Our second-annual reader poll was an even bigger success than our inaugural effort. You nominated the best performers, performances, venues, and festivals during the 2015–16 season and we put the top selections in each category up for a vote. We received over 2,250 responses — up 30 percent from last year.
The primary editorial contribution to the poll was our effort to craft categories that would allow for a range of nominations that embraced organizations and music of all sorts: large and small, mainstream and fringe, old and new. Ultimately, the choice for Best of the Bay was yours. Here’s how you voted.
Best Opera Singer: Susan Graham
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was the clear favorite in this category for the second year in a row. Steven Winn praised her performance in the Berlioz cantata La mort de Cléopâtre (Death of Cleopatra) with the San Francisco Symphony this summer. Gramophone Magazine calls Graham “America’s favorite mezzo,” and SFCV readers concur.
Best Chamber Ensemble: Left Coast Chamber Ensemble
The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble have distinguished themselves 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." They have conncected with our readers this year. The New Esterházy Quartet, last year’s winners in this category, were runners up in 2016.
Best Choral Group: San Francisco Symphony Chorus
The 156-member S.F. Symphony Chorus prides itself on precision, power, and versatility, and that combination won the hearts of SFCV readers. The Grammy-winning chorus were featured throughout the 2015–16 season, with highlights including performances of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, Berlioz' Requiem, Op. 5, Handel's Messiah, and Haydn's Mass in D-Minor. SFCV writer Rebecca Wishnia was particularly impressed with their effort to reach out to a new audience via a concert they offered in the new SoundBox experimental performance space.
Best Early/Baroque Ensemble: Philharmonia Baroque
According to SFCV writer Jason Victor Serinus, "If ever a competition were held to demonstrate that classical does not equal stodgy, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra Music Director Nicholas McGegan would sail through the challenge with ease.” In his review of a Philharmonia Baroque holiday concert last season we wrote that the ensemble delivered works by Purcell and Handel with “fluent, graceful performances.”
Best New Music Ensemble: Left Coast Chamber Ensemble
The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble is the only group to win in three categories: Best Chamber Ensemble, Best New Music Ensemble, and (with Nikki Einfeld), best Chamber Music Performance. Clearly they are doing something right. They've certainly earned bragging rights in the realm of new music. According to their website, “The group has commissioned over 55 new works, sponsors an annual composition contest that draws over 150 applicants each year, and carries on a tradition of performing the very best that the composers of today (whether established or emerging) have to offer.”
Best Orchestra: San Francisco Symphony
The Bay Area boasts an embarrasment of symphonic riches, with at least a half-dozen great orchestras performing regularly in the region. The world-class San Francisco Symphony took top honors in our poll, as they did last year, too. SFCV writers covered many of their season's highlights, including a program dubbed "The Exotic East," Mason Bates' Auditorium, Jörg Widmann’s Trauermarsch, and their semistaged production of On the Town.
Best Opera Performance: Tie: Don Carlo / Jenůfa (S. F. Opera)
San Francisco Opera's spring season was clearly still on the minds of poll respondents. Despite the bluster and fanfare attending Calixto Bieito's setting of Bizet's Carmen, It was their productions of Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa and Verdi's Don Carlo that tied for first place. Of the latter, Lisa Hirsch wrote, “superb contributions of the cast, conductor, and orchestra make this a Don Carlo to remember.”
Best Chamber Music Performance: Nikki Einfeld with the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble
Chamber-music enthusiasts had a wealth of superb concerts to choose from this past year, but Nikki Einfeld’s end-of-season collaboration with the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble was our readers’ top pick for Best of the Bay by a wide margin. In her San Jose Mercury News review, Georgia Rowe wrote, “The collaboration yielded especially impressive results in the performance of Strauss' "Ophelia Lieder" that concluded the evening's first half. Deftly accompanied by longtime Left Coast pianist Eric Zivian, Einfeld sang with rhythmic vitality and considerable fervor, going the emotional distance in the composer's brief but potent trio of portraits of Shakespeare's Ophelia. From stark beauty to manic energy to inconsolable grief, this was an arresting traversal.”
Best Choral Performance: Britten’sWar Requiem, Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra
The redoubtable Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra concluded its 50th season by tackling Benjamin Britten’s imposing War Requiem, a choral masterwork for two choruses, two orchestras, and multiple soloists. The BCCO more than met the challenge as evidenced by their decisive first place in our poll and by comments collected from concertgoers such as, “It has been a while since I was so moved by a performance. It was one of the most satisfying musical events that I have ever attended.”
Best Dance Performance: Mark Morris: L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (Mark Morris and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra)
This was the fifth time Cal Performances has presented L’Allegro, and it shows no sign of wearing out its welcome. It garnered the lion’s share of votes in our poll — no other dance performance came close. A reviewer for The New York Times wrote about the piece, “I find no end to the intricacies of Mr. Morris’s construction, and the meanings that continually pour from them. It fills the soul with wonder; it fascinates the mind with suggestion.”
Best Early/Baroque Performance: Rachel Podger with Voices of Music
Rachel Podger, often described as the "Queen of the Baroque Violin," joined the acclaimed Voices of Music early music ensemble for an evening of violin concertos by J.S. Bach and Vivaldi during this summer's Berkeley Festival & Exhibition, and their collaboration was the popular favorite among many terrific early music and Baroque performances. Musica Pacifica's 25th Anniversary Concert received a solid vote of support, too.
Best New Music Performance: Mason Bates' Alternative Energy with the Redwood Symphony
Eric Kujawsky and the all-volunteer, no-audition Redwood Symphony have earned a reputation for great performances of interesting, challenging orchestral music. In a recent SFCV interview. Kujawsky noted that the Redwood has a hard time getting the attention of some major Bay Area media for concert reviews and promotion. Our readers, perhaps tipped by our writers, tapped the Redwood Symphony’s delivery of Mason Bates’ Alternative Energy as the best new-music performance of the year.
Best Orchestral Performance: Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel)
This was our most closely contested category, but ultimately Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 took the prize, followed closely by two Mahler symphony performances: No. 2 by the San Francisco Symphony and No. 8 by the Redwood Symphony.
Best Large Venue: Davies Symphony Hall
The Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall has its detractors, but they weren't voting in this poll. The handsome, and sonically improved concert venue was the popular favorite by a length, with the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House coming in a distant second.
Best Small Venue: Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley
With 678 seats, UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall is the perfect size to host a wide range of academic and community musical events. It is intimate enough for small chamber ensembles yet sufficiently expansive to accommodate a full orchestra with large chorus, as it did for this year’s best-choral performance winner, Britten’s War Requiem performed by the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra.
Best Festival: American Bach Soloists Summer Festival and Academy
Last year the American Bach Soloists took Best of the Bay in the Choral Performers category. This year, their influential Summer Festival and Academy edged out the Berkeley Festival and Exhibition and the Valley of the Moon Festival for Best Festival honors.
Best New Discovery: West Edge Opera
West Edge Opera was the popular favorite in this category, and their mission to bring opera to new audiences is an ongoing success. Their edgy productions of unusual repertoire in the formerly abandoned West Oakland train station were seen by capacity audiences, and our reviewers had good things to say about all three shows in their 2016 Festival: Powder Her Face, The Cunning Little Vixen, and Agrippina.