A banner year for oratorio and other sacred works produced by the city’s best, in 2017 it was possible to hear Bach’s St. John Passion (Bach Cantata Vespers with Chicago Choral Artists), Brahms’s Requiem in the English translation with piano, four hands (Bella Voce), Scarlatti’s Exile of Hagar and Ishmael (Haymarket Opera Company), Telemann’s Day of Judgement (Music of the Baroque), Haydn’s Creation (CSO at Ravinia), and the Poulenc Gloria (CSO) to name a few. Grant Park Music Festival carried the banner for modern works for orchestra, chorus, and soli, giving its free audiences the Missa Latina of Roberto Sierra, In terra pax by Frank Martin, A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams, and a blockbuster Beethoven Nine. Music of the Baroque was the place for baroque and classical era gems and stretched their reach to include a starry-cast Elijah.
Chicago’s early music field pioneered by the Newberry Consort is now joined by stylish ensembles Third Coast Baroque (with the charismatic leadership of Rubén Dubrovsky) and the Bach + Beethoven Experience. In their second season, CHAI Collaborative Ensemble pioneered its own field as the only organization regularly presenting instrumental chamber music featuring singers.
UChicago Presents maintained primacy in bringing world-class artists to the city like the ensembles Stile Antico and Roomful of Teeth, and soprano Sandrine Piau and pianist Susan Manoff in recital. Organizations like Liederstube, Fourth Coast Ensemble, Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago (CAIC), and the Ravinia Steans Music Institute enriched the city’s offerings with opportunities to experience art song in ideal settings.
Here are the Editor’s favorite performances in song and concert from 2017 with regrets that strictly choral and events VAC missed are not included.
The Oratorio Soloists
In early April, Chicago’s Hardest Working Bass-Baritone turned in another commanding performance as the soloist for Bella Voce’s Brahms Requiem in the English translation with piano, four hands. The concerts illuminated Brahms’ counterpoint and harmonies as teased out by the elite chamber choir under Andrew Lewis. Govertsen’s virile tone stood out in stark relief to the purity of Bella Voce’s sound, while his masterful breath control made Brahms’ punishingly long phrases sound effortless.
Later in April, Bach Cantata Vespers in River Forest offered a world class Evangelist for the St. John Passion in Hoss Brock. Neither the notoriously high tessitura nor the lengthy stretches of text hindered the Brock’s gorgeous tenor. The full spectrum of colors – including melting floated high notes and fierce declamation – remained at his access until the last page of the score.
The inimitable French diva Sandrine Piau returned to Chicago for CSO’s Sacred Masterworks by Poulenc & Gounod with maestro Alain Altinoglu in early October. Piau’s elegance, intensity, and perfectly crafted tone in the most exposed phrases of the Poulenc Gloria made it feel that, as one colleague put it, “she brought the cathedral with her.”
In November, Josefien Stoppelenburg, Chicago’s Reigning Queen of Coloratura was an eleventh hour replacement as ensemble/soloist for Bella Voce’s annual period-instrument Messiah with the Callipygian Players. The Editor has attended and performed in the proportionate number of Messiahs for a singer his age and can honestly say that he has never heard the oratorio’s final aria “If God be for us” sung with such drama, with such understanding of Handel’s rhetoric, and with such gleaming tone (after a full evening of also singing the choruses).
Arias in Concert
In February, Chicago audiences had a chance to hear one of opera’s most exciting artists in the repertoire in which she has few peers. Vivica Genaux was simply astounding in the concert of Italian baroque showpiece arias which she performed with the CSO, led by violinist Fabio Biondi. For those who missed it, or for those who can’t get enough of her lightning speed coloratura, Third Coast Baroque welcomes Genaux for their April program Vivica & Vivaldi.
Evening or afternoon-length recitals by a single singer/pianist combination were the domains of Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago and Ravinia Festival, though UChicago Presents offered the one the Editor most regrets having missed (Piau/Manoff).
On July 3rd, Ravinia gave us the recital debut of African-American bass-bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green with pianist Adam Nielsen. Loathe to mention race here, Green’s is noteworthy because of the very personal stories told in his recently published biography. (More diversity points for Ravinia: In an unusual coincidence, bass Morris Robinson also gave a Ravinia Festival recital with Kevin Murphy and the thrilling Trinidad-born soprano, Jeanine de Bique, performs with an unnamed pianist in the festival’s off-season BGH Classics Series on March 24, 2018) Ryan Speedo Green and Adam Nielsen performed selections one would expect from a low male voice (Schubert Schwanengesang, Wolf Michelangelo-lieder), but Green distinguished himself in the high-lying, operatic Liszt song Die Vätergruft and in introducing the audience to an underperformed sub genre of American art song by black composers and poets. After the performance, Green’s biographer joined the stage for an interview and talk-back ¬– the first in the Editor’s experience at a classical vocal recital. If a bass-baritone can ever become a household name, Ryan Speedo Green is lucky to have such a memorable name to match his estimable talents.
