Now in its fourth year, SFCV’s annual reader poll continues to grow every year, with nearly four times as many final votes gathered this year than when we first launched Best of the Bay. We continue to be delighted with the sheer breadth and variety of the nominations and what it says about the Bay Area’s robust music scene.
The big names in town were acknowledged, of course, but we saw a lot of interest in artists and organizations that were less familiar or even brand new to us.
Once again, 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. We added four new categories this year that reflect our expanded coverage of jazz: best jazz vocalist, best jazz instrumentalist, best jazz performance, and best club venue.
Ultimately, the choices for Best of the Bay were yours, and your choices were decisive: There were clear winners in nearly every category, with just a few close contests.
Here’s how you voted.
Best Opera Singer: Renée Fleming
Superstar soprano Renée Fleming stunned the opera world with her announcement that she would no longer be performing fully staged opera. She hastened to apprise her worried public that she was by no means retiring, and would continue to share her voice with the world in other contexts. Fleming made numerous Bay Area appearances this past year, including stints at the S.F. Symphony's gala opener, Bing Concert Hall, and Green Music Center. It was a landslide for top honors, but Nikki Einfeld, Michael Fabiano, and Christine Goerke each deserve mention in this category.
Best Chamber Ensemble: San Francisco Chamber Orchestra
In our closest contest, San Francisco Chamber Orchestra garnered the necessary votes to pull ahead of Voices of Music as best chamber ensemble this year. Hard to argue with this popular choice. As they state on their website, “The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra is dedicated to making classical music accessible to audiences of all ages and backgrounds across the Bay Area by providing fully professional admission-free concerts and educational programming.” That commitment extends to performing over 40 concerts in five different cities with programs for all ages groups and interest levels. We applaud their gift to our community. Read our review of their energetic season opener last year.
Best Choral Group: California Bach Society
This 30-voice chamber chorus specializes in historically informed performances, and our reviewers regularly search for superlatives to describe their presentations of Renaissance and Baroque choral music. Read our review of this year's concert featuring Bach's Missa Brevis in G Major. Last year's winner in this category, the San Francisco Girls Chorus was runner-up this time around, with the American Bach Soloists and Ragazzi Boys Chorus not far behind.
Best Dance Soloist: Yuan Yuan Tan
Yuan Yuan Tan won this category a few grand jetés ahead of fellow dancers Maria Kochetkova and Wendy Whelan. 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. She might be best known for Nutcracker (Grand Pas de Deux Ballerina and Sugar Plum Fairy) and Swan Lake (Odette/Odile), but she has graced the boards with a wide variety of roles. We're looking forward to seeing her in a reprise of The Little Mermaid this coming season.
Best Early Music/Baroque Ensemble: California Bach Society
See entry above for Best Choral Group. Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale and Voices of Music were runners-up in this category.
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.” They certainly connected with our readers this time around. Read our review of their program highlighting serenades old and new. San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and Volti were the runners-up in this category.
Best Orchestra: San Francisco Symphony
With 52 different orchestras nominated in this category, it was a surprisingly crowded field, but you had one clear favorite. Even with so many other terrific local orchetras, it’s hard to deny the pedigree and accomplishments of the San Francisco Symphony, winner for the fourth consecutive year. And, once again, Philharmonia Baroque got the nod for second place.
Best Conductor: Michael Tilson Thomas
We know that there are legions of great musicians in the Bay Area, but who knew that our poll would see 94 different conductors nominated? When the numbers were counted, though, Michael Tilson Thomas still commanded the winner's perch. Even as he approaches his retirement from the S.F. Symphony podium, Tilson Thomas remains a tireless advocate of great music of all epochs, from the cutting edge of the new to lesser-known masterpieces of the past. Philharmonia Baroque’s beloved Nicholas McGegan was the runner-up, with Scott Krijnen and Bryan Baker each getting impressive recognition.
Best Recital Soloist: András Schiff
Pianist András Schiff was the clear favorite in this category, with Brian Thorsett and Winnie Nieh also receiving recognition for their recital skills. Our profile of Schiff describes him as delivering “... exceptional clarity in the way he presents voices and phrases, and, as with all great artists, he makes everything look and sound both effortless and completely logical.”
