Before we say goodbye to 2019, we thought we’d take a look back at some of the best arts events of the year. This list is by no means exhaustive; it isn’t meant to be. It’s just a look at some of our favorite performing and visual arts moments of the year. In chronological order, here are 12 of the outstanding arts events of 2019:
Chucho Valdés, Da Camera of Houston
Latin jazz legend Chucho Valdés was an early highlight for 2019. Appearing as part of the Da Camera jazz series, the Cuban pianist performed music from his 2018 album Jazz Batá 2. That release was a follow-up to his groundbreaking 1972 release, Jazz Batá, where he replaced the usual drum kit found in jazz trios with an African batá drum. The batá is usually associated with santería ceremonies, and Valdés’ use of it in jazz forever changed the face of Latin jazz. Highlights of his Houston concert included “100 Years of Bebo,” dedicated to his father pianist/composer/bandleader Bebo Valdés, and “Son XXI,” written by Cuban musicologist and composer Enrique Ubieta.
The annual DanceSalad Festival is a regular highlight of Houston’s dance scene. DanceSalad Director Nancy Henderek spends most of her year traveling the world to see new creations, and she often wins American premieres or specially curated versions of works. April’s festival included three nights of performances (you have to attend two nights in order to see the complete lineup).
The Royal Danish Ballet, Copenhagen presented a curated version of Marcos Morau’s Carmen, the United States premiere for the work. Maria Kochetkova and Sebastian Kloborg debuted Benjamin Millepied’s Closer with music by Philip Glass, and Sokvannara Sar debuted Mopey, a solo work choreographed by Marco Goecke.
In addition to the performances, there was a choreographer’s forum, with discussions, videos, Q&A sessions, and a special screening of selections from Ingmar Bergman Through the Choreographer’s Eye depicting work by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman.
Latin Wave Film Festival, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Houston has an abundance of film festivals. What makes the Latin Wave Film Festival stand out is the variety of new, often cutting-edge works, such as Margarita Hernández’s debut film Che, Memories of a Secret Year. The Brazilian-Cuban filmmaker spent seven years researching the time Che Guevara spent in Tanzania and Prague, where he was in hiding for a year before going to Bolivia where he died. She talked to the secret agents that accompanied him and spoke with the dental surgeon and forger who helped Guevara to go into hiding. Che, Memories of a Secret Year made its U.S. debut at Latin Wave.
Also screening at this year’s festival was Belmonte by Uruguayan director Frederico Veiroj; Alonso Ruizpalacios’s Museo, a true-crime drama starring Gael García Bernal; and Luis Ortega’s El Angel, a box-office hit based on the true story of a teenage serial killer and thief.
“Motherward, 1985”, Houston Center for Photography
When Elbert Howze, a Detroit native and two-time Purple Heart winner in Vietnam, died in 2015, he left behind boxes and boxes of photographs he had made while living in Houston. Those boxes found their way to the Houston Center for Photography where Ashlyn Davis, the center’s executive director and curator, discovered a collection of 40 portraits.
Howze had titled the collection “Motherward, 1985” and the center presented the photographs in an exhibit by the same name. Those portraits were candid shots of Freedmen’s Town residents. Also known as Fourth Ward, Freedmen’s Town was originally settled by freed slaves in the 1800s.
Today all that’s left of that historic neighborhood are a few church buildings and a few streets paved with bricks handmade by former slaves. In 1985, the area’s largely African-American population was on the verge of being pushed out to make way for clusters of condos and townhouses. But before the area was transformed, Howze documented the faces of Freedmen’s Town, and it made for an important look back at the city’s history.
Yefim Bronfman Playing Rachmaninoff, Houston Symphony
The Houston Symphony kicked off its 2019-2020 season with an incredible performance by guest pianist Yefim Bronfman. Guest conductor Leonard Slatkin, a six-time Grammy Award winner, was at the podium. Slatkin and Bronfman were both brilliant, as was the orchestra. The all-Russian program included Glinka’s Kamarinskaya, Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Rachmaninoff’s concerto is almost 40 minutes long and is considered to be among the most technically demanding works for piano—Slatkin has called it “finger-busting”—and Bronfman sailed through it.
The Houston Symphony has had several other concerts worth noting, including Emanuel Ax’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with guest conductor Fabien Gabel in November, as well as guest pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s rendition of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F in October. And earlier this month, the symphony presented the world premiere performance of Symphony No. 2, Ad Astra written by Jimmy López Bellido, the orchestra’s composer in residence. Ad Astra was inspired by the NASA program and included sections representing the Voyager, Apollo, and Challenger space missions. Still, it was the Bronfman performance that we haven't been able to get out of our head.
Locally Grown. World Renowned., Houston Ballet
The Houston Ballet has been celebrating its 50th anniversary, and artistic director Stanton Welch has put together a truly spectacular season.
The season opener in September, Giselle, was exquisite. Most recently, the Margaret Alkek Williams Jubilee of Dance in early December was three hours of superb dancing as the company performed several of its milestone works. But Locally Grown. World Renowned. gets the nod as the year’s most outstanding performance.
The evening included Elapse, a new work by Chinese choreographer Disha Zhang, formerly with the Beijing Modern Dance Company. Elapse pushed the classical company into decidedly modern territory, and the dancers performed splendidly. While wearing antlers on their heads—we told you this was modern!
