Now in its sixth year, SFCV’s annual readers’ poll celebrates the wealth of the Bay Area’s vital music scene by letting you honor your artists, organizations, and venues. Long-time readers will note that we changed the moniker of our survey from “Best of the Bay” to “Audience Choice Award,” which better reflects the nature of the poll. All nominees and final winners are selected by the audience.
Once again, there were clear winners in nearly every category, with just a few close contests. And once again this year the big winner was Voices of Music, a versatile, broad-minded, early-music ensemble seemingly at home in the idioms of any era. Clearly a popular group with a highly motivated fan base, the ensemble took top honors six categories.
The shelter-in-place order and the resulting cancellations decimated seasons and festivals, but also inspired some creative new ways of making and sharing music. The impact of the pandemic is apparent in some categories of this poll, where past contenders simply didn’t have as much presence this year. We added two new categories to recognize creative responses to this international challenge via performances and compositions.
After you've had a chance to look at the Bay Area awards, please check out the Audience Choice Awards for the Los Angeles Area.
Here’s how you voted:
Best Opera Singer: Igor Vieira
Our reviewer wrote about Vieira in West Bay Opera’s Elixir, “It was the arrival of Igor Viera as the quack doctor Dulcamara that pumped vitality into the performance. The veteran baritone continued to provide a consistently wonderful comic performance, milking the role to the max, but staying in character and not pushing it one iota too far.” Runners-up this year were Christina Major, Christopher Lowrey, and Sarah Coit.
Best Chamber Ensemble: Voices of Music
Last year our reviewer described his experience with Voices of Music this way: “Every single concert that I have attended by Voices of Music (VOM), the versatile and multifaceted early music ensemble, has been an enriching experience that left me informed about a previously unknown (or perhaps unnoticed) aspect of this unique ensemble and its musicians, and of music history in general.” Based on your votes, you still agree. Runners-up include Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra.
Best Choral Group: San Francisco Girls Chorus
With superb artistic direction from Valérie Sainte-Agathe, top-notch talent on the tiers, an indomitable sense of adventure in programming, terrific training programs, and a laudable commitment to fostering and commissioning new works by living composers, the SF Girls Chorus has established itself as one of the top Bay Area choral groups in a crowded, impressive field. California Bach Society and American Bach Soloists took second and third place in this category.
Best Dance Soloist: Yuan Yuan Tan
There were just two nominees in this dance category, but we have a feeling that no matter how many contestants were involved, the ever-popular Yuan Yuan Tan would be top contender. The Asian edition of Time magazine named Yuan Yuan Tan a “Hero of Asia” and Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV placed her among the world’s most influential Chinese. She’s certainly a hero here for her work with the San Francisco Ballet, where she’s been a principal dancer since 1997. Our reviewer wrote of her this year, “Tan at 25 years with the company remains the most stunning figure on its stage, graceful and daring, and her skill as a ballerina is equaled by her ability to act, to wordlessly step into any character of her choosing and make it real.” Benjamin Freemantle took a very respectable second place.
Best Early Music/Baroque Ensemble: Voices of Music
See entry above for Best Chamber Ensemble. According to their website, “Currently the most popular early-music ensemble in America, San Francisco based Voices of Music performs both renaissance and Baroque music, drawing upon the many and varied sources for historical performance practice. Performances are primarily one on a part, with an emphasis on combining both instrumental and vocal styles of interpretation and ornamentation.” Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale and the California Bach Society were in second and third places.
Best New-Music Ensemble: Left Coast Chamber Ensemble
The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble distinguishes itself by pairing new works with more traditional chamber repertoire and presenting it all with a feeling of immediacy. According to their mission statement, the ensemble “makes connections between composer and performer, performer and audience, audience and music, and between musics of all eras by staging a spectrum of imaginative programs that enchant and delight the listener, and gives diverse audiences multiple entry points for engaging with the music.” Read a recent review of their foray into contemporary chamber opera. The first and second runners-up were the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and Volti.
Best Orchestra: San Francisco Symphony
What’s left to be said? This category is always crowded with excellent nominees from around the Bay, but voters once again had one clear favorite. It’s impossible to deny the pedigree and accomplishments of the San Francisco Symphony, winner for the sixth consecutive year. Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra was the runner up, with One Found Sound and Oakland Symphony tying for third place.
