BEST of the BEST

Since March of 2020 and both in Cincinnati and across our country, the performing arts had been in a kind of deep-freeze. Large organizations bled enormous amounts in lost ticket revenues with no end in sight, while artists and administrative personnel barely scraped by financially, some relocating to cities with a lower cost of living, others moving in with parents, while waiting for it all to be over. As 2022 is coming to an end the nightmare appears to be over.

In Cincinnati, a microcosm of the larger national arts debacle, the larger and arguably more financially resilient arts organizations, such as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra returned to business as usual, after having played a limited number of performances to socially distanced audiences with reduced orchestral forces, in shorter, intermission-less concerts.

Summer-arts organizations forged ahead. The Cincinnati Opera and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra both moved their operations back indoors. After extensive enhancements to its exterior, the Cincinnati Art Museum reopened with reduced hours and no major exhibits, while the Taft Museum and the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park underwent major renovations, while the Playhouse is set for reopening in 2023.

The College-Conservatory of Music –the largest presenter of live arts events in the State of Ohio –implemented ways to make it through the worst of the crisis, presenting digital performances with carefully-distanced or masked students.

Audience members managed to get their arts one way or another by watching on-line performances at home, although everyone ached for the return of the irreplaceable in-person experiences of sitting in a concert hall or a darkened theatre as great art unfolds before one’s eyes and ears.

We bid farewell and good riddance to a difficult couple of years in which the resilience of the arts and the artists who create them continued to fill us with hope.

The season saw the return of live performances. It was a cautious one-step-at-a-time rebirth of concerts, operas, recitals and plays in front of live audiences. It soon came to be the “new normal”, one sometimes calling for proof of vaccination and the wearing of masks before gaining admittance to venues, as was the case at Memorial Hall for concerts of Matinee Musicale Cincinnati. The ancient though always in renewal organization continued to welcome artists of color to its seasons, programming works by minority composers and outpacing other arts institutions that continue to move at a snail’s pace in these urgently in-need areas.

At the College-Conservatory of Music live performances returned little by little, including a superb Marriage of Figaro where all the singers could be heard despite being masked.

There were several people we said goodbye to over the past couple of years, all connected in one way or another to the arts. The death of Stephen Sondheim left a void with so many who in various ways were connected to his music and lyrics, among them Cincinnati’s own Pamela Myers, who shone in the original cast of Company with her warp-speed delivery of “Another 100 people just got off of the train.”

There were changes in Academia and in several arts organizations. Two Opera notables were recruited by CCM to join its Voice faculty: tenor Stuart Skelton and baritone Elliott Madore. LeAnne Anklam and Ann Stewart, both members of the management triumvirate that had successfully run the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra for several years resigned within weeks of each other.

The choice of artists and repertory from several national arts organizations broadened in significant ways. The Metropolitan Opera opened its season with the first opera by a Black composer in its history: Fire Shut Up My Bones, Terence Blanchard’s adaptation of Charles M. Blow’s memoir of the same title. The MET took a chance and scored an artistic and box office success. Ditto for our Cincinnati Opera which delivered a superb world-premiere production of Gregory SpearsCastor and Patience.

Starting a new season in its very own space – a flexible black box in which the audience sits just a few feet from the performers – Mutual Dance Theatre, the recently renamed brainchild of artistic director Jeanne Mam-Luft brokered an artistic marriage with the Jefferson James Contemporary Dance Theatre, bringing back first-class modern dance to Cincinnati.

Here, in random order is our list of the best of the best musical highlights of the year 2022; it focuses on live and recorded performances that still linger in my mind: memorable and off-beat moments in a year full of great music-making:

Cincinnati’s Ascent International Chamber Music Festival opened with a varied program featuring music by Mozart, Janáček, Ysaÿe, and Schumann, with Judith Ingolfsson and Vladimir Stoupel, who perform as The Duo Ingolfsson-Stoupel. Throughout the concert the two artists played with soulful intensity and a thorough understanding of the programmed compositions.