Houston Ballet first soloist Oliver Halkowich’s whimsical Following, his first work for the company, made its world premiere. And Edwaard Liang’s elegant Murmuration, based on the movements of starling birds, returned to the Houston Ballet for the first time since it was created for the company in 2013. All around, an incredible year for dance.
Vietgone, Alley Theatre
The Alley Theatre’s new artistic director Rob Melrose gets kudos for his brave, fresh programming, including October’s production of Vietgone by Qui Ngyuen.
Vietgone is essentially a love story. Edward Chin-Lyn was brilliant as Quang, a Vietnamese helicopter pilot who’s evacuated during the fall of Saigon and forced to leave his wife and children behind. Kim Wong played Tong, the rough-around-the-edges woman he meets in a refugee camp. Tong also left family behind. Quang is determined to return to Vietnam, but Tong is ready to build a new life in America. They fall into bed together and eventually fall in love, building a new family in their adopted country.
The playwright, Ngyuen, doesn’t give his characters or the audience any easy outs. The aftermath of war wears on Quang and Tong and, with them, the audience. The play’s ending leaves everyone with plenty to think about. And as uncomfortable as it was, it was also refreshing and very, very good theater.
Olga Tañon with the Houston Latin American Philharmonic
Houston Latin American Philharmonic Music Director Glenn Garrido was able to check Olga Tañon off his wish list of guest artists when the musica tropical superstar joined the orchestra in October as part of her "The One and Only Show" world tour. It was the first time the Grammy Award-winning singer ever appeared in a symphony setting and she was on fire during the show, belting out several of her hits including “Es Mentiroso,” “Muchacho Malo,” “Como Olvidar,” and “Bandolero.”
Tañon revisited her landmark 1996 album, Nuevos Senderos, produced by Mexican singer-songwriter Marco Antonio Solis, with “Basta Ya” and “Mi Eterno Amor Secreto.” Jones Hall’s formal setting didn’t intimidate Tañon or her audience, with everyone repeatedly jumping up to dance while she performed.
“Beatrice Gonzalez: A Retrospective”, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
“Beatriz González: A Retrospective,” still on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is huge in both scope and impact: The retrospective covers six decades of work, most of which reflect the complex and often brutal politics of the artist's native Colombia.
One of only a handful of “radical women” Latin American artists still alive, González frequently changed subjects and mediums (we see everything from paintings to sculpture to furniture and shadow boxes filled with source material in the exhibit).
The daughter of a rich man and the wife of a poor man, González has said neither of the two men cared if she made any money with her art, so she never felt pressure to achieve commercial or critical success. A lucky thing since González was creating art while living in a war-torn country. This exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts is the first retrospective of her work in the U.S.
Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead Celebration, Casa Ramirez FOLKART Gallery
Sadly, Día de los Muertos has, like Cinco de Mayo, become less a Mexican holiday and more just another reason to drink lots of margaritas and tequila shots. Thankfully, Casa Ramirez FOLKART Gallery’s annual Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead celebration offered Houstonians a chance to observe the holiday in a more authentic way with display of altars, a procession, a performance by Danza Azteca Taxcayolotl, music by Jesus and Maria Lozano-BOSSA ll, and traditional Día de los Muertos refreshments. The gallery also offered classes leading up to the holiday where folks could learn about the holiday’s history and how to make an altar, along with other holiday-related crafts.
Fully Committed, Alley Theatre
The Alley Theatre gave Houston audiences something new for the Christmas season: Fully Committed. Becky Mode’s one-man show about a man taking reservations for a hot New York restaurant during the busy holiday rush was a hoot. Dylan Godwin, a member of the Alley Theatre resident acting company, played Sam and all 40 callers.
There was Bunny Vandevere. Her husband invented Botox and apparently gave Bunny lots of free samples, because her lips couldn’t quite move when she talked. And there was Gwyneth Paltrow’s assistant who heaped one outrageous demand after another on poor Sam. Ms. Paltrow wanted the light bulbs near her table changed out for some with a softer glow. The restaurant’s staff was no better, with the chef refusing to take calls and Sam’s supervisor playing hooky, off on a job interview.
Godwin transformed with each character, changing his voice, posture and mannerism. Fully Committed was a smart, grown-up, non-sappy way to celebrate the holidays. Here’s hoping the show becomes an annual offering, like Santaland Diaries.
“Dolores Huerta: Revolution in the Fields/Revolución en los Campos”
Why would the Holocaust Museum Houston present an art exhibit about a Latina who co-founded the United Farm Workers Union? Because the “Dolores Huerta: Revolution in the Fields/Revolución en los Campos” exhibit fits perfectly with the museum’s mission to highlight social justice and human rights struggles of all kinds.
Huerta, who worked alongside Cesar Chavez, led migrant farmworkers in the Delano grape strike in California in 1965, a milestone in American labor rights history. She originated the phrase “Sí se puede,” which became the slogan for Latino civil rights efforts. Since 1955, Huerta has worked for a variety of human rights issues, fighting racial discrimination, sexism, and corruption, and in doing so has changed the lives of farm workers and Latinos.
The exhibit, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, features photos, a bilingual video, recorded interviews with Huerta, and a mural by Houston artist Ignacio Sanchez.