2016 The Best in Concert and Song

Organizations like Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago and Liederstube are offering the city more opportunities for art song to be heard outside of the compulsory vocal performance degree recital. One no longer has to wait until August and drive to Highland Park to hear a marquee singer in a solo recital, though Ravinia Festival remains a champion of the form, especially with its unparalled young artist program dedicated to song ­– the Steans Music Institute.  There could easily have been a top twenty list of individual performances heard at Liederstube, the various CAIC Lieder Lounges and Festival, Harris Theater’s Beyond the Aria series, and Pianoforte Foundation’s annual Schubertiade in addition to the offerings at Ravinia.  This Best of 2016 list is conflated with non-operatic performances in concert.  If judging only by this list, it is clear that The Editor of Vocal Arts Chicago favors vocalists in 17th and 18th century repertoire – and has no shame about it.

10. Henriet Fourie Thompson with Bella Voce, November 19, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Evanston. After two hours of the highly demanding, gestural, and articulated choral singing conductor Andrew Lewis expects from the members of Bella Voce, Thompson stepped forth from the chamber choir to open the third part of their annual complete Messiah concerts with Callipygian Players.  She sang an exquisitely controlled “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” sounding as if she had just finished her vocal warm-up and had a steam bath.  Disclaimer: The Editor was participating in this performance and had the best vantage point. He also could not phonate the opening lines of “Since By Man Came Death” due to the colossal lump in his throat formed during the previous aria.

9. Mary Lutz Govertsen with pianist Saori Chiba and VOX 3 Collective, April 24, Skokie Publlic LibraryFairytales & Folklore was an inventive program in which the calibre of singing was generally high until soprano Mary Lutz Govertsen delivered something truly memorable. The song cycle Penelope published in 2000 by John Musto is a 25 minute tour de force - tuneful, edgy, operatic, and sometimes hilarious, but just funny enough to shake up your emotions and make them vulnerable to the ensuing heartbreak. Ms. Govertsen and pianist Saori Chiba took the audience on an adventure and left us wanting more. Govertsen is a formidable soprano that seems to defy categorization. The voice is bright and has a laser-focused sense of pitch. It has the possibility of an earthy timbre which she is able to mix in at all parts of the scale, even in a range where most high sopranos voices have no thrust. Mary made each song unique and offered so many colors and volumes that one wondered what else was still in the arsenal. Govertsen will be prominently featured in VOX’s upcoming French baroque semi-opera Les Arts Florissants this February.

8.  Emily D’Angelo with pianist Brent Funderburk, July 31, Bennett-Gordon Hall, Highland Park. The Steans Institute Program for Singers (RSMI) can boast of its alumni of the art-song-dedicated program such as Isabel Bayrakdarian, Amanda Forsythe, Lawrence Zazzo, Nadine Sierra, and Janai Brugger. Sure to join that illustrious list of artists is Canadian-Italian mezzo-soprano Emily D'Angelo who was a second year fellow this summer. Her Berg Seven Early Songs and Chanson perpétuelle” with the dashing Brent Funderburk displayed technical mastery in service of dramatic commitment. The voice was simply beautiful and surprised with its flexibility and range, especially coming from such a young singer. She had the stage presence to succeed in a song as lengthy as the perpetual song by Chausson. In a major technical feat, the Steans concerts and masterclasses have been made available for streaming. You can see the July 31st program as well as more from this summer including masterclasses with Danielle DeNiese and Matthew Polenzani HERE.

7. Sarah Gartshore with Haymarket Opera Company, March 4, Chicago Temple.  Haymarket Opera Company introduced a new series this spring as they transitioned away from the Roger’s Park Mayne Stage to the Athenaeum in the summer. The first Lenten Oratorio offering was Alessandro Stradella’s San Giovanni Battista – a dramatically intense and compact 80 minute score. Local favorite soprano Sarah Gartshore gave her most expansive performance to date as Herodiade. The role of Herodiade required the full range of skills foreshadowing great prima donna parts like Handel's Alcina or even Bellini's Norma. Gartshore sang with the command known in the Early Music world as sprezzatura, allowing herself to fall so deeply into the role that the audience almost bristled at her disdain if not for being so excited by the vocal fireworks. HOC's next oratorio is Scarlatti’s The Exile of Hagar and Ishmael in March.

