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21 for '14

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Jan 3, 2015 - 5:32:27 PM in commentary

LumenoCity, August, 2014
It is always difficult to assemble a “best of the year” from the wealth of classical music available in Cincinnati.

It is with an apology, then, that I offer what I would count among my favorites of 2014.

Some were genuine “events.” They included the collaboration by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and MusicNOW in March, the CSO’s music and light show “LumenoCity,” returning for its third outing in Washington Park in August, and “Louis’ Listening Party,” a concert/lecture initiative by CSO music director Louis Langrée in November.

In addition there were concerts by the CSO, Cincinnati Opera, May Festival, the always fertile University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and three ensembles relatively new to the Queen City, the chamber group concert:nova, the early music ensemble Catacoustic Consort and Queen City Chamber Opera.

Here, then, are Music in Cincinnati’s favorites from the year just past:

concert:nova. “Re:member.” Feb. 6. Carnegie Center Galleries, Covington, Kentucky. concert:nova participated in the worldwide remembrance of World War I with a program of chamber music, pop music, poetry, readings and dance, featuring works produced coincident with the War. Accompanied by historic photographs projected onto a screen, it was a searing event, with everything from Irving Berlin to Maurice Ravel.

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Feb. 20, Music Hall. Zhang Zuo, piano. Paavo Järvi, conductor. This concert marked the CSO debut of a remarkable young pianist, Zhang Zuo, 24, in the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Felix Mendelssohn and a welcome return to the orchestra of former music director Paavo Järvi, who stepped down in 2011. Järvi led Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with subtle dynamic contrasts over a wide range and heightened thematic and motivic characterization.

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. May Festival Chorus. Verdi, Requiem. Feb. 28, Music Hall. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor. Conducting completely from memory, the Spanish-born maestro led with total command and the kind of sensitivity that causes you not only to grasp the architecture of a work, but to hear details you have never heard before. The fine soloists included soprano Angel Blue, mezzo-soprano Julia Gertseva, tenor Aquiles Machado and bass Riccardo Zanellato.

University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. John Adams, “El Niño.” March 2, Corbett Auditorium. Earl Rivers, conductor. This performance, a regional premiere alternately intrigued, touched and pinned one’s ears to the wall. The oratorio, which centers on the birth of Jesus, was superbly realized by choral ensembles of CCM, soprano Kerrie Caldwell, mezzo-soprano Leah de Gruyl, baritone Edward Nelson, countertenors Michael Maniaci, Eric Jurenas and Steven Rickards (all but Rickards, students or alumni of CCM) and a 63-piece orchestra.

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. March 14, Music Hall. James Galway, flute. Louis Langrée, conductor. Back-to-back on this program were Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 2 in D Major and the Symphony No. 7 by Anton Bruckner, a contrast of large and small that worked beautifully in both scale and variety. The pre-St. Patrick Day’s concert also featured a pair of delightful Irish encores by Galway. Conducting without a baton, Langrée built Bruckner’s sonorous architecture block by block and filled every crevice of the hall with color.

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. MusicNOW Festival. March 21 and 22, Music Hall. Bryce and Aaron Dessner, electric guitar, eighth blackbird, baritone  Nathan Wyatt, singer/guitarist Will Oldham. Louis Langrée, conductor. These concerts marked the first-ever collaboration by the CSO and Cincinnati’s MusicNOW Festival, founded in 2006 by Cincinnati native Bryce Dessner, lead guitarist of the alternative rock band The National. There was music by Dessner, Nico Muhly, David Lang, Krzysztof Penderecki, Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, plus Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Prokofiev (both challenging in their day).  A certified event, it drew a large and enthusiastic audience, causing Langrée to look out and welcome “the new faces” in the crowd. 

University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music Opera Department. Gaetano Donizetti, “Don Pasquale.” April 3, Patricia Corbett Theater. Omer Ben-Seadia, stage director. Mark Gibson, conductor. Donizetti’s fluffy comedy about love and marriage in 19th-century Rome was brought vividly to life by CCM Opera with fine student voices and a lovely-to-look-at period production. 

