02 January 2016

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVESBetter late [but great!] than never: BEST ARTISTS OF 2015

History suggests that it was Aristotle who mused that ‘the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance.’ One of the principal dismays of those who love Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century is the frequency with which even the most admired musicians fail to achieve that aim. The notes are there, the rhythms, the correct accents, those outward appearances, but where is the inner significance that transforms notes, rhythms, and accents into music? Few Americans with televisions in their homes can have avoided the ubiquitous Law and Order franchise, in the opening sequence of which it was famously stated that citizens are protected by those who enforce laws and those who prosecute offenders, complementary instruments of justice whose experiences the series sought to recreate. Music, too, is served by two groups of practitioners: those who make noise and those who communicate emotions in sound. Max Emanuel Cenčić, Michael Lewin, Timothy Myers, Andrew Owens, and Angela Renée Simpson are musicians whose aim is sure, their endeavors unerringly revealing the inner significance—the art—of the works that they perform. These are their stories.

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BEST ARTIST OF 2015: Countertenor MAX EMANUEL CENČIĆ [Photo by Anna Hoffmann, © by Parnassus Arts Productions]Baroque and beyond: Countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić [Photo by Anna Hoffmann, © by Parnassus Arts Productions]

Not so long ago, countertenors were by their very existence remarkable. When Alfred Deller on one side of the Atlantic and Russell Oberlin on the other dedicated their talents to sparing the works of Baroque composers the indignities of transposition and gender reassignments, they ushered in a new age of reassessing, rejuvenating, and respecting Baroque repertory. They also charted the course that in the later Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries has lead singers in their Fach to virtually all of the world’s important opera houses and concert stages. I have been aware of the artistry of Max Emanuel Cenčić since he was a golden-voiced treble soloist with the famed Wiener Sängerknaben. His was an astonishing talent then and is even more awe-inspiring now, but it is not solely an incredible natural instrument that elevates Cenčić into both the ranks of exceptionally gifted countertenors and the company of the greatest musical artists of any voice type and genre, past and present. His most recent disc, Arie Napoletane [DECCA 478 8422], my choice for Best Solo Vocal Recital Disc of 2015, epitomizes the qualities that mark Cenčić as one of the new millennium’s most important musicians​. Supported by Il pomo d'oro and harpsichordist and conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, who unexpectedly headlines the disc’s virtuosic finale with a no-holds-barred performance of Domenico Auletta’s Concerto for harpsichord, two violins, and basso continuo in D major, Cenčić sings arias from Leonardo Leo’s Demetrio, Scipione nelle Spagne, and Siface, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s L'olimpiade, Nicola Antonio Porpora’s ​Germanico in Germania [a complete recording of which, recorded in June 2014, will be forthcoming on DECCA, following the February/March 2016 international release of Cenčić’s new recording of Händel’s Arminio] and Polifemo, Alessandro Scarlatti’s Il Cambise, Massimo Puppieno, Il prigioniero fortunato, and Il Tigrane, and Leonardo Vinci’s Demetrio and Eraclea, many of which appear on disc for the first time. When I saw Cenčić perform the rôle of the grieving Sposa of the title character in Stefano Landi’s Il Sant’Alessio with Les Arts Florissants in New York, he achieved the astonishing feat of making the exalted Alessio—portrayed by no less an artist than Philippe Jaroussky!—seem insignificant except as the Existential motivation for the Sposa’s suffering. A laudably finished artist even in his youth, when he recorded astoundingly mature interpretations of Lieder by Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, and Richard Strauss [alongside his Capriccio recordings of cantatas by Antonio Caldara, Domenico Scarlatti, and Antonio Vivaldi, his Lieder disc Schöne Fremde, recorded before his transition to the countertenor register, remains a title to which I listen often], Arie Napoletane and his DECCA recordings of Hasse’s Siroe, re di Persia [reviewed here] and Vinci’s Catone in Utica [reviewed here] reveal that Cenčić continues to refine both his technique and his wide-ranging artistic curiosity with every new project. Not yet forty years old, he has already enjoyed a career longer than those of many of the most admired singers of recent years, but each assertion that he has reached his artistic peak is confounded by his next effort. Among the eleven arias on Arie Napoletane, all splendidly sung, ‘Dal suo gentil sembiante’ from Leo’s Demetrio is emblematic of Cenčić’s work: handsomeness, stylishness, and expressiveness are hallmarks of both the singer and the man.