6. Nathalie Colas with pianist Eugenia Cheng, March 8, Aliiance Française de Chicago. In their Soirée Suisse, a Swiss-themed recital showcasing the four official languages of Switzerland, Colas and Cheng introduced the audience to the Alpine folk-inspired lieder Uras op.3 of Gion Antoni Derungs performed in Romansh. The editor can say with certainty that the this was new music for the entire audience and that we were charmed by Derungs’ melodies supported by truly delightful piano accompaniment.  Colas was in ravishing form that evening  and had us in the palm of her hands. In that moment we would have entrusted her to introduce us to any composer of her choosing. No one wanted the program to end.

5. Javier Camarena and pianist Ángel Rodriguez, March 30, Harris Theater. Both the opera community and the Mexican community showed up to hear tenor Javier Camarena in recital.  Camarena was already having a great spring with a much-lauded performance in the Met’s Don Pasquale. The main floor of Harris was at about 75% capacity - which is A LOT for a recital, more than has been seen at Ravinia Festival and other venues that present this type of event. Three Beethoven songs  opened the program – an oddly traditional choice for someone who is ostensibly a Bel Canto opera superstar.  Camarena demonstrated his clean Mozartian technique and a slightly grainy timbre with no hard edges and great control at soft volumes. Liszt's three Petrarch sonnets followed the Beethoven, a most operatic set of songs, delicious for the pianist, and a great way for Camarena to warm up his high notes which he deployed delicately and with precision. After the intermission, the official program concluded with eight (!) Tosti songs including the tenor standards "L'alba spear dalla luce l'ombra" and "Ideale." While Camarena and Rodriguez gave excellent and detailed interpretations of these songs, their middle-ranginess for the tenor and relative easiness for Rodriguez felt earnest and anti-climactic. The four encores that followed gratified any part of the ear left unpleased. First, "Ah, mes amis" with its nine high C's created a roar in the hall. After this, the recital took a turn towards songs in Spanish which began to make the hall feel boisterous. "So, you like high notes?" Javier joked with the audience. The second encore, María Grever's "Jurame" ended with a shocking and penetrating high Eb above high C. Next, Angel Rodriguez played a virtuoso arrangement of Lara's "Granada" which caused the audience to re-errupt into applause after its introduction. It seemed that Camarena and Rodriguez had transposed this crowd-pleasing tune up a major third, making all of the song's high-lying phrases reach high C or above. Coupled with Angel's aggressive and spot-on prestidigitation, this was easily the evening's most exciting selection. The last encore, introduced in Spanish and dedicated to the people of Mexico, "Cancion Mixteca" signaled the concert's true closing, an appropriate and tender song after the zenith they reached with “Granada.” It is was apparent that Mr. Camarena now has an audience in Chicago ­– new fans of his, and maybe even new fans of the classical vocal arts.

4. Amanda Forsythe with Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, December 3, Symphony Center.  Amanda Forsythe made her CSO debut in an all-Handel program conducted by Nicholas Kraemer singing two selections – the quasi-cantata/vocal concerto Laudate pueri Dominum, and the solo motet Silete Venti. Forsythe’s coloratura passagework was intoxicating, her breath control amazing, her mastery of pitch stunning, and her phrasing was full of sass. Throughout, her tone was feminine, bright, and youthful. The CSO Chorus was her equal and handsome partner in the crisply-articulated melismatic passages of the Laudate pueri. This was Handel-singing of the highest calibre and as evidence, the Editor entreats you to seek her recording The Power of Love with Apollo’s Fire

