Year in review: Great performances of 2018

It’s always revealing to look back at the best things I saw – and heard — over the year. Cincinnati audiences heard memorable performances, musical rarities and world premieres. There were also some musical milestones, such as the Cincinnati May Festival’s first concert conducted by a woman. Here are a few of my personal favorites from 2018.

Jamie Barton red dress sm
The incomparable Jamie Barton

In January, a rare recital: Jamie Barton and pianist Kathleen Kelly launched their road tour in the Queen City with the recital that they performed in December at Carnegie Hall. The recital tour was part of a big season for the mezzo-soprano, who was honored with the 2017 Beverly Sills Artist Award by the Metropolitan Opera. Her program was a journey of discovery — with many unexpectedly delicious moments. That was partly because, in a rare occurrence on concert stages today, fully half of her program consisted of music by women: Elinor Remick Warren, Lili and Nadia Boulanger, Amy Beach and Libby Larsen.

Presented by the venerable, 105-year-old music club Matinée Musicale, the event was held at the beautifully-restored, circa-1908 Memorial Hall in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine historic district.  Its 550-seat theater was packed to the rafters.

Conlon in Mahler
James Conlon, May Festival music director laureate, returned to conductor Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 with the CSO. Photo provided/Lee Snow

January, James Conlon returns: I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such a refined performance of the first movement of Mahler’s First as that performed by the Cincinnati Symphony under James Conlon. The conductor, who led without a score, displayed a view that was gentle and tranquil, with every detail – spacious horn calls, the pastoral tune from “Songs of a Wayfarer” – all vividly brought to the fore. The dark undertones of the F Minor section (which Conlon described as a “cloud” passing by) sent chills up the spine. It was the first appearance in Music Hall by Conlon since his final concert as May Festival music director in May of 2016.

am-photo-extralarge_1366824583496In February, Audra McDonald: Audra McDonald sang, chatted and charmed her way nonstop through her 90-minute survey of the Great American Songbook  the Pops. There was nothing like hearing the Tony-winner in signature songs, such as “Summertime” from the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.” Here was a classically-trained operatic voice that was meltingly beautiful, and every word was colored with emotion. Among the evening’s highlights was her personal tribute to the late, great Broadway icon Barbara Cook, the song “Vanilla Ice Cream,” which brought down the house.

8623February, Shostakovich’s Seventh: The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Shostakovich’s sprawling, grandiose Seventh Symphony under Juanjo Mena would have made a powerful impact even without knowing the story behind it. Its war-like imagery  — incessant drumming, trumpet fanfares, explosive outbursts in the brass and cynical themes in the winds — was brought vividly to life. The Spanish maestro, new principal conductor of the Cincinnati May Festival, led an intense and brilliantly played performance.

In March, comedy and tragedy: An opera double bill at CCM, Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica, was brilliantly staged and sung by CCM’s stars of tomorrow. One of the standouts was tenor Brandon Scott Russell, who displayed an exciting Italianate tenor in the role of Rinuccio. (He was also a finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions held the next month in New York.) Except for faculty conductor Mark Gibson, who led Puccini’s lush scores magnificently in the pit, the double bill was entirely produced, staged and performed by students.

Eun Sun Kim with soloists for Verdi’s Requiem in Music Hall

In May, a first at the May Festival: Rising conductor Eun Sun Kim, 37, made a stunning debut at the May Festival in Verdi’s Requiem. There is nothing like Verdi’s Requiem Mass, which is regarded as operatic and theatrical. Yet Kim offered a fresh approach that also illuminated its deep spirituality. She expertly balanced the forces of the 120-voice May Festival Chorus, a quartet of superb soloists, trumpeters in the gallery and the full Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in a sweeping and incandescent performance.Eun sun kim

Stepping in for the disgraced James Levine, Kim provided another remarkable first: She was the first woman to conduct the acclaimed choral festival in its 145-year history. It was the festival’s first performance in Music Hall — originally built for the May Festival – since it reopened in October following a 16-month, $143 million renovation.

In June, a Monteverdi opera: Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo’s portrayal of Nero, the tyrannical emperor of Rome, was searing in Cincinnati Opera’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” (“The Coronation of Poppea”), Claudio Monteverdi’s 1642 masterpiece about sex, power and political intrigue set in imperial Rome. Nero raged against the exquisite backdrop of Monteverdi’s score. Gary Thor Wedow’s pit orchestra included Annalisa Pappano’s superb period ensemble Catacoustic Consort – including theorbo, lute, Baroque triple harp and piping recorders — and members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Special note goes to Michael Unger, who enlivened the music on harpsichord and Baroque organ.

In August, a new concertmaster: Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra introduced its new concertmaster, Celeste Golden Boyer, with a reimagined “Four Seasons.” Instead of playing a traditional concerto, Boyer made an impressive debut in Vivaldi’s Baroque masterpiece, “The Four Seasons,” as interpreted through the modern lens of German-born British composer Max Richter. It was a fascinating mash-up of old and new, casting the much-loved and, some say overplayed, Vivaldi “Seasons” in a new light. The concert was expertly led by music director Eckart Preu.

Bell Joshua Perf shot_PC Chris Lee
Joshua Bell Photo by Chris Lee

In September, Joshua Bell: It’s always a special occasion when violinist Joshua Bell is in town. The Bloomington-born virtuoso, 50, one of the world’s great violinists, made a welcome return to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to open the subscription season in Music Hall. He brought intensity to every note of Sibelius’ Concerto in D Minor. The cool, Nordic passages that open the concerto gave way to lyrical themes, which the violinist communicated with old-world romanticism and a glorious tone. His cadenzas were electrifying displays, performed on his Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius of 1713.

Louis Langrée CSO
Louis Langrée leads the CSO. Photo provided

Louis Langrée framed the violin concerto with two works by Stravinsky – both previously conducted by the composer in this hall. He opened with Stravinsky’s youthful “Feu d’artifice” (“Fireworks”) and capped the evening with one of the most searing performances of “Le Sacre du printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”) in memory.

In November, Tchaikovsky and the bat: The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s program for Thanksgiving weekend had all the fixings to please a crowd: A blockbuster performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Tchaikovsky’s popular Symphony No. 4 and two encores. Music Hall’s resident bat upstaged the orchestra during the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth on the first night. On the podium, Kirill Karabits, 41, a native of Ukraine, made an impressive debut in the all-Russian program. His soloist was a fellow countryman, Ukrainian-born piano virtuoso Alexander Gavrylyuk, who soared through Prokofiev’s treacherous Piano Concerto No. 3 with aplomb.

Yefim Bronfman, provided photo/Frank Stewart

In November: Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 may not be easy to love. It’s not a glitzy showpiece. Set in the dark key of D minor, it is tempestuous and brooding. Its length is symphonic in scope, indicating the composer’s early attempt to write a symphony. Yet in the right hands, it is magnificent. Pianist Yefim Bronfman joined Louis Langrée and the CSO in a magisterial performance that shed new light on the masterpiece.

December: Bronfman stayed in town long enough to perform with the Linton Chamber Music Series, celebrating its 40th season this year. The program featured the New York Philharmonic String Quartet – all principal players of the Philharmonic — in the group’s local debut. It was a rare treat when, after intermission, Bronfman joined them for Schumann’s majestic Piano Quintet in E-flat Major. Their collaboration exuded a freshness of spirit from the beginning.

Don’t forget, my reviews can now be found at, as well as on this blog generously hosted by WGUC. Check out the arts page by clicking here (it’s free, thanks to ArtsWave and other foundations).

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