Dimitri Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Trio reflects on matters of life and death with eerie, agitated, frenzied, somber, and menacing music. In the program Inspired Recollections, also part of the Ascent International Chamber Music Festival, the playing of violinist Grigory Kalinovsky, cellist Alan Rafferty, and pianist Vladimir Stoupel achieved a degree of intensity not often heard in chamber music concerts.

Featuring great music, effective scenic design, and the work of a cast of fifteen Broadway-bound, triple-threat young talents, Stephen Sondheim’s SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE received a first-class production at CCM, led by the enormously creative director-choreographer Vincent DeGeorge, and the immensely talented musical director Julie Spangler.

The gifted young violinist Christina Nam was joined by the superlative pianist Rohan De Silva in the opening concert of the 2022-2023 season of Matinee Musicale Cincinnati, playing music by Leclair, Brahms, Hubay, and Chausson. The Sunday evening concert left no doubt in the minds of many that Christina Nam is well on her way to a major career as a concert violinist.

The Cincinnati Opera production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance featured an ensemble cast of terrific singing actors, led by the patter-perfect baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the hilarious “very model of a modern Major General” Stanley. Designed by James Schuette and enhanced by the supple conducting of David Agler and by the inventive staging of Seán Curran, the production celebrated the enchanting lunacy of the G&S classic.  

The enterprising and ever creative Aik Khai Pung helmed the CCM Concert Orchestra in a noble and energetic performance of Edward Elgar’s Sea Pictures, a perfect vehicle for Quinn Patrick Ankrum, who brought her beautiful mezzo-soprano voice, a vocal instrument with abundant richness in the middle voice and a soprano’s brightness and ease in her top range, to the performance of Elgar’s song cycle.

The possessor of a first-class lyric tenor voice, Daniel Weeks is also blessed with a solid technique always placed at the service of whatever music he sings. These assets repeatedly came into play as the tenor sang a charming collection of 19th and 20th century art songs in several languages in CCM’s Werner Recital Hall. He was kept perfect company by the incomparable collaborative pianist Donna Loewy. We left the recital nurturing hope for what might be an ongoing revival of the art song recital, a practice that promises to have a future under the loving care of these superb artists.

BEST RECORDINGS OF 2022

When I sat down to compile this list, I found it difficult to single out recordings or performances of repertoire that most of us have heard again and again, instead preferring to focus on mostly off-the-beaten path selections.

LATIN AMERICAN GEMS

The superb vocalist Cecilia Duarte gave renewed life to a dozen Latin American gems in an impassioned salute to the varied art of South American popular song in the Reference Recordings CD REENCUENTROS.

COOL BRAIN AND WARM HEART

Beyond his impeccable technique, one thing that came to mind as I listened to the You Tube recording by the prodigiously gifted Dror Biran playing by memory the 24 preludes and fugues of J.S. Bach’s Book One of The Well-Tempered Clavier was the unabashed emotional intensity the Israeli pianist infuses into his interpretation of this music. Biran has also recorded the four ballades of Chopin for Centaur Records, with the Israeli-born pianist injecting into this music a perfect balance between a cool brain and a warm heart in yet another memorable performance.

FIERCE, DRAMATIC, DAZZLING

Romanian violinist Sherban Lupu, in the fine company of conductor Ian Hobson at the helm of the Illinois-based Sinfonia da Camera, and the gifted collaborative pianist Viorela Ciucur, delivered a fiercely dramatic, technically dazzling performance in the Toccata Classics recording of a collection of gems by George Enescu, an unsung 20th century musical genius.

WELCOME BACK MATEI VARGA!

In the SONO LUMINUS recording The Year that Never Was, Matei Varga was back, playing idiomatically and allowing a handful of salon pieces by Lecuona, Chopin, Beethoven, and others to resonate eloquently in a treasurable collection of music for the piano, assembled after months of isolation imposed on the artist and on all of us by unfortunate circumstances.

A SUPERB DEBUT CD

It has been a while since I have listened with such pleasure to a debut album. Wenting Kang is an artist to watch, and she has a terrific collaborative partner in one person: his name is Sergei Kvitko, and he has provided Ms. Kang with a perfectly engineered aural environment in which she time and again excels. That, and Kvitko’s pliant, ever supportive, intensely musical playing is paired to Wenting Kang‘s heavenly playing all throughout this indispensable debut Blue Griffin CD.

