Best Of 2020

Renowned violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter halted her performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra when she saw a first-row audience member at Music Hall recording her concert on a smartphone. When Mutter asked her to stop, the audience member refused and tried to argue with her. CSO president Jonathan Martin jumped up from his seat and escorted the videographer out. Mutter got rousing ovations for insisting that the filming stop — and for her radiant performance. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Music Hall, 1241 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, cincinnatisymphony.org.

The Esquire Theatre

The Esquire’s decision last year to regularly book special-event movies, including revived classics and cult films, has been a boon for film buffs who not only want to see something more than new first-run titles on the big screen but also desire chances to discuss what they’ve seen. They want to take film seriously as an art form. And nobody is doing a better job of offering them that opportunity than Joe Horine, a consultant for the Esquire as well as an adjunct film professor at the University of Cincinnati. Among his scintillating programming at the theater are his “Deep Dive” excursions into such classics as Rear Window, Chinatown and Alien. By frequently stopping the film to discuss an important scene or dialogue exchange and to take questions and comments from his audience about the significance of what they just witnessed, he lets his screenings go for three hours or more. And everyone who comes stays riveted the whole time. Because a Deep Dive event takes so much planning and preparation, Horine can’t offer them that often. Check the Esquire’s website frequently for advance notice — if you’re a film buff, these are not to be missed. Esquire Theatre, 320 Ludlow Ave., Clifton, esquiretheatre.com.

As Creatures: When Species Meet enveloped the galleries of the Contemporary Arts Center in May 2019, Steven Matijcio — CAC’s former head curator — set out to examine the delicate balance between art-making humans and their animal counterparts. (Though he left months earlier, When Species Meet marked Matijcio’s last CAC show.) A lighthearted clip from artist William Wegman and one of his famous weimaraner dogs, Man Ray, made an appearance, as did a series of vibrant, abstract works painted by actual elephants through the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project. Staying away from pieces where animals were merely subjects, Creatures favored those where they were active participants in art making. In one case, the process was best seen in real time: Brian Jungen’s geometric “Plaza 19,” a plywood and carpet-square model of the Terrace Plaza Hotel on Sixth and Vine streets downtown, was clearly a cleverly designed ruse to bring a bunch of very cute, very adoptable cats and kittens into the museum. Although Jungen has created similar installations where cats live 24/7, these felines from the SPCA played, explored and lounged in the plaza’s comfy cubby holes on Saturday afternoons, many of them finding new homes with art- and cat-loving CAC visitors. Contemporary Arts Center, 44 E. Sixth St., Downtown, contemporaryartscenter.org.

Cincinnati breaks the mold as a mid-sized city with a world-class orchestra, opera company and chamber music organization. All three of which celebrated anniversaries during their respective 2019-2020 season: the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra hit 125 years, the Cincinnati Opera turned 100 and Chamber Music Cincinnati ushered in 90 years. And, in their own ways, each organization championed lineups that not only referenced their past, but also looked toward the future. Of particular note, the CSO kicked off their observance with “Look Around,” a multimedia production created by composer Shara Nova and poet/rapper Siri Imani — who recited her poem “Lost Generation” — that took over Washington Park to great success with over 600 performers. Renowned pianist and composer Stewart Goodyear made his CMC debut by playing all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in the course of one day. And though the Cincinnati Opera technically hits 100 this June, the party started early last fall with a sold-out concert at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, the company’s home from 1920-1971. It makes sense, then, that they would bring back The Barber of Seville and Aida for their 2020 summer lineup, both of which were performed in the company’s first two seasons at the zoo. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, cincinnatisymphony.org; Cincinnati Opera, cincinnatiopera.org; Chamber Music Cincinnati, cincychamber.org.

Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of bestselling memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, which was adapted into a film starring Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan, spoke to a sold-out crowd at the Aronoff Center in October 2019. Sponsored by the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, it was the first of what will be an annual Mary S. Stern Lecture. CityBeat’s Steven Rosen, who attended the lecture, wrote that the author, public-interest lawyer and MacArthur Foundation fellow was “impassioned, eloquent and charismatic,” as he urged listeners to be active in reforming the U.S. justice and incarceration system, end the death penalty and work to “erase the pernicious effects of racism toward African Americans on America’s past and present.” He received a standing ovation following his lecture, and his powerful words — and statistics — are likely to resonate long after for audience members. The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, various branches, cincinnatilibrary.org.

Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati’s production of the Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home had that title because it’s about a family who live in a “fun”eral home. But there’s so much more: Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s “graphic memoir” (think a graphic novel with personal insights), the onstage adaptation portrays Bechdel’s youthful sexual awakening as a lesbian and her efforts to understand her father, a deeply closeted, highly literate gay man. Those are serious issues, but as the title implies, there was plenty of “fun,” especially when Alison’s youthful incarnation (the cast used three young women to play Alison — at ages 10, 19 and 43) and her kid brothers produce a jaunty TV promo, “Come to the Fun Home,” for the family business. The show, which was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, opened ETC’s 2019-2020 season with the kind of warm, engaging production that audiences have come to expect from Cincinnati’s “premiere theater.” Heartfelt, provocative, lovingly produced and wonderfully acted. D. Lynn Meyers’ direction ensured that this delicate, moving story was told with sensitivity and insight. Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, ensemblecincinnati.org.

