The Best of 2019 so far

Emily Pogorelc with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Michael Christie, dir.

Emily Pogorelc with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Michael Christie, dir.

As events featuring vocalists are focused mainly at Ravinia Festival and Grant Park Music Festival for the next few months, I thought it would be nice to look back at some of my favorite performances of the first six months of 2019. The list is I keep on my disappointing iPhone 6 is already long and some performances that made me take note will surely have to be culled from the year-end “Best of” mega-post on Vocal Arts Chicago. For space, I am regrettably leaving off Sarah Gartshore’s luscious Galatea with Handel Week Festival, Dominic Armstrong’s superior contribution to the Curtis on Tour Dame Myra Hess Concert, Joélle Harvey and Allen Perriello’s CAIC Winter Lieder Lounge, the Iestyn Davies concert of Bach with Haymarket Opera Orchestra, and Lyric Unlimited’s thoughtful and comprehensive presentation of An American Dream. What follows is a brief catalog of the performances that left an indelible impression, and which hopefully signal more great performances to come.

The Renée Fleming 25th Anniversary Concert

The Renée Fleming 25th Anniversary Concert

The Pros

Ryan Opera Center alum Emily Birsan took a big step in her career substituting for Albina Shagimuratova, who suffered laryngitis during Lyric Opera’s run of La Traviata in February. Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Carl Orff’s The Clever One with Emily Birsan in the lead predated the Vocal Arts Chicago blog, though it surely would have made the short list for best performance of 2014. Birsan did not disappoint as the Verdi’s consumptive heroine. Her interactions with the chorus brought the party scenes to life, and her delicate singing in the final act shrank the 3,500+ seat Ardis Krainik Theatre to a tragic, intimate bedroom.

Brenda Rae did not come to play as Ginerva in Lyric’s production of Ariodante in March. The type of singing Rae offered is exactly the type of singing I want to hear, especially in Handel. Rae plays with color, vibrato, dynamics — it is a true bel canto technique. Who knows if we will get her back at Lyric or another big venue in town? I would really love to hear her in some of her signature roles like Konstanze, Cleopatra, or Zerbinetta. You know, the easy stuff.

Sondra Radvanovsky was one of the six marquee singers, including Ms. Fleming herself, at the Renée Fleming 25th Anniversary Concert. With her two selections, “Vissi d’arte” and “Ain’t it a pretty night?,” she won the night. As someone who regularly attends vocal competitions and college recitals, if I have heard the Susannah aria once, I’ve heard it a thousand times, but never with as much power coupled with beauty as Radvanovsky mustered that night in March. Carlisle Floyd’s orchestration of the aria’s climactic phrases are overwhelming, on the verge of being impossible to sing over. I have finally experienced the full dramatic potential of his score.

Janai Brugger returned to her alma mater with Martin Katz to give a recital presented by Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago in partnership with DePaul University School of Music. Their generous program of 22 predominantly 20th century songs was sung beautifully throughout. Highlights included time-stopping floated tones in Poulenc’s Fleurs, a fearless rendition of Hoiby’s transparent and exposed setting of The Lamb, and a sultry Summertime performed as an encore with her husband, Javier Orman, on the violin.

CSO’s concert performances of Aida conducted by Riccardo Muti put a punctuation mark on the end of the ‘18/19 season at Symphony Center. Those in attendance will never forget the name Anita Rachvelishvili (if they can just figure out how to pronounce it!). Hearing the Georgian mezzo plainly over the chorus, tutti strings, augmented brass, and five other soloists in the Triumphal Scene was a primal sensation. Rachvelishvili also stood out as one of the only people on stage acting her role. Every utterance demanded the audience’s attention. Even the baritone playing Amonasro, Kiril Manolov, seemed to be in disbelief at what he was hearing, his mouth agape as Rachvelishvili ran away with the performance in the Act IV judgement scene.

Madeline Slettedahl and Eric Ferring

Madeline Slettedahl and Eric Ferring

The Next Generation

Soprano Emily Pogorelc was featured on a program of French chamber music with the fledgling Chamber Music at Bethany series in January. Her high calibre collaborators were none other than Eight Blackbird’s Nick Photinos, cello, and CM@B’s co-founders Tim Munro, flute, and Yasuko Oura, piano. Truly hearing Pogorelc during her first season in the Ryan Opera Center for the first time in such an intimate venue, I wasn’t sure if her level of artistry was being elevated by her estimable colleagues, or if she already was that good. Duetting with Tim Munro on the flashy extended cadenza flourishes of Rameau’s Rossignol amoureux and Delibes’s Le rossignol, Pogorelc’s instrument seemed to grow more penetrating as it ascended into the upper extension, while never losing beauty of tone; and the coloratura was both legato and precisely articulated, with phrase lengths that made me sympathetically gasp for air. Pogorelc proved that she could bring the same level to a bigger venue: the Civic Orchestra season finale with ROC, in which she stepped in for Kayleigh Decker for the quintet from Barber of Seville before commanding the stage for the Lesson Scene and aria-cabaletta from the second act of Daughter of the Regiment. Pogorelc is demonstrating mastery of her instrument and maturity in her stagecraft that belie her youth. I am eager to see how Lyric will find a way to feature her in coming seasons.