CAIC’s Collaborative Works Festival in September presented a feast of world-class artists dedicated to the art of song. The Festival Solo Recital was given by a very pregnant Susanna Phillips with pianist Myra Huang. Their program on paper read like An-American-Soprano’s-Standard-Recital with chestnuts of the repertoire (Frauenliebe und –leben, Hermit Songs, Wolf Mignon Lieder, and Libby Larsen’s modern classic Try Me, Good King). Phillips and Huang reminded the audience why these sets are favorites for both the musicians and listener alike. Their performance was a masterclass in word-painting with slavish attention to the score’s instruction coupled with risk-taking phrasing. It was like hearing these works for the first time, and even more rewarding for listeners familiar with the challenges contained in the score. As an encore, Phillips and Huang generously performed the entirety of Do you sing, Mr Twain? by Gordon Myers – a calling card work of Phillips, showcasing her humor and giving a parting bonbon to any audience member who might have been waiting for an aria to conclude the amazing evening of song.
Soprano Bahareh Poureslami and pianist Karina Kontorovitch’s afternoon recital for the Musicians Club of Women at the Chicago Cultural Center on March 27 was one of the standout free public performances. Poureslami communicates a love for singing and a mature understading of style for her young age. Like the text from one of her selections, “Unbewegte, laue Luft” by Brahms, she presents as a “calm, sultry” artist with musicality “surging through every vein.”
The most original recital was given by a countertenor Carl Alexander at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music. Entitled Shelter: A Glance into Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Alexander‘s multimedia event showcased an irrepressible and almost savage artistry that encompassed film making, graphic art, spoken word, and movement. Particularly effective were Alexander’s short films projected during the Montsalvatge Cinco Canciones Negras – a catalogue of highly specific beauty with longing glances on the various subject’s features that may have been declarations of love to people (of color) in the audience. Not everything worked, and much of it was extremely personal, but it was a courageous and inventive performance that put this young artist on the watchlist for future greatness.
The Most Original Programs
Just a few weeks before winning the Met National Council Audition finals in March (and leaving the NY Times’ Zachary Woolfe swooning), countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen appeared as a guest artist in the Newberry Consort’s program Queen Christina: the Girl King. The Consort has developed a successful formula for presenting rare repertoire in a combination of lecture, visual art, and performance. The story of Queen Christina would have been fascinating at any rate, but amounted to Newberry’s most engaging and musically satisfying program in years, strengthened by Cohen’s incredible voice and charisma.
In April, Paris-based medieval ensemble Sequentia presented Monks Singing Pagans – Medieval songs of heroes, gods, and strong women at University of Chicago’s Logan Center. Led by Evanston native Benjamin Bagby, the small but powerful Sequentia makes the musicians in the audience feel as if they are woefully underachieving in their own careers. With three performers singing while playing bone flutes and harps, Sequentia transported the audience to a time of story-telling in song without technology or artifice, and it was spell-binding.
Artemisia’s program Women Who Rule in May explored “the power of the female voice to explore complex social issues through vocal traditions of the world.” The Editor borrows the ensemble’s own copy to describe a highly original program that ranged from Hildegard of Bingen to new works by the trio’s singer-composer-arrangers. Artemisia is simply phenomenal in everything that they do, but deserves extra praise for their traditional Georgian folksinging – a marvel to behold, and incredible to hear.
Best Performance (Large Venue)
In 2017, Music of the Baroque presented the second half of one of its best seasons, the final one for Executive Director Karen Fishman. The January performances of the Mozart Mass in C minor paired with Exsultate, jubilate played to capacity audiences. Kathryn Lewek stopped time with her "Et incarnatus est." It was Mozartian singing of the highest level, and as with her Queen of the Night that same month, was simply the best VAC has ever heard that impossible aria performed live.
Best Performance (Intimate Venue)
The most profound and moving musical experiences can happen in any venue, when you may least expect it. The Editor, at this point, must cease to explicitly recommend Liederstube which on any given occurrence offers a singer’s best interpretation of a song, a song that he or she never planned on singing, or one he or she felt compelled to sight read with Eugenia Cheng at the piano and the tipsy audience a mere five feet away. Instead, the honor of Best Performance goes to third-year Ryan Opera Center soprano Diana Newman with pianist Craig Terry, who, on April 26, led the audience on the stage of the Pritzker Pavilion in a sing-along of the traditional Scottish song "The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomand." The occasion was the season finale of the Harris Theater and Lyric Unlimited’s Beyond the Aria series featuring Stephanie Blythe, Bradley Smoak, Ms. Newman, and Artistic Director Craig Terry. The second half of this “unscripted” concert followed the format of Blythe’s Sing, America! performances in which the audience is given sheet music and lyrics for folk/traditional/parlor songs in English so that YOU TOO CAN SING ALONG WITH STEPHANIE BLYTHE! By all accounts, Blythe sang everyone off the stage, and even some who weren’t on the stage. Her voice erases all other voices in your mind as you are awash in its power. Nevertheless, when it was Newman’s turn to lead, she took the path that distinguished her as an artist of supreme musicality. A poignant melody sung with simplicity and barely constrained tears. Legato phrases so delicate, but still so intense, you could not help but feel blessed to hear them. When she finished, when we finished singing along, the audience was noticeably moved. The 250 of us felt like a chorus. We felt like a family. This was the power of music that we must strive to preserve and share.