Middle-aged standard-bearers

For what seems like forever, the classical music world has obsessed on the very young and the very old.

Concert stages and recording studios are packed with hot young instrumentalists, singers and conductors; 20-somethings are leading major orchestras and performing pieces that 40-somethings used to approach with caution.

Meanwhile, we’re witnessing the fast fadeout of a generation of artists who have been the class acts of classical music since the 1970s. Age and illness have led conductors Michael Tilson Thomas and Daniel Barenboim to give up podiums, and pianists Maurizio Pollini and Martha Argerich to withdraw from engagements. Riccardo Muti is in his last season as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Neeme Järvi rarely conducts outside his homeland, Estonia. Pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy has retired. Itzhak Perlman, the most stellar violinist of the past 50 years, is performing far less frequently. We don’t hear much anymore from pianist Murray Perahia. Veteran string quartets, most recently the Emerson and Orion, are disbanding. I could go on . . .

Amid this shuffle of arrivals and departures, who are today’s adults on the stage – mature, active exemplars of classical performance, artists who can be relied upon to do justice to the masterpieces, and, ideally, connect with living composers and make persuasive cases for new music?

Some esteemed veterans are still at it, notably Herbert Blomstedt, who at 95 continues to conduct major European orchestras in demanding repertory. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is as busy as ever, and is still the most widely recognized classical musician. Ma’s longtime duo partner, pianist Emanuel Ax, maintains a full schedule of solo, concerto and chamber-music dates, as do pianists András Schiff and Yefim Bronfman. Long-leading lights in the historical performance practice field – William Christie, Robert Levin, John Eliot Gardiner, Philippe Herreweghe, Jordi Savall – remain active and influential.

None of these artists (not even Blomstedt) is immortal, however, and sooner rather than later, younger performers will be the most prominent and valued figures in classical music, if not stars à la Perlman, Ma or Argerich.

Thinking back on performances I’ve heard over the past 10 or 15 years (live and recorded), I’ve come up with a list of middle-aged musicians – mid-30s to mid-60s – whom I would rate as present and future classical standard-bearers. Many big names are absent. I haven’t overlooked them; I’ve looked them over, and I find them . . . reliable (usually). I’ve limited my choices to artists who most persuasively and insightfully take me into the music they play.

I thought about listing singers, and soon decided not to. I’m not an operaphile, and there are too many subjective and/or specialized factors, too many cases of good in this/not so good in that, to pick six or eight leaders from a populous and diverse talent pool.

My honor roll:

Conductors: Manfred Honeck, Iván Fischer, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Paavo Järvi, Vasily Petrenko, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Sakari Oramo, Susanna Mälkki, Thomas Wilkins, Jakub Hrůša, Kazuki Yamada, Edward Gardner, François-Xavier Roth, Andrew Manze.

Pianists: Igor Levit, Leif Ove Andsnes, Evgeny Kissin, Stephen Hough, Marc-André Hamelin, Charles Richard-Hamelin (no relation), Shai Wosner, Jeremy Denk, Angela Hewitt, Alessio Bax, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Denis Kozhukhin, Víkingur Ólafsson, Orli Shaham, Stewart Goodyear, Orion Weiss, Sunwook Kim . . . enough, already – this is a golden age of pianists.

Period keyboard players: Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano), Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano), Jean Rondeau (harpsichord), Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord).

Violinists: Gil Shaham, Leonidas Kavakos, Isabelle Faust, Hilary Hahn, Christian Tetzlaff, Nicola Benedetti, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Jennifer Koh, James Ehnes.

Cellists: Pieter Wispelwey, Steven Isserlis, Truls Mørk, Maximilian Hornung, Ralph Kirshbaum, Jean-Guihen Queyras.

Wind soloists: Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Sharon Bezaly (flute), Albrecht Mayer (oboe), Martin Fröst (clarinet), Anthony McGill (clarinet), Radovan Vlatković (French horn), Tine Thing Helseth (trumpet).

String quartets: Danish, Pavel Haas, Jerusalem, Miró, Doric, Belcea, Dover.

Early music: Collegium 1704 (orchestra & chorus), Handel + Haydn Society, Boston (orchestra & chorus), Apollo’s Fire (orchestra & chorus), Rachel Podger (violin), Stile Antico (vocal ensemble), Voces8 (vocal ensemble), Cappella Romana (vocal ensemble).

Not many household names . . . yet.

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