Best of the Bay 2018–2019 Winners

Paul Kotapish on August 27, 2019

Now in its fifth year, SFCV’s annual reader poll continues to delight 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. 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. 

The big winner this year was Voices of Music, a versatile, broad-minded, early-music ensemble seemingly at home in the idioms of any era. The group has done well in past years, but this time around it took first place in a whopping five categories, with a second place score in a sixth. Well done, and congratulations to all the winners this year.

Here’s how you voted.

Best Opera Singer: Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen | Credit: Fay Fox

In reviewing countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen’s debut recording, our critic wrote that the album shows Nussbaum Cohen “as a complete artist with an impressive technique. Diction, phrasing, breath support, full rounded tone, and a flair for ornamentation — the veritable checklist of technical attributes essential to great Baroque singing — are there in spades. So is a total commitment to the swings between melancholy, despair, anguish, nobility, fury, pain, and love under duress at the core of the recital’s repertoire.” Soprano Amanda Forsythe was a close second, with coloratura Nikki Einfeld and soprano Shana Blake Hill tied for third.

Best Chamber Ensemble: Voices of Music

Voices of Music

One of our reviewers describes 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 agree. Runners-up include Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Left Coast Chamber Ensemble.

Best Choral Group: San Francisco Girls Chorus

San Francisco Girls Chorus | Credit: Ben La

In describing a performance by this year’s winners for best choral group, one of our reviewers wrote: “The captivating power of the human voice drives all choral concerts, even when composers move into abstract territory. For proof, consider the San Francisco Girls Chorus, whose vocal prowess is hard to resist .... Throughout the evening, the Chorus presented ... perfect unity time and again, adroitly led by their brilliant artistic director and conductor [Valérie Sainte-Agathe].” The American Bach Soloists and California Bach Society were runners-up in this field.

Best Dance Soloist: Erin Yarbrough-Powell

Erin Yarbrough-Powell with Eduardo Permuy | Credit: Keith Sutter

Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s Erin Yarbrough-Powell edged out last year’s winner, Yuan Yuan Tan of the SF Ballet, for first place in the dance soloist category. In addition to her star turns on the boards as featured soloist in pieces like Amy Seiwert’s Revealing the Bridge, Michael Smuin’s Romeo & Juliet, and Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort, Yarbrough-Powell is a passionate teacher who has initiated countless girls and young women into the world of dance through her classes at Alameda’s Dance Arts Project.

Best Early Music/Baroque Ensemble: Voices of Music

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 runners-up in this category. 

Best New-Music Ensemble: San Francisco Girls Chorus

San Francisco Girls Chorus

This year’s winners for Best Choral Ensemble also took first place as best New-Music Ensemble, an honor that might not seem altogether intuitive. But the lauded chorus is constantly pushing expectations with their adventurous repertory, frequent commissions, and regular collaborations with pioneers on the front edge of new music. A recent example includes a piece written for the group by the avant-garde guitarist Fred Frith, which they unveiled last march at the SF Conservatory of Music. Left Coast Chamber Ensemble and Volti were runners-up in this category.

Best Orchestra: San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony

As with previous polls, this category was crowded with nominees, but voters 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 fifth consecutive year. And, once again, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra got the nod for second place, followed by the Redwood Symphony. 

Best Conductor: Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the SF Symphony | Courtesy San Francisco Symphony

We were taken by surprise when we introduced this category at the sheer number of conductors nominated — nearly 70 this year. When the votes were tallied, Michael Tilson Thomas still wielded the winner’s baton. Even as he enters his final season on the SF Symphony podium, Tilson Thomas remains a tireless advocate of great music of all epochs, from the cutting edge to lesser-known masterpieces of the past. Runners-up this year include Jeffrey Benson of Peninsula Cantare and Valérie Sainte-Agathe of the San Francisco Girls Chorus.

Best Recital Soloist: Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen | Credit: Fay Fox

See entry above for Best Opera Singer. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen seems to be on a rocket to stardom. With a well-received new album, debuts with numerous opera companies and symphony orchestras, and prominent recitals in prestigious venues, the singer is everywhere, and he’s just getting going. In addition to his nod for Best Opera Singer, he was the resounding winner in the Recital Soloist category. Brian Thorsett and Nanette McGuinness tied for second place, with Kyle Stegall in third.

Best Jazz Vocalist: Juanita Harris

Juanita Harris

San José vocalist, actor, and voice-over artist Juanita Harris takes first honors for the second year in a row in 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.” Ann Moss and Paula West were runners-up.