BEST SOLO VOCAL RECITAL DISC OF 2015: ARIE NAPOLETANE (Max Emanuel Cenčić; DECCA 478 8422)BEST SOLO VOCAL RECITAL DISC OF 2015 | D. AULETTA (16?? – 1747), L. LEO (1694 – 1744), G. B. PERGOLESI (1710 – 1736), N. PORPORA (1686 – 1768), A. SCARLATTI (1660 – 1725), & L. VINCI (1696? – 1730): Arie NapoletaneMax Emanuel Cenčić, countertenor; Il pomo d’oro; Maxim Emelyanychev, conductor & harpsichord soloist [Recorded in Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, 7 – 14 February 2015; DECCA 478 8422; 1 CD, 75:31; Available from DECCA and major music retailers]

To learn more about Max Emanuel Cenčić, please visit his website.

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BEST ARTIST OF 2015: Pianist MICHAEL LEWIN [Photo by Lucy Cobos, © by Steinway & Sons]Prophet of the Piano: Pianist and Steinway artist Michael Lewin [Photo by Lucy Cobos, © by Steinway & Sons]

‘How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world,’ Portia exclaims in Act Five of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. With which words might the Bard have extolled the work of a genuinely gifted, important pianist amidst the deafening babel of so much bad playing? Man of flesh or literary phantom, Shakespeare might have argued that the plethora of poorly-written plays that congested Elizabethan theatres caused the genius of his own work to shine all the more brightly. So, too, does the haphazard playing of poorly-trained, emotionally vacuous pianists serve a purpose in facilitating appreciation of and gratitude for the playing of Michael Lewin, whose triumphant new recording of music by Claude Debussy​, Starry Night [Sono Luminus DSL-92190], the sequel to the disc Beau Soir [reviewed here] yielded by the pianist’s exceptional and wholly natural affinity for Debussy’s music, is my choice for Best Solo Piano Recording of 2015. Encompassing a complete traversal of Book One of the composer’s genre-redefining Préludes​ and authoritative performances of several small-scaled gems, Starry Night is a fitting tribute both to Debussy and to the pianist whose technical and interpretive versatilities render him a conduit for Twenty-First-Century listeners’ spiritual communion with the composer. Lewin’s ardent but subtle account of ‘Jardins sous la pluie’ (Estampes, L. 100, No. 3) is aptly representative of the ingenuity of Starry Night and of his playing in general. From a vocal perspective, Lewin’s playing brings to mind Maria Callas’s singing of chromatic scales: every tone is discernibly touched, but none is unduly emphasized. In other words, an assured placement of each step ensures that the destination is never obscured by the journey. An instinctive comprehension of a piece’s provenances on its own, in the broader context of its setting, and within the narratives of the composer’s life and process, allied with an innate ability to convey these details to listeners, constitute the core of Lewin’s artistic identity. Many pianists play the works of Debussy, but, especially in the performances on Starry Night, Lewin experiences them—and enables the listener to experience them, as well. Thus does he cultivate art where others are content to hide behind artifice.

BEST SOLO PIANO RECORDING OF 2015: Claude Debussy - STARRY NIGHT (Michael Lewin, piano; Sono Luminus DSL-92190)

BEST SOLO PIANO RECORDING OF 2015 | CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918): Starry Night – Préludes, Book I; Estampes, L. 100; Arabesque No. 1 in E major, L. 66; Golliwog’s Cakewalk; Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon; and Nuit d’etoilesMichael Lewin, piano [Recorded at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, USA, 7 – 8 July 2014; Sono Luminus DSL-92190; 1 CD, 68:56; Available from Sono Luminus, ClassicsOnline HD (Download / Streaming), and major music retailers]

To learn more about Michael Lewin, please visit his website.

