“Best of” lists will be popping up at every turn over the next few weeks. Here is, admittedly early, my list of musical favorites for 2018, listed in random order. Some of the artists on this list are well known names, some are up and coming individuals. Some are groups that often go unnoticed due to the vagaries of marketing and the sheer number of musical events in our communities. Each and every one of these artists deserves for all of us music lovers to sit up and listen.


In the Cincinnati Opera’s As One, an intriguing chamber work about the perilous journey of a transgender person, composer Laura Kaminsky and librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, made theatrical and musical magic within the span of ninety minutes. A first-tier string quartet, led by Gene Chang provided the instrumental portion. Matthew Worth, an impressive singing actor, played Hannah before her transition, and Amber Frasquelle, a superb mezzo-soprano, played Hannah after. The director, Robin Guarino handled the material sensitively and intelligently, helping to craft a straightforward and elegant production. Kudos to Evans Mirageas for going out on a limb and programming new work, proving that in Cincinnati there is an audience for contemporary opera.


In the Cincinnati Opera Traviata, Norah Amsellem, a stunning French soprano, would have made Verdi very happy. Her film star looks and her dramatic gifts made her utterly convincing as the high-class toast of tout Paris. Father and son were sung by tenor Ji-Min Park and baritone Youngjoo An, both artists overflowing with conviction in their assignments. A cast of young artists excelled in supporting roles under the firm directorial hand of Linda Brovsky, among them baritone Simon Barrad, who made his Marquis d’Obigny an important dramatic element in the elegant production designed by Desmond Heeley. In the pit, Renato Balsadonna helmed the orchestra with Italianate panache


The rapidly-rising, young cello virtuoso Coleman Itzkoff mined Elgar’s intimately personal score of the Cello Concerto with utmost intensity, yet never allowing his take on this music to wallow in sentimentality, that notwithstanding the profound sadness of Elgar’s musical meditation. Eckart Preu provided his ever top-notch leadership at the helm of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra which continues to surprise with its daring programming, its risk-taking in its choice of soloists, and its ever more cohesive sound.


The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere of Mexican composer Enrico Chapela’s Radioaxial. Massively scored, Chapela’s work alternates moments of aural density with occasional pockets of streamlined lyricism and crystal clarity. Chapela’s intriguingly inventive composition received an enthusiastic ovation from the sometimes staid Cincinnati audience. Now here’s hoping for more rep choices outside the Beethoven-Brahms- Schumann-Mozart box from the CSO.


The Art of Song is alive and well in Cincinnati. Daniel Weeks and Donna Loewy proved that to be true as they made musical magic happen on the stage of CCM’s Werner Recital Hall in a recital of songs in German, Spanish and English. The two artists did this not pull this off through sleight of hand but through musicality, technique and artistry. But what made this recital extra-special was the way in which it mercifully broke free of the tired and quite often dull formality of the concert platform and spiced up the evening with some inspired humor and theatricality.


The Immaculata Church in Mt. Adams opened its inaugural Chamber Music Series with string players Christina Nam, Holly Nelson, Kanako Shimasaki, Yu-Ting Huang, Hojoon Choi, and Jonathan Lee assembled into what we hope will be a permanent ensemble playing a concert that included a vigorously vibrant Octet by Mendelssohn. In a city rich in chamber music offerings, it is difficult for an ensemble of young players to establish an identity and make a mark. All the more remarkable then that this musically ad-hoc group that cries out for a name should begin its young journey so auspiciously.


CCM celebrated the fiftieth Anniversary of its impressively successful Musical Theatre program, led by Aubrey Berg, with a superb production of Frank Loesser’s GUYS AND DOLLS. Helmed by choreographer-director Diane Lala and musical director Roger Grodsky, the show blurred the dividing line between professional and college. A cast made up of Broadway hopefuls (who most likely will be working professionally in a matter of months) stopped the show time and again, leaving no doubt that this CCM program offers the top training for triple threats on their way to Broadway in the nation.


The youthful, robust, cohesive, disciplined, committed results that the CCM Concert Orchestra consistently delivers in a city chock full of musical surprises is a thing of wonder. In a concert that paid homage to Leonard Bernstein and several of his friends, the orchestra opened with the single-movement Sinfonia India, by Carlos Chavez, a Mexican ground-breaking composer who explored in his music the native sounds of Mexican folklore. Led by its young maestro, Aik Khai Pung, the orchestra gave an inspired reading of the 12-minute work, ending with a jarabe tapatio dance taken at warp speed that all but raised the roof of Corbett Auditorium.


The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra’s Summermusik lineup of four main-stage concerts, weekday evening pub crawls, and Sunday matinees, now in its third year under the leadership of Eckart Preu has become the best musical antidote to the dog days of summer in the Queen City, with its innovative themed programs and its featuring up and coming soloists in programs of new music in nifty pairings to warhorses from the bread-and-butter orchestral repertoire.


At the helm of the CCM Philharmonia, Mark Gibson’s work in Opera (Verdi’s Don Carlos…Strauss’ Salome…), in the symphonic repertoire, and in nearly all idioms and styles and periods is a force to be reckoned with: meticulous, impassioned, insightful, and revelatory. Beyond all that, he’s been on the podium and in the rehearsal studio for four decades, as a maestro to future maestros up ‘til now and, we hope for years to come.

Rafael de Acha


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