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Music

2015 in classical music

Comings and goings, building scandals and the Berlin Philharmonic's surprising choice of principal conductor: the classical industry hummed along at a steady mezzo-forte, and Germany held its musical superpower status.

At year's end, one of the greats departed: Musical maestro Kurt Masur died on December 19, age 88, in Connecticut.

Kurt Masur. Photo: Eckehard Schulz

Down-to-earth, modest - and no less charismatic for that: Kurt Masur

The onetime principal conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre National de France had been weakened by Parkinson's disease for years but kept on conducting - towards the end, in a wheelchair.

Far beyond classical music circles, he will be remembered for his role in diplomacy during the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig, which led to regime change in East Germany a quarter of a century ago.

2015 began, as every year, with a traditional New Year's concert by the Vienna Philharmonic. Watched on TV by 50 million viewers in 90 countries, the show starring old maestro Zubin Mehta served up ample waltz comfort, Alpine scenery and plenty of kitsch.

Kirill Petrenko. Photo: Claudia Esch-Kenkel

Petrenko beat his way to the top. His secret? Hard work

In May, the Berlin Philharmonic was to elect a successor to Sir Simon Rattle. The candidates speculated on were a one-to-one match with the list of the world's most renowned, and the secret ballot had all the trappings of a papal election.

No white smoke emerged on May 10, however; the instrumentalists couldn't decide. Six weeks later, they did - this time without the hullabaloo - and the election of Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko came as a surprise. He will take the baton in Berlin in 2018, while Rattle's first official season with the London Symphony is set for 2017.

Evelyn Herlitzius and Stephen Gould

Evelyn Herlitzius and Stephen Gould starred as Isolde and Tristan in Bayreuth

Never an uncontroversial season in Bayreuth

In the runup to the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, behind-the-scenes turbulence drew press attention, as it so often does. Eva Wagner-Pasquier left - or was pressured out of - her position as festival co-director, and the role of Isolde was recast only days before opening day.

Both circumstances were bitterly criticized by some, including star conductor Petrenko, otherwise known for his extreme reluctance when it comes to making public statements. Petrenko, it is clear, has other plans and will sorely missed in Bayreuth from 2016 onwards.

When the festival opened on July 25, critics praised Katharina Wagner's new staging of Richard Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde." Having terminated its contract with the scandal-ridden artist Jonathan Meese, the festival is placing its bets on stage director Uwe Eric Laufenberg for next year's new production of "Parsifal."

On the Rhine, the Ruhr and the Salzach

Meanwhile, in Bonn, another great-granddaughter of the composer, Nike Wagner, proved full of ideas in her directorship of the Beethovenfest. Following on the 2015 theme "Variations and Changes," next year's motto is "Revolutions."

In the centennial of the death of Russian composer, pianist and sound mystic Alexander Scriabin, his works were highlighted at the Piano Festival of the Ruhr.

The Salzburg Festival - although slightly smaller this year, still the world's most expansive and reputable - presented a program with mostly reliable fare. An exception was a new, enthusiastically cheered production of "The Conquest of Mexico" by contemporary German composer Wolfgang Rihm. The 2016 edition opens on July 22 with the world premiere of "The Exterminating Angel," an opera by English composer Thomas Ades.

Bach portrait unveiled in St. Nicholas' Church in Leipzig

After returning to its place of origin, the Bach portrait is now lovingly called "The Mona Lisa of Leipzig" by locals

Musical chairs

2015 saw familiar faces in new places. After eight years with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons moved on to the Boston Symphony. In addition, the young Latvian conductor will take the helm at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, succeeding Italian Riccardo Chailly, who for his part switches to the Lucerne Festival.

Greeted by many bravos in Munich, Russian maestro Valery Gergiev began his official stint with that city's philharmonic in September, while American Kent Nagano moved from the Bavarian State Opera to his new job as general music director in Hamburg. In a surprising announcement in December, 86-year-old Nikolaus Harnoncourt - conductor, music researcher and a pioneer of historic performance practice - stepped down from active concert duty, citing health reasons.

A curl of Mozart's hair on a locket

Mozart's expensive curl of hair fetched 35,000 pounds at auction

At the opening of the Bachfest Leipzig in June, the world's sole verifiably authentic portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach was returned to the city where the composer lived and worked.

A month earlier, another classical music treasure, a lock of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's hair, changed hands at a price of 35,000 pounds ($52,200/47,500 euros) at an auction in London.

Prizes and other distinctions

German opera houses and artists once again led the way at the International Opera Awards in April, with Berlin's "Komische Oper" declared "Best Operatic Ensemble" and German baritone Christian Gerhaher dubbed "Best Singer." Bestowed in London, the prizes carry no cash award but are widely noted in opera circles.

For its part, the ECHO Klassik gave a purview of the entire classical scene at October's gala awards ceremony at the Konzerthaus Berlin. Chinese star pianist Lang Lang took his eighth and ninth ECHOs. With the prize being largely an acknowledgement of sales success, the year's bestseller was - unsurprisingly once again - German violinist David Garrett. Not sales but lifetime achievement was recognized in the distinction given to 91-year-old American pianist Menahem Pressler.

red ribbon, symbol of the German AIDS Foundation

The AIDS gala showcased 11 remarkable young soloists, pointing to a healthy future for operatic singing

During the summer, the festival merry-go-round spun at a steady clip. The Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival revolved around Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 175 years after the Russian composer's birth. Next year's statewide fest in northern Germany is set to focus on Joseph Haydn.

The year that saw "refugee" declared "Word of the Year" in Germany also saw the classical music industry make several sociopolitical statements, including the performance of an orchestra of exiled Syrians in Bremen and the awarding of the first Beethoven Prize to Syrian-Palestinian musician Aeham Ahmad in Bonn.

Benefit events were common, such as the Festive Opera Gala for the German AIDS Foundation in Bonn, whose media partnership with DW will continue in 2016.

Building the classical way

Headliners in the branch also included architectural projects, mostly ongoing. 2015 opened with the inauguration of Paris' audacious Philharmonic Hall, but in June, plans for a festival concert hall in Bonn were declared dead once and for all.

Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg

Though now seen as a symbol of the waste of public funds, the Elbphilharmonie is still highly anticipated by Hamburg residents

Meanwhile, cost overruns and overdue completion dates continue to plague the building and restoration of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, the State Opera in Berlin and the Cologne Opera.

Having rejected plans for a new concert hall in Munich, Bavaria's state government switched positions after bitter protests from a number of celebrities. To many observers however, the 2021 target date for a new venue in a workers' district of the city seems overly optimistic.

In 2015, there was little talk about a crisis in classical music. Concert and festival attendance was satisfactory to high, and new highlights can be expected in the coming year in Germany and Austria, setting standards and drawing worldwide attention.