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BEST ARTIST OF 2015: Conductor TIMOTHY MYERS [Photo by Simon Pauly, © by IMG Artists]Maestro on the ascendant: Conductor Timothy Myers [Photo by Simon Pauly, © by IMG Artists]

One of the simplest joys of exposing young children to Classical Music is watching their hilarious, often surprisingly intuitive efforts at mock-conducting. One of the most gnawing annoyances of loving Classical Music is observing how many conductors never truly outgrow that sort of naïve, unschooled stick-waving, retaining the puerility but not the uncomplicated elation. Great conductors are as varied as the scores that they conduct, the largesse of a Bernstein a world apart from the restraint of a Böhm. Indeed, insightful conducting is not always easily discerned from charismatic conducting, but it is a critical distinction. In his time with North Carolina Opera, of which company he is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, and its previous incarnation, Opera Company of North Carolina, Timothy Myers has proved himself to be an invaluable asset to musical life in North Carolina and beyond and an exceptionally intelligent repertory conductor of the type all but extinct since the advent of the era of conductor-as-would-be-action-heroes. His accomplishments on the North Carolina Opera podium in recent seasons include a powerful semi-staged account of Dvořák’s Rusalka, a concert performance of Act Two of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde that made contemporaneous Bayreuth efforts seem amateurish by comparison, and consistently engaging, unimpeachably musical productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and Verdi’s La traviata. Living composers trust Myers with the preparation and premières of new music. Singers trust his leadership when making important rôle débuts. Audiences trust him to always give of his best. A prevalent theme in my writing for Voix des Arts is the worrying distrust among young conductors of the music that they conduct. A vital component of what makes a conductor great is belief in the absolute necessity of a piece being heard, a trait that is sometimes innate and sometimes acquired but is always apparent to a conductor’s colleagues and audiences. When conducting Don Giovanni, for instance, Myers clearly made choices not because Mahler did this, Maazel did that, and Mehta did something else entirely but because Mozart created a score in which the music makes its own demands, inviting individual interpretation, of course, but not to be ignored because some latter-day sage professes to know better. The results of Myers’s efforts at improving the quality of North Carolina Opera’s orchestral playing are, on their own scale, no less monumental than what first Mahler and then James Levine achieved at the Metropolitan Opera [in seasons before Myers’s residency in Raleigh, playing was seldom truly embarrassing, but it rarely increased enjoyment of performances as it has done recently], but I find the most comforting, enthralling, and gratifying aspect of Myers’s conducting to be the assurance that, no matter which score is before him, I will hear the composer’s music as it exists on the page, delivered with imagination, intensity, and, above all, uncompromising fidelity to no one’s notions of how the piece should sound other than the composer’s and his own—notions that in Myers’s performances are exceptionally compatible. Youngsters whose introduction to Classical Music is born of a fascination with the baton could find no more knowledgeable, thoughtful, and sheerly fun a rôle model than Timothy Myers.

To learn more about Timothy Myers, please visit his website.

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BEST ARTIST OF 2015: Tenor ANDREW OWENS [Photo by Wilfried Hösl, © by IMG Artists]Bella voce di bel canto: Tenor Andrew Owens [Photo by Wilfried Hösl, © by IMG Artists]

​Dashing is a word that is tossed about with ridiculous regularity to describe every sort of performer and performance, but young American tenor ​​Andrew Owens is the personification of the overused term, vocally and histrionically. His Don Ramiro in Greensboro Opera’s August 2015 La Cenerentola [reviewed here] was the kind of performance about which Rossini aficionados dream, one in which every demand of the score was met without hedging or hesitation. In 2016, North Carolinians are granted another opportunity to hear this musical magician casting spells in Rossinian fiorature as Conte Almaviva in North Carolina Opera’s April production of Il barbiere di Siviglia. It is significant that Owens was mentored by fellow tenor Enrico Di Giuseppe, one of the unheralded heroes of American opera. When Dame Joan Sutherland’s Marie in Donizetti’s La fille du Régiment was introduced to Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinée broadcast listeners in 1972, her Tonio was not Luciano Pavarotti but Di Giuseppe, a beloved member of the New York City Opera company and frequent costar there of the incomparable Beverly Sills whose top Cs were no less stirring and even more reliable than those of his Italian colleague. The next year, Di Giuseppe partnered Gilda Cruz-Romo and Robert Merrill in a superb MET broadcast performance of Verdi’s La traviata, and he rescued the 1971 opening night of a new production of Massenet’s Werther, opposite the Charlotte of the magnificent Christa Ludwig, by substituting for Franco Corelli in the title rôle. Andrew Owens is among the very small number of tenors singing today whose vocal brilliance and firm technical footing qualify him as a legitimate inheritor of Di Giuseppe’s mantle. A true tenore di grazia, Owens is a bold singer who is unafraid of taking risks but is also unfailingly, meticulously prepared. His Ramiro provided much of the bel in the Greensboro Cenerentola’s bel canto, and his portrayals of parts ranging from Barbarigo opposite Plácido Domingo’s Francesco in Verdi’s I due Foscari to Chevalier Léon in Darius Milhaud’s La mère coupable during his tenure as a young artist with the company of Vienna’s Theater an der Wien have disclosed an uncommon capacity for thoughtful, thought-provoking characterizations. What I find most fascinating about Owens’s singing is the ambiguity that he conveys by vocalizing so confidently whilst finding and spotlighting among the traits of the men he portrays touching elements of vulnerability. There is something unique and endearing about a Ramiro who sings Rossini’s music with absolute ease but seems wholly sensitive to the fact that happiness is not something obtained by royal prerogative. In part, this is a parable of the genre itself. Opera in the new millennium is no longer conquered by voice alone, but Owens is a crusader who reminds us, as Enrico Di Giuseppe reminded a previous generation of listeners, that a well-schooled, well-used voice is the heart of an important artist, of a successful performance, and of the survival of opera.

