighty roles as Aida and Tosca, singing in four languages: German, Italian, French and Czech. For the men, Michael Volle has also spanned the Atlantic, singing huge Wagnerian roles like Wotan and Hans Sachs as well as comedy (Verdi’s Falstaff and Herr Fluth in Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor), romantic comedy (Arabella) and three biblical roles.

Plaudits to these and the other artists who keep us so richly entertained in such varied ways!