Best of 2015

Everyone loves lists. Here are just 10 of my favorite concert memories from 2015. As soon as I wrote them, I realized there were many more I had left out, from the superb concert:nova concerts to Xavier Piano Series, the Linton Series, and a wonderful Mahler concert recently by the CCM Philharmonia. 

Best rock fusion: Shrieking fans, long lines snaking to the bars, a crush of people surrounding a band in the lobby – those are things you wouldn’t expect at a concert of the 120-year-old Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra’s second annual collaboration in Music Hall with Cincinnati’s MusicNOW Festival, founded by Bryce Dessner a decade ago, rocked. The March concerts included the debut of Dessner’s indie-rock band The National with Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony – a first for both.

Cincinnati Opera's Turandot
Cincinnati Opera’s Turandot

Best sight gags in an opera: Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” directed by Robin Guarino at CCM in April, had bawdy translations and hilarious sight gags that drew belly laughs. The updated production featured a Mid-Century Modern house with a hot tub, and a couple of swinging Albanian strangers looking like John Lennon and George Harrison had just wandered off the set of the “The Magical Mystery Tour.” It was brilliantly sung by CCM opera students and Mozart’s witty music was buoyant and fleet in the hands of conductor Mark Gibson.

Yo-Yo Ma performed a special concert with the CSO
Yo-Yo Ma performed a special concert with the CSO

Biggest back-to-back star power: During one week in May, Cincinnatians basked in the star power of violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Yo-Yo Ma in Music Hall. In Bell’s concert with Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony, there were four standing ovations – and three went to Bell. The violinist’s old-world sound and lyrical style were ideal for Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in A Minor. Days later, superstar cellist Ma was in town for a sold-out special concert in Music Hall. As soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, Ma communicated every note from the heart.

Cincinnati May Festival
Cincinnati May Festival

Most monumental wall of sound: The sound unleashed in the “Tuba mirum” of Berlioz’s Requiem, with a chorus of 129 voices, 16 timpani and 29 brass players, was unforgettable in the vast acoustical space of Music Hall in May. James Conlon conducted the May Festival’s rare mounting of Berlioz’s monumental Requiem, with superb contributions from The May Festival Chorus, Vocal Arts Ensemble and the CSO. Conlon balanced moments of gripping power against those of spiritual atmosphere.

Biggest spectacle: Puccini’s “Turandot,” mounted by Cincinnati Opera in July, was unforgettable for its splendor. The new, $1 million co-production was created by the French Canadian team of director/choreographer Renaud Doucet and André Barbem. But visual extravaganza isn’t all one needs for opera: There were also breathtaking performances from members of a strong cast. The large chorus added lively color to the proceedings. And in the orchestra pit, Puccini’s lush melodies soared under the baton of Ramón Tebar.

Most dazzling debut – twice: Karina Canellakis, who made her debut with the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, displayed superb artistry in a hip program with Gypsy jazz musicians The Faux Frenchmen, in the CCO’s Summermusik Festival in July. She returned to Cincinnati for an encore in November – stepping in at the last minute to make an impressive debut with the Cincinnati Symphony when Rafael Payare canceled due to visa issues. In what has long been a male-dominated industry, she’s not only a refreshing presence on the podium, but also an inspiring one.

Karina Canellakis
Karina Canellakis

Most versatility: Each of the Ariel String Quartet’s programs is an inventive mix. In September, the ensemble-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music delivered a ravishing performance of Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. In November, I was blown away by their reading of Shostakovich’s edgy Quartet No. 8. The movements included a frenzied dance inspired by a Jewish tune and a cynical waltz, all played with lightness, wit and split-second precision. Their finale, Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2 with CCM piano professor Awadagin Pratt, was romantic and richly rewarding.

Best remembrance of a Cincinnati legend: “Rosemary Clooney’s Songbook” with TV and Broadway star Megan Hilty and the Cincinnati Pops was not about imitating the singer, but rather, it paid homage to a legend. Hilty’s new show, created with and conducted by the Pops’ John Morris Russell, was fun, nostalgic and as much about those classy orchestral arrangements – mainly from the ’50s – as it was about Clooney’s songs. The Pops Orchestra sounded sensational in this music, which included a red-hot Nelson Riddle arrangement of “Mambo Italiano.”

AJW_0575-2Most inspiring: How rewarding it was to hear J.S. Bach’s B Minor Mass performed by the 32-voice Vocal Arts Ensemble and the 29-piece Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, in the serene setting of St. Catharine of Siena Church in Westwood on a Sunday afternoon in November. Under the masterful baton of VAE music director Craig Hella Johnson, it was a sublime journey that was both probing and inspiring.

Ariel Quartet, always hip
Ariel Quartet, always hip

Most moving tribute to victims of terrorism: Midway through a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concert this fall, music director Langrée paused to remember the victims of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. The French maestro’s tribute, Massenet’s “Méditation” from “Thaïs,” featuring French violinist Renaud Capuçon, was performed with stunning beauty, from the heart, and offered listeners a quiet moment of reflection.

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