To learn more about Andrew Owens, please visit his website.

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BEST ARTIST OF 2015: Dramatic soprano ANGELA RENÉE SIMPSON [Photo © by Angela Renée Simpson]Queen [and Queenie] of the Stage: Dramatic soprano Angela Renée Simpson [Photo © by Angela Renée Simpson]

In the magnificently tumultuous history of song, there have been near-continuous progressions of great singers and great voices. In the first instance, there are singers who excel despite an absence of vocal resources of the highest order. By contrast, there are singers who are only occasionally satisfactory as technicians but whose voices are exquisite instruments. Perhaps rarer than any other occurrences in music are those in which talent and technique intersect, thereby genuinely meriting application of the oft-abused distinction of artist. Hearing the singing of dramatic soprano Angela Renée Simpson, whether she is portraying a storied heroine of the operatic stage or bringing a composer’s intentions to life in concert or recital, is to wholly understand the indelible catharsis of surrendering without hesitation to an artist whose voice is as miraculous as the intelligence that sustains it. When assessing performances by singers, my analyses are guided by what I hear, but it is impossible to consider a performance by Angela Renée Simpson without thinking first and foremost about what her singing causes me to feel. To experience her vocal acting as Serena in Porgy and Bess or Queenie in Showboat​ is to know how it must have felt to hear Nordica’s Brünnhilde, Fremstad’s Salome, Flagstad’s Isolde, and Varnay’s Elektra. Comparing voices, particularly those of great quality, is a dangerous and essentially useless sport, but the singers who voices resound in my mind’s ear when I contemplate Simpson’s artistry are Eileen Farrell and Jessye Norman. Like the former, Simpson is not heard in her native country’s opera houses with anything approaching the frequency that her talents warrant, and, like Norman, her vocal and dramatic abilities cannot be neatly compartmentalized and pigeonholed. Simpson has both suffered and benefited from today’s musical establishment’s bumbling ignorance of how to train and maintain dramatic voices. Crucially, though, she has thrived on the freedom granted by the failures of conventional methodologies, honing her technique according to the physical and expressive dimensions of her voice and polishing her artistry within her own parameters, not someone else’s. When hearing Simpson’s voice surging from the abyss of despair in ‘My man’s gone now,’ Serena’s lament for her murdered husband in Act One of Porgy and Bess, it is virtually impossible to not be reminded of the rôle’s creator, the radiant Ruby Elzy, whose brief life tragically ended not long before she was to have sung her first Aida. Could she have heard her successor as Serena sing Verdi, ‘ol’ man sorrow’ might have been held at bay for a while. Then again, it is difficult to imagine that a voice like Angela Renée Simpson’s does not reach heaven every time that its owner sets it free. Without question, her singing propagates cherished oases of heaven on earth whether the words are those of Catfish Row or the disconsolate daughter of the Ethiopian king.

To learn more about Angela Renée Simpson, please visit her website.