Best Jazz Instrumentalist: Justin Ouellet

Justin Ouelette

We were a tad surprised when violinist/violist Justin Ouellet took first place for Best Jazz Instrumentalist, but we shouldn’t have been. Strings are happening in jazz. Violinist Mads Tolling came in third place this year in this category, and last year violinist Evan Price took first in the Jazz Performance niche. The multifaceted Ouellet has a deep pedigree in classical music and a long roster of performance credits in chamber, orchestral, and contemporary repertory, and he is a core member of CMASH, which is committed to establishing and nurturing long-term collaborative relationships between composers and performers. He is comfortably at home in the worlds of improvised music, including rock and jazz, and in the latter genre, he can be heard playing viola and violin with the expansive NUVO Jazz Quartet, among other ensembles. His debut album is Episodes of an Aquarius. Pianist Taylor Eigsti was the runner-up.

Best Opera Performance: San Francisco Opera — Rusalka

A scene from SF Opera’s production of Dvořák’s Rusalka | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

SF Opera’s Rusalka was the runaway winner in this category, with more than twice the votes as its nearest competitor. Our reviewer wrote: “Everything from the highly characterized singing to the moodily compelling design elements to the lush yet keenly honed reading of the score, under conductor Eun Sun Kim’s baton in her fine company debut, registers in a vividly visceral, emotionally penetrating way .... Nothing feels or sounds gratuitous; just about everything, across three-and-a-half musically and dramatically absorbing hours, seems essential.” Redwood Symphony’s Pride and Prejudice and Festival Opera’s Susannah tied for second, with West Bay Opera’s Falstaff in third place.

Best Chamber Music Performance: Voices of Music — “Musical Crossroads”

Voices of Music and guests in “Musical Crossroads” | Courtesy of Voices of Music

This Voices of Music event clearly touched a lot of hearts and minds. With special guests including kamancha virtuoso Imamyar Hasanov and fiddler Laura Risk, the concert spanned several continents and eight centuries of music. Our reviewer wrote praisingly of the performance, which took first place in our Best New Music category, too. Left Coast Chamber Ensemble’s “The Sound of Nature” garnered second place, and the Valley of the Moon Festival’s “An Italian in Paris” came in third.

Best Choral Performance: Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale — Handel’s Saul

Nicholas McGegan and Sherezade Panthaki with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale in Handel’s Saul | Credit: Frank Wing

Our reviewer wrote about this performance: “To report that the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale gave a magnificent performance of the work ... is both manifestly true and slightly misrepresentative of the achievement. Yes, there were grand and glorious things ... but it wasn’t the orchestral showiness that made such a deep and faceted impression. What mattered was the dimensionality of the whole, the depth of feeling and dramatic urgency that came together with such authority and grace under conductor Nicholas McGegan’s sure hand.” American Bach Soloists took second place with St. Matthew Passion, followed closely by California Bach Society’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s The All-Night Vigil.

Best Dance Performance: San Francisco Ballet — The Sleeping Beauty

Thamires Chuvas and Alexander Reneff-Olson in Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty | Credit: Erik Tomasson

SF Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty took first place in dance for the second year in a row. According to our critic, the production “had it all going on,” with fabulous music, choreography, costuming, and scenic design. She added, “And the best for last: a fantastic company, dancing their souls, soles, hearts, and everything out. ‘What are you saving it for?’ George Balanchine would chide. These dancers could have answered, ‘absolutely nothing.’” Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Revelations came in second, with ODC/Dance’s Path of Miracles in third place.

Best Early/Baroque Performance: Voices of Music — “As Steals the Morn”

Singers Thomas Cooley and Amanda Forsythe were featured with Voices of Music in the “As Steals the Morn” program

We weren’t able to catch this performance, but our readers certainly did, and they pushed this concert ahead of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale’s performance of Handel’s Saul and California Bach Society’s “I Maestri Italiani a Vienna” program. Voices of Music regulars were joined by acclaimed singers Amanda Forsythe and Thomas Cooley for a winning evening that included the Bach Orchestral Suite in B Minor and arias from Handel’s operas. Featured soloists were Emi Ferguson on Baroque flute and and Marc Schachman on Baroque oboe.

Best New Music Performance: Voices of Music — “Musical Crossroads”

Voices of Music and guests in “Musical Crossroads” | Courtesy of Voices of Music

Voices of Music are best known for their superb early/Baroque music (see the entries above for Best Chamber Performance and Early/Baroque Performance), but voters liked the genre-defying nature of this eclectic program, which included a few pieces that met the typical new-music rubric. Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale was runner up for their concert featuring the music of Caroline Shaw, and One Found Sound’s “Storytelling” concert and gala took third place. 