FRENCH RARITIES

BIS has released a new album of music by Camille Saint-Saëns (BIS 2400 SACD), featuring pianist Alexandre Kantorow. The impressively gifted Frenchman is accompanied by the Tapiola Sinfonietta, led by his father, conductor Jean-Jacques Kantorow in the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Major, and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, both delivered by the younger Kantorow – who will appear in the Matinee Musicale Cincinnati season later next year – with supreme authority and extraordinary technique.

OLD AND NEW

In Im Wald a new album for the Italian label Digressione Music, Benedetto Bocuzzi creates a richly varied program that juxtaposes the quintessentially Romantic Waldszenen of Robert Schumann, and piano versions of Franz Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin with contemporary compositions by Jörg Widmann, Wolfgang Rihm, Helmut Lachenmann, and one by Bocuzzi himself, in a collection of the new and the old, brought to life by a major pianist-composer.

FRENCH BEL CANTO

It was immensely satisfying to hear Lisette Oropesa in a repertoire originally conceived with the kind of supple, agile, lyric voice and formidable technique that she possesses, in the Pentatone recording of French language soprano arias by Rossini and Donizetti, with Corrado Rovaris the perfect Bel Canto conductor.

BRAZILIAN EXPLORATIONS

With the release of several compact discs featuring the music of Brazil’s Dom Pedro I, Antônio Carlos Gomes, Antônio Francisco Braga, Leopoldo Américo Miguez, and Alberto Nepomuceno, Naxos continues its invaluable exploration of the musical heritage of South America’s largest country. The English Chamber Orchestra, led by Neil Thomson and the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra led by Fabio Mechetti play up a storm.

In the second volume of Chôros by the late Brazilian composer Camargo Guarnieri the listener is treated to quintessentially Brazilian music that taps into that country’s baiao, maracatu, and embolada, the music brought to life by the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo brilliantly conducted by Roberto Tibiriçá.

In yet another Naxos release the neglected music of César Guerra-Peixe is heard. An immensely gifted Brazilian composer and conductor, son of Portuguese immigrants of Romani origins, Guerra-Peixe integrated elements of the music of the Brazilian northeast with the use of a mix of tonality and dissonance, rhythmic drive, and lyricism.

NOSE-THUMBING SHOSTAKOVICH

In a BIS CD of Soviet-era “pop”-style music by Shostakovich, Andrew Litton and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra have fun exploring the nose-thumbing side of the composer with the 1934 Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 1, written for a competition of works of ‘Soviet Jazz,’ which Litton conducts from the piano. The coolest selection in the CD is by far Shostakovich’s version of Vincent Youmans’ Tea for Two, titled Tahiti Trot!

CUBAN EARTHINESS

In Albany Records’ new release Tania León: Teclas de mi Piano, pianist Adam Kent takes the listener on a journey of compositions for the keyboard by the Pulitzer Prize winning, Kennedy Center Honoree, Tania León. The Cuban-born composer pulls-off an uncanny musical feat by straddling the objectivity, complexity, and sobriety of concert music and the down-home earthiness of the popular and folk music of her native Cuba.

UKRAINIAN AND AMERICAN SOULMATES

The Reference Recordings CD Invasion, which gives its title to a collection of works for the piano featuring the protean Ukrainian American pianist, Nadia Shpachenko brings to vivid life a handful of works by Lewis Spratlan – some inspired by the horrors of war, with Spratlan and Shpachenko, soulmates against man’s inhumanity to man.

EARLY AMERICAN

In SHINING SHORE Music of Early America, the Virginia Baroque Ensemble recorded for their own label – Three Notch’d Road – a collection of earthy and spiritual music about mortality and immortality, and about both the joys and vicissitudes of the here and now – all five members of the ensemble excelling in consistently enchanting, unpretentious, straightforward, and honest music-making.

Rafael de Acha © 2022

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