Best Conductor: Michael Tilson Thomas
In a fitting tribute to his final year wielding the baton with the SF Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas took top honors once again. Voices of Music’s Hanneke van Proosdij and West Bay Opera's José Luis Moscovich were the runners-up.
Best Recital Soloist: Alana Youssefian
The virtuosic violinist is a member of Voices of Music frequently performs with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale and many other early-music groups, and she recently released her debut album, Brillance Indéniable: The Virtuoso Violin in the Court of Louis XV. Our reviewer wrote that the music on the recording “weds consummate professionalism with a clear passion for the material.” Runners-up in this category were Youssefian colleagues soprano Jamie Barton and soprano Sherezade Panthaki.
Best Jazz Vocalist: Juanita Harris
For the third year in a row, San José vocalist, actor, and voice-over artist Juanita Harris took first honors in the jazz-vocalist category. Critic Beti Webb Trauth writes, “Harris delivers one of the most visceral, believable performances I have ever had the privilege to experience in my many years of attending live theater throughout the country.” Dianne Reeves and Cécile McLorin Salvant earned second and third places.
Best Jazz Instrumentalist: Esperanza Spalding
In plugging an upcoming Esperanza Spalding show, SFCV wrote, “her voice is singular, and as a bassist, composer, and singer, her musical scope is wide. She fuses mainstream jazz with Afro-Brazilian, funk, soul, and hip-hop. If you’re looking for something predictable, she isn’t for you. But if you’re open to all the possibilities, Spalding ... is a must-see.” Fellow bassist Marcus Shelby took second honors, with saxophonist Joshua Redman not far behind in third place.
Best Opera Performance: Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale — Aci, Galatea e Polifemo
The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale have mounted some spectacular productions of Baroque operas in the past, often with meticulous attention to period details and staging. This stripped-down, modernist setting caught viewers’ attention this year. Read Steven Winn’s review of the production. Second place went to West Bay Opera’s Macbeth and third to Pocket Opera’s Don Giovanni.
Best Chamber Music Performance: Voices of Music —
“Concerto delle Donne”
Sopranos Sophie Junker and Sherezade Panthaki were featured alongside the Voices of Music instrumental wizards in this October concert of Italian vocal music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras. Left Coast Chamber Ensemble’s “End of Time” program had a slight edge on the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra’s “Magnificent Mr. Mozart” for second place.
Best Choral Performance: San Francisco Girls Chorus —
“Daring Sisters/Atrevidas Hermanas”
In one of the tightest races, the remarkable San Francisco Girls Chorus took the honors for a program that payed homage to homage to one of the leading feminist figures of the 17th century Latin American Baroque era, Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, known for her staunch advocacy of women’s rights to pursue an intellectual life, and to study and be recognized as equal to men. Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale took second place for Judas Maccabeus, with third place going to California Bach Society for “20th Century British Masters” program.
Best Dance Performance: San Francisco Ballet —
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
SF Ballet was only able to perform this splendid production one time, on March 6, before the War Memorial was closed, took quick action to save the show. Ticket holders for subsequent shows, however, were treated to a streamed version of the premiere captured for archival purposes. It was a hit, obviously. The only other contender in this dramatically curtailed season was Berkeley Ballet Theater (with the SF Girls Chorus), who made a good showing for their “Rightfully Ours” program.
Best Early/Baroque Performance: Voices of Music —
“The Harmonic Labyrinth”
Once again Voices of Music takes pride of place in this category for their December concert featuring countertenor Christopher Lowrey and violinist Alana Youssefian, winner in this year’s recital soloist slot. California Bach Society got the second-place nod for a program featuring both the Bach Magnificat and the Zelenka Missa Divi Xaverii. Coming in third was Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale for Judas Maccabeus
Best New Music Performance: Merola Opera Program —
If I Were You
One doesn’t typically associate opera with the new-music scene, but SFCV audiences begged to differ this year, and elected the Merola Opera Program’s premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s new opera, If I Were You first place in this category. Read our review here. Another surprise in this category was the nod to the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale for a program featuring Caroline Shaw’s The Listeners. In third place: Left Coast Chamber Ensemble for their “Changing and Unchanging Things” concert.
Best Orchestral Performance: San Francisco Symphony —
Mahler’s Symphony No. 6
Michael Tilson Thomas has made Mahler a specialty during his 25-year tenure with the SF Symphony, and our critic raved about this of this rendition of the composer’s Symphony No. 6, writing “from the moment the music began, the timeless power and authority of this remarkable work took hold.” Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale’s performance of Judas Maccabeus was the runner-up, followed by One Found Sound for their “Wonder” concert.
