Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Composer of the decade

'Tis the season when arts journalists are compelled to weigh in on highlights of the past year -- or, now, the past decade. I'm starting to get a little giddy with all the pronouncements.

But here's a question about composers, following on the heels of a recent discussion about which composer would be best remembered in 50 years (a futile speculation, impossible of proof). A commenter on one of my sundry music-of-the-00s lists protested that I had overlooked Osvaldo Golijov, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. I had certainly thought of citing Reich's Pulitzer Prize as a highlight of the decade, but, first, the rules of that particular list required me to pick the 10 best CDs of the decade, and, second, it didn't seem accurate to me to name either Reich or Glass as a highlight of the 00s. Were their achievements in the last ten years actually bigger or more significant than in the preceding three or four decades in which they've been dominant figures?

As for Golijov, that's a question of personal taste. I have not yet been as excited about his work as some others have: I appreciate the talent but am waiting to see where it's going.

I am not an unqualified admirer of all of John Adams's work, either, but if there was a composer to whom the decade belonged, I'd say it was him.

But I can also think of plenty of composers who might have a claim to this decade, in that they emerged in it, came to new prominence, gained a new foothold, created significant activity. Some names that come to mind: Kaija Saariaho, Derek Bermel, Jennifer Higdon, Nico Muhly, Jörg Widmann, Mason Bates, Jefferson Friedman, Lisa Bielawa, or the three Bang on a Can founders: Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe. (And that's a very American-centric list.)

Who would you include among the composers of the decade?

By Anne Midgette  |  December 22, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: In performance: Parker Quartet
Next: Seasonal cheer


I also don't get Golijov, or Muhly, for that matter, so I feel like a bit of a fraud at times. But, like you, I think Adams would be the composer of the decade as he seems to have had an extraordinary amount of exposure- and high level exposure (Met etc). I was wildly disappointed with Dr Atomic but pretty much everything else has been spectacular (El Nino! Transmigration of Souls!).

Saariaho and Adams are the only two composers I can immediately think of who had multiple opera commissions in the '00s.

Thomas Ades also shot into the big time with the Tempest, so he's a possibility. I'd also throw Unsuk Chin into the mix.

Posted by: ianw2 | December 22, 2009 8:11 AM | Report abuse

Heiner Goebbels is someone who is getting more and more exposure. So did Pascal Dusapin.

The problem with modern music is that each country is playing its own composers, and very little else (perhaps due to the fact that contemporary works are generally not that popular with the audience; yes, there are exceptions.) For example, little of Philippe Boesmans is played outside Belgium. Of Finnish composers, we only hear Saariaho and Rautavaara, but only Osmo Vansk'a championship allowed us to hear the music of Kalevi Aho. And when is the last time when you heard anything by the Croat Ivo Malec (and he's known in no small part because he worked in France.)

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 22, 2009 9:31 AM | Report abuse

Thom Yorke. Just as if you had asked who the main composers of the 60s were, my answer would have been Lennon and McCartney. My criterion: in 50 years, whose music will still move millions of serious music lovers around the world to say, "that was genius."

Posted by: JN11 | December 22, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Hi Anne. I tend to agree with you that Adams is the established composer of the decade. From 'On the Transmigration of Souls' to 'Dr. Atomic,' he's certainly captured a sense this decade's anxious zeitgeist.

In terms of up-and-comers, I'd lean towards David Lang. He's consistently produced throughout the aughts, and had quite a year in 2009: 'Little Match Girl Passion' and the 'Untitled' soundtrack have both brought needed mainstream recognition for alt-classical.

Thanks for the terrific column and happy holidays.


Christian Carey
contributing editor, Sequenza 21 (

Posted by: christianbcarey | December 22, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

"The problem with modern music is that each country is playing its own composers, and very little else ..."

Not true, cicciofrancolando. Just look at NSO programming under the artistic advice of Nigel Boon; and, recently, the San Francisco Opera under Pamela Rosenberg. Even the Washington Opera championed Chinese composer Jin Xiang's "The Savage Land" in 1992.

(I saw Philippe Boesmans's very strong opera "Wintermarchen" [The Winter's Tale] twice in Vienna, and I recommend it to the San Francisco Opera, the New York City Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, and other companies.)

And, cicciofrancolando, have you ever heard of Magnus Lindberg? 100,000 other Americans have, even if you have not.

Posted by: snaketime1 | December 22, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Daron Hagen.

Posted by: neilerickson | December 22, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse


Yes, I heard of Magnus Lindberg and in fact I will hear his clarinet concerto with the NY Phil; it slipped from my mind.

OK, let's look at the programming of the NSO (leaving alone American composers): Knussen, Anderson, Ades, Connesson, Auerbach - usual suspects from England, France and Russia. Tüür - a composer championed mostly by fellow Estonians.

Outside the NSO, Evencio Castellanos is championed by Dudamel and little else. Miguel Harth-Bedoya champions contemporary Latin American compsers (Gabriela Frank, Jimmy Lopez.) There are exceptions, but contemporary music is mostly played locally.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 22, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

I strongly disagree with your music programming analysis.