Best Career-Spanning Retrospective

at the Contemporary Arts Center was the first retrospective to span the artist’s career from 1949 to 2009, displaying 85 paintings pulled from over five decades of work. Colescott, the first African-American artist to receive a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale (in 1997), explored popular culture as it relates to the black experience, exposing underlying prejudice through a transgressive lens. But the CAC exhibition, which was curated by Colescott’s longtime associate Lowery Stokes Sims and Matthew Weseley, was as relevant as ever. Beyond Cincy, the show received a shout-out from the The New York Times, among other national publications. Contemporary Arts Center, 44 E. Sixth St., Downtown, contemporaryartscenter.org.

Zines have long been a symbol of underground movements and niche subcultures. A form of independent self-publishing, their contents are as limitless as one’s imagination. The zine — as we know it — first came to be in the 1930s, when science fiction fans began sharing their own stories. Then there was the 1970s Punk scene. And then the 1990s Riot Grrrl era. Post-internet, the DIY ethos central to each subculture is still alive and well. That sentiment can be evidenced through the Zinecinnati festival, which held its inaugural event at The Mockbee in the summer of 2019. Bellevue, Kentucky-based duo Tom and Lauren Boeing founded the group after noticing that, while the Queen City was home to both a comic expo and an art book fair, there wasn’t an event solely dedicated to these self-published wonders. But it seems they’re not limiting themselves to just one event. In January, they co-launched “Zine club” with Covington’s Pique gallery. Long live the zine! Zinecinnati, zinecinnati.com.

The truth revealed in director Todd Haynes’ cinematic legal thriller Dark Waters is so harrowing you just might ditch your Teflon skillets for cast iron upon seeing it. Mark Ruffalo stars in this whistleblower film based on the true story of local lawyer Robert Bilott, who works at Cincinnati law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister. The story begins to unravel when Wilbur Tennant, a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, shows up at the firm with claims that hundreds of his cows have died under strange circumstances. Bilott takes the case, and the film follows him as he chases chemical company DuPont’s trail for two decades. Bilott finds, among other things, that DuPont has released thousands of pounds of an unregulated substance called PFOA — also known as C8, which is used in the manufacturing of Teflon — into the Ohio River and “digestion ponds,” from which the toxin can leak into the ground. Through his work, Bilott discovers that not only is the drinking water of Parkersburg tainted, but the contamination also stretches to towns beyond. The film closes with a damming fact: 99.7 percent of Americans have C8 in their bloodstreams. Even more sickening? PFOAs remain federally unregulated. To this day, Bilott is still fighting for better regulations and representing those affected. Filmed partially in Cincy, Dark Waters tells an important story of environmental injustice and the evils of corporate greed. Bilott also published a book, Exposure, about his battle with DuPont.

Best Cincy-Centric Poster Art Show
click to enlarge "The Wizard of Oz" 1904 color lithograph - PHOTO: FROM THE COLLECTION OF THE PUBLIC LIBRARY OF CINCINNATI AND HAMILTON COUNTY
Photo: From the collection of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
"The Wizard of Oz" 1904 color lithograph

Last summer’s L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters at the Taft Museum of Art was an excellent traveling show — work came from Chicago’s Richard H. Driehaus Museum. But to roughly coincide with it, the Taft’s curatorial assistant Angela Fuller, with help from assistant curator Ann Glasscock, put together a local poster exhibit that, even with just seven objects, matched the larger show in impact and memorability. Borrowing from The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s collection, their Magic & Melodrama: Cincinnati Posters from the Gilded Age used theatrical posters produced around the turn of the 20th century by Cincinnati’s fabled Strobridge Lithographic Co. At a time when multi-color non-photographic posters were the principal way to lure customers to see spectacularly fanciful live entertainment, Strobridge had an international reputation for its work. The exhibit, which ran from May 3 to Aug. 18, featured such work as the gorgeous poster promoting a 1904 live production of The Wizard of Oz. A woozy Dorothy, under the hallucinogenic spell of a forest of poppies, is pulled to her feet by the Tin Man and the Scarecrow while others doze. Another poster, from the 1880s, depicts renderings of lovable dogs in a pyramid formation to promote a presentation of Professor Morris’ 30-dog stage attraction. In 2011, the Cincinnati Art Museum featured Strobridge’s circus posters; this showed that we just can’t get enough of the company. How about a whole Strobridge Museum? Taft Museum of Art, 316 Pike St., Downtown, taftmuseum.org.