3. Nolan Carter and pianist Eugenia Cheng, January 24, Liederstube.  2016 was a breakout year for Eugenia Cheng’s Liederstube now in its 3rd season.  After partnering with seven local beloved artists (including one baritone-composer) for its inaugural recital series, Liederstube had its largest event when it was presented by the National Association of Teachers of Singing annual conference with over a hundred singer-teachers in attendance, many of whom were queued up to sing lieder with Cheng.  Liederstube also added two new locations – Pilsen and Amserdam, a total of four cities including New York and London.  One can regularly hear breath-taking performances of art song at Liederstube’s monthly events in the Fine Arts Building.  It is the only place so far where one can regularly be astounded by the only known tenprano (countertenor-soprano & tenor) Gregory Peebles, who with Cheng, has deepened their interpretation of Strauss’ “Befreit.”  Barihunk Corey Crider also made a memorable return to the ‘stube this year offering a swaggering Songs of Travel.  For the Editor, a singular performance which still rings in the mind and heart was tenor Nolan Carter in Ivor Gurney’s “Sleep.”  This was performed late on the 24th, after the “open-studios” general audience stopped passing by and only the "die-hards" remained.  Carter has one of those tone-qualities that is at first startling for its beauty coming from such a compact and handsome frame.  His musicality is on par with seasoned musicians twice his age.  The impromptu performance of “Sleep” with Cheng was detailed in the way that makes one believe in the power of music and feel grateful for the oasis provided by Liederstube.  Look for a fragment of "Sleep" on the Vocal Arts Chicago Facebook page and LIKE us while you are there.

2. Kaitlin Foley at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on March 20th. Sometimes the stars are in perfect alignment and a performance comes together – the space is perfectly lit, the singer is in top form, the collaborators and conductor are in lock step, the audience understands the specialness of the moment and doesn't dare make a noise- so that you feel like you are hearing a familiar piece for the first time. And when that piece is "Zerfliesse, mein Herze" your faith in humanity is renewed. Soprano Kaitlin Foley’s performance of this aria was all the more amazing considering that she and her colleagues were presenting Bach’s St. John Passion with one singer per part.  Foley has emerged as one of the truly great musicians of this city.

1.  Paul Appleby with pianist Ken Noda, March 20th, Logan Center for the Arts. In their Winter Lieder Lounge, Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago produced the type of recital that could galvanize audiences who love both opera and art song. Appleby’s program was deliberate in its theme and was, for the Editor, the exact proportion of the familiar and unfamiliar. Throughout, Mr. Appleby made dramatic commitments to the text – at once tender, then suddenly passionate, always taking risks showing vulnerability while still feeling spontaneous. Ken Noda responded and urged with grace and power. He was the ideal partner making light work out of the more difficult passages of Schumann's Op.24 and Berlioz’s Les nuits d’éte. Hearing Les nuits sung by a tenor was a revelation. And for one of the encores, he gave us Lalo's "Vainement" from La Roi d'Ys. This was easily the most joyful concert the Editor experienced this year – a stellar performance by an artist at his peak in a stunning venue. 

Honorable Mention: Matthew Gemmill with mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor, September 7, The Poetry Foundation. To close the opening salon concert of the CAIC Verlaine et Debussy Festival mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor performed the gut-wrenching “Colloque sentimental” with pianist Matthew Gemmill, who then launched into the instrumental “Claire de lune” from Suite Bergamasque. The one-two punch of this song of regret and indifference and the contemplative “Claire de lune” left the Editor emotionally wrecked. There are few songs more emotionally explicit than Colloque ­– it's almost shocking that it is in the French canon of mélodie. No song can follow it on a recital, so it was a stroke of genius to program the “Clair de lune,” in this case played as purely as a Mozart sonata, but quietly passionate like a Schumann lied.

Paul Appleby/Ken Noda photo credit: Elliot Mandel Photography