Second-year ensemble member baritone Christopher Kenney also had a show-stopping moment at the Civic/ROC concert singing Largo al factotum. He offered just the right amount of vocal goods and style to balance a hyper-charismatic, cocky performance of the most famous baritone aria of them all.

Ann Toomey was in a league of her own at April’s Rising Stars concert. Having gotten a big break filling in for Danielle de Niese as Musetta in January, Toomey displayed a confidence using every corner of the stage and finding both extremes of volume in a lesser-known selection from Massenet’s Herodiade, “Je souffre!…Charme des jours passés.” The soprano, who has shown she can sing anything from Whitney Houston to Violetta in her various assignments with ROC, completed her third and final year in the ensemble. Tenor Josh Lovell also completed his final season with the ensemble, after just two years. His dazzling performance of the aria-cabaletta “Ah, dov'è il cimento?” from Rossini’s Semiramide at Rising Stars was a just a taste of the tenor’s bright future as a bel canto specialist.

Another first-year ensemble member is having a great year. Tenor Eric Ferring followed an impressive debut as Lucranio in Ariodante (an uncharacteristically plum assignment for ROC) with an equally impressive recital with pianist Madeline Slettedahl for the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert series in March. Selections by Schumann and Fauré upheld the standard of taste for art song, but two of Liszt’s settings of Victor Hugo brought out the flamboyant nature of both musicians — Slettedahl illustrating the creation of the world in “Enfant, si j’étais roi” and Ferring’s heart-on-sleeve ardor in “Oh! quand je dors.”

In June, Sebastian Armendariz, a former Sarasota Opera apprentice artist and a current fellow at Chautauqua Institute, gave a recital with pianist Lisa Zilberman at St. Chrysostom’s Church, where many of the city’s best singers spend their Sundays. The program of Neapolitan songs, tenor standards in Spanish, and showpiece arias “Magische Töne” and “M’appari tutt’amor” would have made any tenor nervous. In dedicating the recital to his late grandmother, Armendariz disarmed the audience and dared to plumb the emotional depths of each song, while maintaining the technique to reach the highest notes reachable by the tenor voice. If he already has this skill so early in his career, he is an artist to watch.

Mary Lutz Govertsen photo by Michael E. Rothman courtesy of Transgressive Theatre-Opera.

Mary Lutz Govertsen photo by Michael E. Rothman courtesy of Transgressive Theatre-Opera.

The Hometown Heroes

Soprano Mary Lutz Govertsen made a meal out of her entrance aria in Transgressive Theatre-Opera’s spartan Le Comte Ory in February. This type of High Bel Canto fare is not what we expect to hear on the storefront opera scene — few are up to the challenge of Rossini’s increasingly difficult late-career vocal spectacles. Govertsen’s performance of “En proie à la tristesse” was both fearless and funny, justifying the company’s production of the opera with such scant resources.

It is my understanding that Chicago Opera Theater actively solicited people of color to build the all-male chorus for their April production of Moby-Dick. This was a brilliant idea and I hope that arts administrators and artistic leaders of other organizations took note of how wonderful they sounded and how amazing they looked on stage. Many things about this show were impressive, none more so than seeing an accurately proportional representation of the deep bench of Chicago’s musicians who are available for work.

The chorus of Music of the Baroque rose to the challenge of Nicholas Kraemer’s breakneck tempi in Dixit Dominus in May. MOB performs at A=440, which made Handel’s most difficult choral writing even more treacherous for the sopranos and tenors. It was a very exciting performance and a welcome reminder that the organization was originally founded as a choir.

Just under the wire for this midyear recap, the Grant Park Chorus — probably the best collection of singing musicians in Chicago — triumphed over the figurative and literal storms of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. This is an impossible score and no one without the adequate technique should attempt it. Verdi’s Aida, of which many of GPMF’s singers were also a part, probably felt like a balm for the voice in comparison.

Third Coast Baroque

Third Coast Baroque

The Stylists

Third Coast Baroque moved one giant step closer to claiming the title of Chicago’s premier Baroque ensemble with their presentation of Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno in April. Artistic Director Rubén Dubrovsky elicited the best playing I have ever heard from the accomplished cellist Anna Steinhoff, as well as from the small band of violinists and oboes in one of Handel’s youthful scores rife with flashy licks in every part. Reinforced by such magnificent playing, soprano Nathalie Colas as Belleza excelled in the tender/fragile affect —particularly with the aria “Ricco pino, nel cammino” in which Beauty weeps at her own image in the Mirror of Truth; and mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker as Pleasure had the mic-drop moment of the evening with her furious coloratura aria “Come nembo che fugge col vento.” Sometimes rage is the best.