Julian Anderson and Lena Auerbach musical ‘usual suspects’? Hardly.

Also, Gabriela Lena Frank is as an American composer as they come (with her Peruvian/Chinese/ Lithuanian/Jewish ancestry) and was native born in the U.S. of A. (For those who follow such nativity.)

(I spent a half hour underground on Saturday while Metro realigned its snow routes trying to understand why Musical America – which is as music establishment as they come – awarded its composer award to Louis Andriessen. (Adams and Lang came first to my mind).

Then I thought about WNET produced “Art in the Twenty-First Century”, and I did imagine that Mr Andriessen was probably the most brilliant living conceptual/stage composer (overshadowing Lachenmann and Ferneyhough).

Andriessen is indeed up there in international fame with Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, and Paul McCarthy. And I admire a fair amount of his music, as well as most - if not all - of his ideas.

Posted by: snaketime1 | December 22, 2009 2:04 PM | Report abuse

I would guess that Andriessen's Musical America award had something to do with his being the composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall this season.

Posted by: MidgetteA | December 22, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

My vote is for John Adams: judging solely by the musical output, from the competent but blah (El Niño) to the supercritical (Doctor Atomic opera), he set the bar pretty high and he continues to deliver the goods. His blog is pretty interesting too; just an added bonus.

Posted by: akimon | December 22, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Not a top ten by any stretch, but I was wondering if you saw the documentary on Rufus Wainwright and his opera, and what you thought from the exerpts that ran on the show.

Posted by: c-clef | December 22, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for mentioning Carnegie Hall and Louis Andriessen. I had been unaware.

Posted by: snaketime1 | December 22, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

See, I would've said Golijov, but I've been thinking about him lately and revisiting the works that I really loved early in the decade and they haven't packed the punch that they did then. I'd put Arlene Sierra in there, but she's really just been making her mark in the last four years or so and, ultimately, her significance will belong to the next decade (same with Gaby Frank and Missy Mazzoli. Could the 10's belong, REALLY belong, at last, to women composers?).

My default choice is Andriessen because, like snaketime1, I feel he is the most interesting and brilliant composer working out there (and I am thrilled to be able to bring a major work of his to Washington with Great Noise Ensemble next season; but I'm getting ahead of myself), but most of the work I admire of his, that has been truly significant in a wide scale, also belongs to earlier decades (although I'm looking forward to hearing La Commedia for the first time and seeing what his major project of the 00's is like).

Actually, Anne, I think your list is pretty good. I would disagree about Adams, only because, like Glass and Reich, I think his achievement really belongs to earlier decades. But he's certainly achieved a level of prominence in the last ten years that puts him in the same position Aaron Copland was in a generation or two ago. That, alone, should be worth something, I suppose.

I know in some circles this name is almost blasphemous, but I'd suggest that Michael Daughterty, given the significant rise in his reputation from his breaking into the scene in the 80's and early 90's, has had a significant impact on the scene. Just not the NY-centric one that much (something we often forget: new music extends beyond New York).

Posted by: ArmandoBayolo | December 22, 2009 5:38 PM | Report abuse

From the 'traditionalist' camp I would vote for Henze based on his Phaedra and L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe.

Electronica, looping and layering has been such a big part of the decade what with the now widespread use of garageband, etc. in the creative hands of so many that I think the electronic composer Dan Deacon deserves the award. Check out "Building Voice" if you haven't heard him yet.

Posted by: GreggWGustafson | December 23, 2009 8:12 AM | Report abuse

I will second Gregg’s mention of Henze – perhaps for a lifetime achievement award.(I was always quite unfashionable - years back - in preferring Henze’s dramatic sweep to Boulez’s and Stockhausen’s “over-all” abstract painterly compositional style.)

This last weekend, I thought of Henze’s “L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe” – along with Birtwistle’s “Minotaur” -- as the great operas of the last decade. (I do not know “Phaedra” or “The Last Supper,” except through their librettos.)

I would be thrilled to wake up on January 1, 2010 to read that Peter Gelb had decided to stage Henze’s “L'Upupa” at the great Metropolitan Opera; that David Gockley had chosen to stage Birtwistle’s “Gawain” or “Minotaur” at the great San Francisco Opera; and that Placido Domingo had chosen to stage an opera by
John Adams (The Flowering Tree?) at the soon to be once again great
Opera Society of Washington/Washington Opera/ Washington National Opera.


Posted by: snaketime1 | December 23, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

PS. Of course, Placido Domingo's Opera Society of Washington is also free to try to rebuild trust by staging Kaija Saariaho "l'amour de loin" -- along with "The Flowering Tree." Her work is a third great opera of the past decade.

Posted by: snaketime1 | December 23, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Since composers whose main medium is choral were mentioned, I would add Pawel Lukaszevski and Morten Lauridsen.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 23, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company