Best Jazz Vocalist: Juanita Harris
San José vocalist, actor, and voice-over artist Juanita Harris takes first honors in this first appearance of the jazz-vocalist category in Best of the Bay. Critic Betty 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 theatre throughout the country.” We look forward to hearing more from Juanita Harris, and based on your votes, so do you. Singers Cécile McLorin Salvant, Tiffany Austin, and Kenny Washington were also well represented in the poll.
Best Jazz Instrumentalist: Joshua Redman
Grammy-nominated saxophonist Joshua Redman appears in our jazz coverage regularly, and he is our first ever best-jazz-instrumentalist winner. It’s a fitting nod to one of the scene’s busiest and most-respected musicians. He headlined the Stanford Jazz Festival this summer and recently released Still Dreaming with Ron Miles, Scott Colley, and Brian Blade on Nonesuch Records. Bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, saxophonist George Brooks, and best-jazz-performance winner Evan Price each garnered impressive numbers.
Best Opera Performance: Dido and Aeneas, Voices of Music and San Francisco Girls Chorus
Voices of Music and the San Francisco Girls Chorus may not have had the season's biggest blockbuster with their impressive re-creation of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas — that distinction had to go to S.F. Opera and their presentation of the complete Ring cycle, but they took top honors in our poll in three different categories. Our reviewer wrote "To have Dido and Aeneas not just revived but revivified in a way that gets closer to the opera’s original sound was special and encapsulates what the early music performer is supposed to do — confront tradition in order to show us something new." The Ring took second place for best opera performance in our poll, followed by S.F. Opera's lauded production of Elektra.
Best Chamber Music Performance: “Leonardo da Vinci: A Musical Odyssey,” Voices of Music
In “Leonardo da Vinci: A Musical Odyssey,” Voices of Music presented a program of the music that Leonardo da Vinci would have heard in the cities in which he lived. They presented frottole, sung poetry, music from the Medici and Sforza courts, the circle of Isabella d’Este, and the Parisian chansons from da Vinci’s final years in France. This intriguing idea was a palpable hit, and it edged out New Century Chamber Orchestra’s celebration of Mozart’s birthday and Cal Arte Ensemble’s Mozart Requiem as your favorite chamber-music performance.
Best Choral Performance: Dido and Aeneas, Voices of Music and
San Francisco Girls Chorus
See entry above for Best Opera Performance. Masterworks Chorale took second place for their performance of Mozart's Requiem, with Ragazzi Boys Chorus in third for their 30th-anniversary concert.
Best Dance Performance: Tomasson: The Sleeping Beauty,
San Francisco Ballet
Our dance reviewer wrote about this production of Helgi Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty, "The results often dazzle ... Only a company this good and this big can field a terrific Sleeping Beauty, with different ballerinas in different roles every performance. Not only are the principal dancers ... superb, but so are the soloists, particularly the Fairies; the corps women, shown to warm advantage in the Garland Dance; and the six, charming little S.F. Ballet School students. And we haven’t even mentioned the gracious nymphs of the vision scene, green and ghostly and precisely in formation, or Act III’s superb character dances ..." Among the other dance performances winning your approval this year were Mark Morris's The Hard Nut and Smuin Ballet's performance of Ochoa's Requiem for a Rose.
Best Early/Baroque Performance: Dido and Aeneas, Voices of Music and San Francisco Girls Chorus
See entry above for Best Opera Performance. "Beethoven Unleashed" gave Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale the silver, with the bronze going to American Bach Soloists for their Monteverdi Vespers of 1610.
Best New Music Performance: “Death and a Knight,” Left Coast Chamber Ensemble
Left Coast Chamber Ensemble's "Death and a Knight" program paired two Kurt Rohde chamber operas: Never was a knight... and Death With Interruptions. In our review, tenor Joe Dan Harper stole the spotlight: "Everyone involved in this production is a star, but this is Harper’s show, and he carries it. Rarely does he stop singing (and strumming, and hitting a metal pan), and yet he acts so completely that even the most awkward of physical motions, such as gesturing with bows in each hand, seem authentic." Also earning recognition in this category was the Redwood Symphony's performance of Mason Bates's Anthology of Fantastic Zoology and Symphony Parnassus for their performance of Relics: Dances for Percussion Quartet and Orchestra by Stefan Cwik.