May Festival. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. May Festival Chorus. Nathaniel Dett, “The Ordering of Moses.” May 9, Carnegie Hall, New York. Soprano Latonia Moore, Mezzo-soprano Ronnita Nicole Miller, tenor Rodrick Dixon, baritone Donnie Ray Albert. James Conlon, conductor. The concert, climax of “Cincy in New York,” a series of events showcasing Cincinnati in New York, was part of Carnegie Hall’s “Spring for Music” Festival. The performance recalled the world premiere of the oratorio at the 1937 May Festival, with Conlon pausing at the exact moment three-quarters of the way through the work when the nationwide NBC broadcast was taken off the air due to pressure from callers objecting to the airing of a piece by an African-American composer.

Cincinnati Opera. Kevin Puts, “Silent Night.” July 10, Music Hall. Eric Simonson, stage director. David Charles Abell, conductor. Based on the 2005 French film “Joyeux Noël” and coinciding with the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, this timely and moving production about the “Christmas truce” of 1914, when enemy combatants laid down their arms to share a moment of peace and brotherhood, aimed straight for the heart. The cast of 15, eight  in their Cincinnati Opera debuts, made a formidable ensemble, while the Cincinnati Opera Chorus, which comprised the troops in the opera displayed fine singing and acting skills.

Cincinnati Opera. Francesco Cavalli, “La Calisto.” July 17, Corbett Theater, School for Creative and Performing Arts. Ted Huffman, stage director. David Bates, conductor. Cincinnati Opera’s first-ever baroque opera put to good use its new alternative venue for smaller productions (750 seats). A mix of bawdy comedy and deep feeling, the opera, about hi-jinks among the Olympian gods and mortals, featured skillfully ornamented singing, with accompaniment by Cincinnati’s early music ensemble Catacoustic Consort and an ensemble of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra musicians. With some hilarious trans-gender casting, it utilized the same set as Cincinnati Opera’s “Galileo Galilei” by Philip Glass in 2013 (both works having an astronomical focus). Notable in his Cincinnati Opera debut, was the fine American male soprano Michael Maniaci.

Cincinnati Symphony/Pops Orchestras. “LumenoCity” 2014. August 1, Washington Park, Over-the-Rhine. Design and production by Brave Berlin. Louis Langrée and John Morris Russell, conductors. This event, unique to Cincinnati for its alliance of technology and a live symphony orchestra concert, made a splendid encore to its 2013 debut, held to welcome incoming CSO music director Langrée. With digital images projected onto the façade of Music Hall and “choreographed” to music (so-called “projection mapping”), the show “sold out” in twelve minutes, i.e. all of the free tickets were distributed and additional tickets had to be issued, when it was announced in June. An estimated 12,500 attended the concert, with 6,000 for the July 31 dress rehearsal. Russell led the Pops in the pre-show concert before dark, which also featured dancers from Cincinnati Ballet, singers from the May Festival Chorus and Encore Strings, a youth ensemble from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Sept. 13, Music Hall. Lang Lang, piano. Louis Langrée, conductor. The CSO opened its 120th season on a high note with superstar pianist Lang Lang in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The all-Beethoven concert also featured the “Egmont” Overture and Symphony No. 7 in A Major. Adding to its significance, the concert was a total sellout, a rare feat in 3,500-seat Music Hall.

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Sept. 19, Music Hall. Martin Fröst, clarinet. Louis Langrée, conductor. This concert, artfully planned for contrast, featured guest artist Martin Fröst in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and John Adams’ “Harmonielehre,” which filled Music Hall with the glorious sound of a full-dress symphony orchestra, including quadruple winds, full brass, a wealth of percussion, two harps, piano, celeste and strings (98 by unofficial guesstimate). Adams’ work was a CSO premiere and the kind of event that over-sized Music Hall was built for.

Catacoustic Consort. Sept. 21, Church of the Advent, Walnut Hills. Cincinnati’s early music ensemble Catacoustic Consort opened its 2014-15 season with a rare performance of “Membra Jesu Nostri” by Danish-German composer Dieterich Buxtehude (famously known as the composer Johann Sebastian Bach walked 200 miles to hear). A set of seven cantatas, each addressed to a part of Christ’s crucified body, the work featured sopranos Youngmi Kim and Melissa Harvey, male soprano Michael Maniaci, tenor Brian Thorsett, bass-baritone Aaron Cain, two pardessus de viole (highest-pitched member of the viol family), performed by Annalisa Pappano and Joanna Blendulf, and continuo accompaniment comprising Daniel Swenburg on archlute, Michael Unger on organ and David Ellis on bass viola da gamba. In short, it was a feast for early music lovers.

