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

2016 Best of Opera in Chicago

Following a national trend, this has been a year in which moving and exciting operatic performances could be found in unlikely places.  Here is the Editor’s top ten list of memorable performances in and around Chicago in 2016.

10.  Whitney Morrison as Donna Anna in The Floating Opera Company’s crematorium Don Giovanni in February.  Though it is not clear what has become of FOC, the fledgling company showed great vision in their casting of Ms. Morrison as the tormented heroine Anna.  She displayed a solid technique in a role that is famous for revealing shortcomings. Here is a singer who cannot help but dominate with her formidable physical presence and creamy tone quality.  Her youthful lirico-spinto is laced with just enough steel to suggest roles like the Trovatore Leonora or Puccini’s Liù, which TEoVAC would line up to hear.

9.  The multi-ethnic cast of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s world premiere of Bel Canto. If you are an opera company trying to build new audiences by representing them on the stage, you could hardly do better than this Jimmy López commission that began the calendar year.  In a huge and generally splendid ensemble cast, the terrorists Carmen and César were the most sympathetic characters and enjoyed the deluxe vocalism of J’nai Bridges and Anthony Roth Costanzo. Watch the PBS broadcast on January 13.

8. Jonathan Beyer in L’Isola DisabitataHaymarket Opera Company is incrementally raising their already high standards for productions of 17th and 18th century operas, and now oratorio.   The Italian oratorio they produced in May ­— St. John the Baptist by Alessandro Stradella is on VAC’s Best in Concert & Song list.  The late 18th century ‘rescue opera’ by Franz Joseph Haydn did not seem to fit the company’s Baroque mission, but it did feature a most handsome and elegant performance by certified Barihunk Jonathan Beyer. In order for these performances to succeed,  highly-stylized gesture and historically-informed stage comportment must be in service to the virtuosic music and lavish set and costume design.  This is very difficult to pull off.  There are a handful of companies devoted to this repertoire, which even at their most flush with resources, are unable to consistently make the artifice feel authentic.  Jonathan Beyer’s Enrico was to the manner born.  His physical lines had the perfect asymmetry, his gait traced beautiful curves onto the stage, his posture was aristocratic without being arrogant, and his singing was so technically masterful that one never was never pulled out of the enjoyment of it to wonder how challenging the notes were on the page.

7.  Jessica Oliver and Julia Hardin in The ConsulMain Street Opera is an earnest company that is hard to track down.  Performed in Bartlett, it should almost have been disqualified from being on Vocal Arts Chicago.  Yet, the comprehensive performance of young dramatic soprano Jessica Oliver in July claims a worthy entry on this list, and makes Main Street Opera a company to seek.  Oliver quite simply sang with all of her guts and achieved some heroic phrases invoking characters like Ariadne, Beethoven’s Leonora, and Norma. Her performance as Magda was at turns courageous, vulnerable, ferocious, feminine, and menacing. Counterpoint to Ms. Oliver was the tidy and engrossingly fussy performance of mezzo-soprano Julia Hardin as the Secretary of the Consulate. It was a pitch-perfect character study,  plastic and controlled in juxtaposition to Oliver’s messy humanity.

6. Laura Wilde at Lyric Opera of Chicago. 2016 marked the last year of soprano Laura Wilde as a Ryan Opera Center “young artist” and her debut as a full-fledged principle at the Lyric.  I remember reaching for my program at the start of the second act of February’s Rosenkavalier to see who was this ravishing singer unintentionally stealing the spotlight in the role of the governess Marianne.  Then just a month later in March, Lyric’s Rising Stars concert confirmed for me that here was a major talent ready for an international career with a tour de force performance of Jenufa’s monologue – a display of intelligence, passion, and strength. The 16-17 season opener Das Rheingold gave Lyric one more chance to show off Wilde’s impressive range of skills, an innocent and youthful Freia who made a crudely constructed giant puppet feel like flesh and blood. She was the highlight of one of the best productions of Lyric has offered this or any year.

5.  Matthew Rose in Der Rosenkavalier.  How do you make one of the most vile and repugnant characters in all of opera lovable?  The British bass making his Lyric Opera debut as Baron Ochs, all tall and awkward, uncomfortable in the Rococo finery he is obliged to don, did so by avoiding caricature.  Singing with a clean and virile tone, Rose made Ochs charismatic and sympathetic, rather than silly.  Sophie could do worse.  The Editor is anxious to hear more of Rose in the Mozart and Britten bass roles, or since 2017 is a Monteverdi anniversary year, as Seneca in the Coronation of Poppea.