Best Orchestral Performance: Mahler: Symphony No. 3,
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas has made Mahler's music a defining specialty for the San Francisco Symphony over his tenure here, and his 17-CD Mahler Project is a comprehensive collection of all the composer's major works performed by the orchestra with MTT at the helm. The S.F. Symphony season closer this past July was Mahler's Symphony No. 3. Our reviewer wrote that this performance was "a bittersweet reminder of how sorely the conductor’s legendary interpretations of Mahler will be missed after his retirement as music director, in 2020." Voters were also enthusiastic about Voices of Music's performance of Vivaldi's Concerto in D Major at the Berkeley Festival & Exhibition, as well as Symphony Silicon Valley's presentation of Joe Hisaishi’s music from Studio Ghibli films.
Best Instrumental Recital Performance: András Schiff
Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff won your approval for his Davies Sympony Hall recitals cosponsored by the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Performances. Our reviewer was particularly impressed by his interpretations of Brahms' piano music. Violinist Ingrid Matthews and lutenist John Lenti were also in the running for their performance in the Berkelely Festival & Exhibition, as was pianist Tamami Honma for her performance of Beethoven concertos with the Cal Arte Ensemble.
Best Vocal Recital: William Sharp Sings Bach in the Chapel of Grace, with musicians of the American Bach Soloists
We didn’t catch William Sharp’s Chapel of Grace performance, but our review of an earlier American Bach Soloist concert sings his praises: “William Sharp, in a perfectly judged performance, found just the right blend of insouciance, pensiveness, and droll self-mockery as the composer’s spokesman. His suave and subtly muscular tone, earnest gestures, and quizzically amused expressions illuminated the lively and varied contours of the piece.” Other favorites in this category included Brian Thorsett in “How Cold the Wind Doth Blow” for Noe Valley Chamber Music and Kindra Scharich with the Alexander Quartet in a Lieder Alive program.
Best Jazz Performance: Evan Price CD Release Party at the Freight & Salvage
In an extremely tight contest, violinist Evan Price's CD-release concert at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage nosed ahead of Cécile McLorin Salvant's Cal Performances show to earn the nod for best jazz performance. Grammy-winning Price is at home in a remarkably broad spectrum of musical settings, from chamber music to jazz and swing to old-time fiddle music, and he's a lauded veteran of the Turtle Island String Quartet and the Hot Club of San Francisco. His new CD, Dialogues, features duets with three of his longtime musical compatriots: jazz bassist Paul Keller, classical guitarist Jason Vieaux, and fiddler Jeremy Kittel.
Best Large Venue: Davies Symphony Hall
The Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall has its detractors, but they weren't voting in this poll. As in previous years, this was the winner by a clear margn. The handsome, and sonically improved concert space was favored over the War Memorial Opera House and Bing Concert Hall as your favorite large venue.
Best Small Venue: San Francisco Conservatory of Music
The new performance spaces at the SFCM range from the 450-seat Caroline Hume Concert Hall, which accommodates the Conservatory’s orchestra, and the more intimate Sol Joseph Recital Hall and Osher Salon, which are perfect for chamber ensembles and solo recitals. Club-venue winner SFJAZZ and the First Congregatonal Church in Berkeley were close contenders for the honor this year.
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 in a close contest for this category. Voters also gave thumbs up to Yoshi's in Oakland and Feinstein's at the Nikko in San Francisco.
Best Festival: American Bach Soloists Summer Festival & Academy
This is the third win for the American Bach Soloists in this category, and the competition was tight this year, with the Berkeley Festival & Exhibition, the Valley of the Moon Festival, and the new International Piano Festival showing strong support from voters. The theme for this year's ABS festival was "The Glorious Court of Dresden," with concerts, workshops, lectures, and master classes exploring music composed in and around the German "Jewel Box" city. One of our reviews noted that regardless of the program, "American Bach Solistist" is simply a phenomenal Baroque choir and orchestra." This festival is unique at least one of the performances features soloists from the rigorous summer Academy program. This year it was a presentation of Handel's Semele, which another SFCV reviewer described as "an inspired and inspiriting event."
Best Discovery: Masterworks Chorale
Although clearly a new discovery for some, Masterworks Chorale is a familiar musical organization to many SFCV readers, and last year the group won in the best-choral-performance category for their rendition of the Verdi Requiem. For 55 years now, the chorale has been delivering superb choral music performed by a community chorus of over 100 voices, often in collaboration with other choirs, choruses, and instrumental ensembles, all under the baton of Bryan Baker. We're pleased that Masterworks Chorale has some new fans. Other top new discoveries this year included the San Francisco International Piano Festival, the Mission College Symphony, and the Nomad Session Wind and Brass Octet.