Anna VanDeKerchove announced her arrival as a must-hire concert soloist with a stunning performance of the Domine Deus, Agnus Dei movement in Vivaldi’s Gloria with Bella Voce in May. The tone was as rich as molten dark chocolate. Her poise on stage showed no sign of nerves in the tightrope traversal through the lower passaggio, again with another beautifully phrased performance by cellist Anna Steinhoff.

The season finale for Fourth Coast Ensemble was a swan-song for founding member, tenor Zachary Vanderburg, who will be replaced by tenor Ace Gangoso (go Filipinos!). For an ensemble which specializes in vocal chamber music, it has always been a surprise that four singers with such unique timbres would want to focus on repertoire that requires so much blend. The blend between soprano Sarah van der Ploeg and mezzo-soprano Bridget Skaggs has reached the bliss point and was never more sublime than in Delibes’s Les Trois Oiseaux as part of the “What a Zoo!” program in June at the trés-chic Performance Penthouse at Logan Center for the Arts.

Mark Tomasino

Mark Tomasino

Something New

The handsome and highly-skilled lads of Constellation Men’s Ensemble can be forgiven for being too white because they are otherwise succeeding at fulfilling their mission with enviable professionalism. Their programming is innovative, their marketing materials are sleek, their brand is well-defined, and their front-of-house services and venue selection are on point. Other organizations could learn from their model. Their third annual NOVA program curated by Derek Boemler and conducted by Christopher Windle at Guarneri Hall featured just the right mix: palatable challenges for the audience, out-right head-scratchers (which I’m sure furthers the cause of all-male a cappella in some way my small brain doesn’t understand), and crowd-pleasers like Stephen Deeter’s extended-technique-but-in-a-fun-way “Head Noise” and Eric Malmquist’s sunny “Famidoté,” both of which were receiving their world premiere.

Chicago Opera Theater captured my imagination for a week in February with the concert presentation of The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing followed by the full production of The Scarlet Ibis. These two performances introduced me to so many new singers: the wiry Jonathan Michie as Alan Turing with a powerful high baritone and passionate acting to match; Elise Quagliata as Turing’s fiancée and confidante Joan Clarke, of whose formidable mezzo-soprano I am embarrassed to have not already been aware; and countertenor Jordan Rutter as Doodle in The Scarlet Ibis — it’s hard to imagine anyone else in such an enigmatic, fragile, and magical part. Tenor Jonas Hacker, who was unforgettable in last season’s Fellow Travelers for Lyric Unlimited, broke my heart again as Turing’s doomed lover Christopher Morcom. Annie Rosen, who is the type of artist that inspires people like me to create a blog, wrung every tear out of the audience’s eyes as Brother in The Scarlet Ibis. Quinn Middleman, who has gradually increased her profile around Chicago singing with Haymarket Opera, Third Coast Baroque, and Chicago Fringe Opera, gave the breakout performance in The Scarlet Ibis. I had no idea she was capable of the noises she made as Mother, giving birth to Doodle. Harrowing stuff.

April gave birth to the Calyx Ensemble whose debut project was none other than that tiny piece, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It takes many musicians to put that together, and I highly doubt anyone was paid, so the Herculean effort must be acknowledged. If Calyx continues, anything else they want to produce should feel like a piece of cake.

Even in a restricted space, Chicago Fringe Opera made the case for Christopher Cerrone’s All Wounds Bleed. Casting for the mythical chamber opera could hardly be improved utilizing storefront regulars Jonathan Zeng as a poetically handsome Narcissus; the scorned Hera played by Claire DiVizio, who first impressed Chicago audiences as Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe for the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company; and Leigh Folta making a strong impression as the delicate nymph Echo in her first principal role with CFO.

On May 31, soprano Ariana Strahl, baritone Michael Kelly, and pianist Kathleen Kelly presented A NewMusicShelf Art Song Showcase — equal parts recital and marketing for the NewMusicShelf’s anthologies of 21st century art song. Chia-Yu Hsu’s setting of Whispers of Heavenly Death (Walt Whtman) gave Strahl an opportunity to show off her flawless legato, jaw-dropping breath control, and searing tones above the staff. Another Whitman setting, Among the Multitude by Craig Urquhart, near the end of a long evening (20 songs, no intermission!), found Michael Kelly at his most elegant and emotionally open. Kelley is an intense performer who crafts each song with many details. Every time he performs, one knows that not a single phrasing has been left to chance.

Wicker Park Choral Singers’ founder Mark Tomasino led his final performance as Artistic Director in June at the Wicker Park farmer’s market. Because I am a fan of this organization, I promised to share the press release about their incoming director A.J. Keller. Tomasino leaves his chorus in a healthy state. Their program in the park with a mix of choral standards, repertoire that acknowledged an ethnically diverse audience, and works by living composers (including some who sing in the ensemble) was an ideal summation of WPCS’s artistic mission. The finale was Dale Trumbore’s Returning for SATB Chorus and Audience. The image above is of Tomasino during Returning, conducting his accomplished ensemble and an audience of friends and strangers in a public space. Tomasino served his adopted city well and Vocal Arts Chicago hopes his example will continue to inspire people to form communities around song.