4. Melissa Arning in Dark SistersThird Eye Theatre Ensemble had a great year with its comic entry into the Chicago Fringe Festival (the first opera company ever to participate).  Hilliard & Boresi’s Filthy Habit was a showcase for the many talents of baritone Jonathan Wilson and proved that opera buffa is still a viable form in an era when every other new work is a tragedy that has already been made into a movie.  Third Eye backed up the success of Filthy Habit in September with Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters at the Prop Thtr in October.  Set designer Jimmy Jagos took advantage of the challenging, all-brick blackbox creating a claustrophobic space that was both hostile and homey.  Director Rose Freeman was able to elicit six distinct female characters from a rotating cast, each with a deep back story the audience could spend the whole evening learning about. The most tragic of these women had to be Ruth, the “Prophet’s” second wife who falls into madness bereaving her lost son. Mezzo-soprano Melissa Arning’s cropped hair, compared to the prairie-chic braids of her sister wives, visually signaled Ruth’s detachment from reality. Muhly wrote a true lament for Ruth’s last scene, evocative of Berlioz’s Didon or Bellini’s Amina. It was a devastating performance that nonetheless showed Arning in control of her warm, focused tone, and just enough of her emotions to get through it.  

3. Piotr Beczala singing "E lucevan le stelle."  October gave Chicago opera fans the chance to hear the great tenor Piotr Beczala as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor as well as in the intimate Beyond the Aria concert series. For brooding and a burnished timbre we turn to Kaufmann.  For stylish elegance and sweet tone, we have Polenzani. For shirtless good looks and youthful vigor we go to Grigolo.  But for that heart-on-your-sleeve Italianate lyricism, the default tenor must be Piotr Beczala.  His Edgardo was fantastic amongst a challenging production design and some uninspired staging. About 300 people, however,  were treated to the best tenor moment of 2016 when Beczala launched into "E lucevan le stelle" on the stage of the Pritzker Pavilion with Beyond the Aria’s artistic director Craig Terry at the piano.  Technically, it wasn’t opera, but It had the drama of Puccini’s entire score packed into three minutes and it was sung with such lusty tone that it felt great to be alive. 

2.  Ambrogio Maestri and Rosa Feola in CSO’s Falstaff.  Sometimes putting great singing actors on stage with a fantastic orchestra and a legendary operatic conductor is all you need to present the best opera production of the year.  Chicagoans were very lucky to have had that opportunity this past April.  The full complement of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra shared the stage making for a dynamic and responsive backdrop to Verdi’s final opera. Riccardo Muti’s all-Italian cast gave a masterclass in Verdian style, operatic stage gesture, and comic timing.  The professor was Ambrogio Maestri who magically created costumes and scenario in the audiences mind with a flick of the wrist and a raise of the eyebrow.  The cast was categorically brilliant, especially the opulent and buxom Eleonara Burratto as Alice.  But the moment that stole the show and overshadowed even the magnificent Maestri was soprano Rosa Feola’s glimmering “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio.”  If Muti would have allowed an applause break it might have stopped the show entirely.

1. Annie Rosen in a scene from Dialogues of the Carmelites.  Mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen has been a work-horse in her second year as a member of the Ryan Opera Center taking assignments like Second Lady in Magic Flute, the boy Ascagne in Lyric’s triumphant Troyens, Wellgunde in Rheingold,  as well as headlining ROC’s concert at Grant Park Music Festival with orchestrated songs of Nico Muhly and collaborating on two Beyond the Aria performances.  She has been outstanding in all of these but the most memorable operatic performance of 2016 was not from a complete production. It was merely a dialogue from Poulenc’s masterpiece performed at the Rising Stars Concert in the Ardis Kranik Theatre in March.  Blanche’s confrontation with her brother comes at the midpoint of the opera as her decisions have begun to yield consequences.  Leaving the Order with him would seem to be the last chance for Blanche to escape her fate but fear has paralyzed her.  In this scene the audience witnessed a singer so secure in her technique that she was able to give all of herself to the drama, bringing her voice to the edge of ugly and allowing her body to crumble before our eyes.  The memory of it still brings a lump to my throat.  This is why we go to the opera – to feel something and to have it imprinted on our minds as if It were our own experience being portrayed on the stage.

Honorable mention: Conductor Catherine O’Shaughnessy showed her resourcefulness in Floating Opera Company’s Don Giovanni in February, scrappiness and an ear for bel canto in her own production of Don Pasquale (Windy City Opera) in March, fierce concentration in the nervy Chicago Fringe Opera production of Philip Glass’ In the Penal Colony in May, and the spirit of a modern collaborator in CFO’s Song from the Uproar in October.  Give this woman a vacation!

Coming next: The best vocal performances of 2016 in concert and song.