Best Orchestral Performance: San Francisco Symphony — Mahler’s Ninth

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony | Credit: Bill Swerbenski

Michael Tilson Thomas has made Mahler’s music a defining specialty for the San Francisco Symphony over his tenure here, and Best Orchestra Performance went to SFS for Mahler’s Third last year. This year’s Ninth captured your imaginations. In a review of an earlier MTT/SFS performance of the work, our reviewer wrote: “The performance of this overflowing work ... was one of emotional richness and great skill, with the musical line handled rightly at every level, from individual phrases to the symphony’s large-scale architecture. Tilson Thomas has a special affinity for Mahler’s mix of ecstatic and erratic, and deftly led the players through the small, intimate moments that dot the work, the music’s sharper mood swings and its emotional progression.” Voices of Music took second place for “As Steals the Morn” (winner for Best Early/Baroque Performance), with PBO in third for Saul (winner for Best Choral Performance).  

Best Instrumental Recital Performance: Garrick Ohlsson

Garrick Ohlsson | Credit: Dario Acosta

Voters enthusiastically endorsed pianist Garrick Ohlsson’s all-Brahms program at Herbst Theatre last February. Although best known for his interpretations of Frédéric Chopin since winning the pretigious International Chopin Piano Competition in 1970, Ohlsson is in the middle of a multiyear project to explore the complete piano works of Brahms. His performance was the clear winner this year, with Derek Tam’s “Resonance” concert taking second place and a nod to Ensemble for These Times’ “Film Noir Project” for third.

Best Vocal Recital: Heidi Moss Erickson and John Parr

John Parr and Heidi Moss Erickson at the Noe Valley Ministry | Credit: Frank Zapeda

In a close contest, Heidi Moss Erickson and John Parr’s “Richard Strauss Chronology” recital for Lieder Alive! at the Noe Valley Ministry took first place. The soprano is well-known for her performances with West Edge Opera, Opera Parallèle, Festival Opera, Pocket Opera, Livermore Opera, Fremont Symphony, Oakland Symphony, West Bay Opera, and other companies around the globe. One of our reviewers wrote that she is “possessed of a pleasingly full voice, with crystal-clear tone and diction.” This performance narrowly edged out Kyle Stegall and Eric Zivian’s “Visionary Salon” concert at the Valley of the Moon Festival and Zachary Gordin and Bryan Nies at the Lesher Center.

Best Large Venue: Davies Symphony Hall

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 Bing Concert Hall as your favorite large venue.

Best Small Venue: San Francisco Conservatory of Music

The concert hall at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music

The performance spaces at SFCM range from the 450-seat Caroline H. 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. The First Congregatonal Church in Berkeley and the SFJAZZ Center were close contenders for second-place honors this year.

Best Club Venue: Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse

The Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse

The “new” Freight & Salvage — the third space for this indispensable East Bay venue — celebrates its 10th anniversary in its snazzy Berkeley Arts District location this month. The first iteration opened over 50 years ago in a used furniture store as a modest coffeehouse with a tiny stage and 87 seats, followed by a stint in a former black box theater a few blocks away that more than doubled its capacity and improved the listening experience for all. The current location at 2020 Addison Street offers state-of-the-art sound and lighting, comfortable seating for over 400 listeners, improved backstage amenities for the artists, workshop and classroom spaces, and a large foyer for jam sessions and socializing before and after stage shows. Programming at the Freight is the epitome of eclectic, as a glance at their roster of upcoming shows will reveal. 

Best Festival: American Bach Soloists Summer Festival & Academy

American Bach Soloists

As our annual SFCV Summer Music Festival Guide demonstrates, the Bay Area is brimming with great music festivals of all descriptions. By your vote for the last four years, the ABS Festival & Academy is your favorite. Concert themes this year included “’Tis Nature’s Voice,” “Treasures From Lyon,” “Les Goûts Réunis,” and two evenings of Handel and Lotti. Our reviewer was paticularly struck by the performance of an unusual setting of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater that he called “gorgeous and engaging.” The Valley of the Moon Music Festival garnered runner-up status, and the always-intriguing West Edge Opera Festival came in third.

Best Discovery: Festival Opera — Susannah

Soprano Shana Blake Hill as Susannah Polk and tenor Alex Boyer as Sam Polk in Festival Opera’s production of Susannah by Carlisle Floyd | Credit: Dick Brundage

Our review of this year’s winning entry in this category stated, “A gripping production of Carlisle Floyd’s tragedy Susannah this past weekend made it clear that Festival Opera has returned to full production in high gear. After several years of reduced offerings, the Walnut Creek-based company, with newly appointed artistic director Zachary Gordin, brought this lush American opera to the Lesher Center with savvy stage direction and first-class music from singers and orchestra.” Voters agreed, and we’re looking forward to more from Festival Opera. In a tight race, the Valley of the Moon Music Festival and the San Francisco Youth Chorus placed second and third, respectively, for Best New Discovery.