concert:nova. “Gothic Halloween.” Oct. 21, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company Performing Arts Theater. Jason Podplesky, storyteller. This inventive concert combined readings from Edgar Allen Poe with “spooky” music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Bernard Herrmann. Franz Schubert, Gyorgy Ligeti, Samuel Barber, Michael Daugherty and André Caplet. Heard were Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, excerpts from Herrmann’s “Psycho” Suite, Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger,” Ligeti’s Mesto, rigido e cerimoniale from Musica ricercata, Barber’s “Dover Beach,” Daugherty’s “Viola Zombie” and Caplet’s “Mask of the Red Death” Deliciously frightening.

Queen City Chamber Opera. Richard Wagner, “Siegfried,” act I. Oct. 26, Arts Center in Dunham, West Price Hill. James Slouffman, stage director/set designer. Isaac Selya, conductor. A Cincinnati premiere (itself something of a surprise), act I of Wagner’s third “Ring” Opera received an arresting, fully-staged performance by Queen City Chamber Opera, a fledgling company founded by Selya in 2012. One thing it established is that there are Wagner voices in Cincinnati, with tenor M. Andrew Jones as Mime, Matt Tschimperle as Siegfried and bass Timothy J. Bruno as The Wanderer.

The Academy of Ancient Music. Complete Orchestral Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach. Nov. 9. Corbett Auditorium, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.  Richard Egarr, director/harpsichordist. CCM served Cincinnati well with the regional debut of the Academy of Ancient Music. What the world famous ensemble based in Cambridge, England demonstrated in Bach’s complete Orchestral Suites was that “historically informed performance practice” need not and should not be rule-bound. Performing one-to-a-part on authentic baroque instruments, or replicas thereof, the 15 musicians played with great expressivity. The string players utilized selective vibrato and the ensemble’s careful dynamic shading gave added connotation and shape to the music. Rarely, one felt, has Bach been so well served.

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. “Louis’ Listening Party.” Nov. 17, Music Hall. Louis Langrée, conductor/narrator. This initiative by CSO music director Louis Langrée combined a verbal analysis, with musical examples, of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, followed after intermission by a complete performance of the work. Throughout, Langrée showed himself both engaging and highly effective in presenting the work (performed without analysis on CSO concerts Nov. 15 and 16 at Music Hall). It was the culmination of the CSO’s annual “One City, One Symphony” project, begun during Langrée’s inaugural season in 2012, in which a concert is preceded by a series of neighborhood “listening parties.”

University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Claudio Monteverdi, Vespers of 1610. Nov. 16, Christ Church Cathedral, downtown. Earl Rivers, conductor. Joining artists and ensembles of the University of  Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music were prominent early music guests, all performing on authentic instruments. They included Alexander Bonus and Stephen Escher on cornetto, Chris Canapap, Alex Krawczyk and Linda Pearse on sackbut, Dieter Hennings on theorbo, Annalisa Pappano on lirone and viola da gamba, Elizabeth Motter on baroque harp, Adriana Contino on baroque cello, Rodney Stuckey on archlute and baroque guitar and Michael Unger on organ and harpsichord. In the splendid setting and warm acoustics of Christ Church, it was a treat for both eyes and ears.

University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Engelbert Humperdinck, “Hansel and Gretel.” Nov. 23, Corbett Auditorium. Robin Guarino, stage director. Rebecca Tong, conductor. Humperdinck’s beloved fairy tale opera lent itself easily to updating in this production by the opera department of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Set during the depression era of the 1930s, it featured a well-matched Hansel and Gretel – mezzo-soprano Adria Caffaro and soprano Tayla Lieberman, respectively – and tenor Jason Weisinger in drag as a Julia Child-like Witch.

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Nov. 28, Music Hall. Alexander Gavrylyuk, piano. Louis Langrée, conductor. This all-Tchaikovsky concert featured a stunning CSO debut by Ukrainian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk in the Piano Concerto No. 1. (Adding to the “wow” factor was his encore, the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” transcribed into a virtuoso showpiece by Vladimir Horowitz.) Leading without a score, music director Langrée delivered a stellar performance of the Symphony No. 5, which recalled the CSO's “LumenoCity” in Washington Park in August.