Best Instrumental Recital Performance: Voices of Music —
Violinist Augusta McKay Lodge and cornetto player Doron Sherwin were among the soloists in this February concert featuring music by Biber, Buonamente, Merula, Schmelzer, Vierdanck and others. Second place went to Eric Zivian for his performance of the Beethoven Sonata No. 30, Op. 109. Voters chose Jessie Nucho at Center for New Music for the “Feedback: In Response” program.
Best Vocal Recital Performance: Voices of Music —
“Concerto delle Donne”
See our note above for Best Chamber Music Performance. Chelsea Hollow took second place for her online mini concert for Pocket Opera, and the Three Tenors: The Next Generation concert at the Vallejo Empress Theatre took third.
Best Jazz Performance: Joshua Redman — “Still Dreaming”
No stranger to SFCV or to this readers’ poll, saxophonist Joshua Redman earned top honors in this category for his “Still Dreaming” program at Bing Concert Hall, where he was joined by by drummer Dave King, bassist Scott Colley, and cornetist Ron Miles for an evening of music honoring one of his father’s best-known ensembles, Dewey Redman’s 1976–1987 Old and New Dreams. Kim Nalley took second place for her “A December to Remember” show at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, followed by Tammi Brown at Yoshi’s doing her “Lost American Songbook” program.
Best Large Venue: Davies Symphony Hall
As in previous years, the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall was the winner by a clear margin. The handsome and sonically improved concert space was favored over the War Memorial Opera House and Herbst Theatre as your favorite large venue.
Best Small Venue: First Congregational Church of Berkeley
After a devastating fire rendered this popular concert space unusable in 2016, the First Congregational Church — affectionately dubbed “First Congo” — was lovingly restored and bounced back as your preferred small (verging on large) venue. Runners-up were St. Mark’s Lutheran in San Francisco and the Gunn Theatre at the Legion of Honor.
Best Club Venue: SFJAZZ
SFCV’s expanded jazz coverage places events at this purpose-built music facility squarely in our spotlight on a regular basis. While the larger Miner Auditorium was also a contender for best small venue, SFJAZZ's flexible Joe Henderson Lab edged out Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage this year in a close contest for this category. Voters also gave thumbs up to Yoshi's in Oakland, another venue best known for its jazz concerts.
Best Festival: Voices of Music — Online Summer Early Music Festival
Virtually all summer festivals were decimated by the lockdown, but a surprising number of organizations put on a brave face and carried on with streamed performances of new or recycled concert videos. Voices of Music’s Summer Early Music Festival is still available to all on their YouTube channel and provides hours of satisfying music. American Bach Soloists Summer Festival & Academy and Valley of the Moon Music Festival were runners up.
Best Discovery: Pocket Opera
This brilliant little opera company was the brainchild of Artistic Director Emeritus Donald Pippin, who made it his mission to make opera a little less grand and a lot more accessible to everyone via easy-to-follow librettos in English, simplified scores, intimate productions, and a price most can afford. The agile company was one of the first to adapt to the restrictions of the Covid era by producing a series of three-song mini-recitals by singers from their regular productions. Independent opera companies ruled best discoveries this year, with Livermore Valley Opera and Ars Minerva taking second and third honors.
Best Streamed Performance Created During the Pandemic:
Augusta McKay Lodge for Voices of Music
Popular winners Voices of Music hosted a number of streamed concerts created during shelter-in-place conditions, and Augusta McKay Lodge’s solo recital took top honors in this new category. You can enjoy her performance in the video below. Soprano Chelsea Hollow’s Mini Concert for Pocket Opera took second honors, followed closely by the Valley of the Moon Ensemble’s performance of Symphony for Three.
Best Composition Created in Response to the Pandemic:
Eric Whitacre — Sing Gently
If there is anything that can be described as an upside to our current predicament, it’s the outpouring of music made during and inspired by human resilience in the face of adversity. Grammy Award-winning Eric Whitacre is a pioneer in the realm of virtual choirs, and his meticulously crafted assemblages of individual voices have united voices from 145 countries. See and hear his winning entry in this category in the video below. Colin Martin’s Coronavirus Fantasy and Danny Clay’s Music for Hard Times were the runners-up.
Please check out the Audience Choice Awards for the Los Angeles Area.