The year just past was perhaps one of the best in many years for artistic performances in and around Sacramento. Of the many we saw, no fewer than 20 merit recognition. And so, in something of a break with tradition, we are expanding our usual top ten to twice that number.
One tradition we will stick with, however, is to go in reverse order. Thus, we’ll count down, from 20 to 1. Before we begin, here’s a summary of some of the vital statistics the list comprises:
Twelve performances were in Jackson Hall at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis); four were Music Circus productions (in an amazingly strong year for that organization); three were theatrical plays, two were jazz performances, one was a distinguished speaker, and one was a ballet.
And so, having hopefully gotten your attention, and with the caveat that any list such as this one is about as highly subjective (and necessarily limited to those events we actually attended) as a critic’s opinions can be, here we go.
20. Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers at Mondavi (August 25) – This return engagement by Mr. Martin and his bluegrass playing partners was almost as delightful as their first Mondavi performance several years ago.
19. “Crazy for You” at the Music Circus (August 28) – The music of George Gershwin was the vehicle for some first-rate dancing in this very light, but highly entertaining romp directed by James Brennan and starring Noah Racey as the tap-dancing phenom who steals the show.
18. The Sacramento Philharmonic at Folsom Lake College’s Three Stages (April 1) – Guest conductor Loris Tjeknavorian led the orchestra in a stirring performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” and in the American premier of his own “Ararat Suite.”
17. “The Music Man” at the Music Circus (July 31) – Shirley Jones and son Patrick Cassidy provided the star appeal and Brandi Burkhardt sang her heart out in Ms. Jones’ old role of Marian the librarian in this reprise of the Meredith Willson classic (directed by Glenn Casale).
16. The Sacramento Philharmonic at the Sacramento Community Center (October 13) – The young prodigy Conrad Tao starred in this excellent concert, soloing on Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. Conductor Michael Morgan also led a fine rendition of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.
15. “Mistakes Were Made” at Capital Stage (November 17) – In what was essentially a one-man show, Eric Wheeler delivered a tour-de-force performance as a theatrical producer trying to juggle too many fishes (mixed metaphor intended) in Craig Wright’s surprisingly poignant comedy.
14. Bonnie Raitt at Mondavi (September 18) – Ms. Raitt gave a full accounting of her talents as a singer, guitarist, song writer and star performer in a performance with her excellent four-piece band. Her voice gave the lyrics of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” a poignancy that was especially precious.
13. “Hamlet” at Mondavi (November 2) – The ensemble actors of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre offered a brisk and surprisingly upbeat take on the classic tragedy with musical accompaniment and a dancing curtain call that created a festive mood in the wake of the play’s tragic denouement.
12. Stanley Clarke Trio at Mondavi (October 10) – The great bass player led his playing partners (drummer Lenny White and pianist Ruslan Sirota) in two extended sets that included a cross-section of great jazz much of which allowed Mr. Clarke to put his magnificent virtuosity on display.
11. The San Francisco Symphony at Mondavi (September 27) – To officially open Mondavi’s tenth anniversary season, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas led his orchestra in an absolutely great performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
10. “The Little Mermaid” at the Music Circus (July 10) – Director Glenn Casale did wonders with the musical version of this Disney animated classic, with costumes and choreography that really did suggest underwater scenes. Music Circus favorite Vicki Lewis made a nasty, scene-stealing villain.
9. The New York Philharmonic at Mondavi (May 12) – Conductor Alan Gilbert led this great orchestra in its first Mondavi appearance. The program featured pianist Yefim Bronfman on Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, a great performance of Dvorak’s “Carnival” Overture, and Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Fourth Symphony.
8. “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Music Circus (August 14) – Director Glenn Casale led an excellent cast (featuring Bob Amaral and Adrienne Barbeau) in a production that delivered perfectly both the first act’s light-hearted ebullience and the second act’s more somber message.
7. Elvis Costello at Mondavi (September 28) –The master performer delivered a one-man show that he billed (nonsensically) as his 2054 Centenary Tour. No matter. His lengthy set covered the waterfront, from old standards like “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” to good old fashioned rock and roll. He even touched a political thought on one of the concert’s highlights, “What’s So Good about Peace, Love and Understanding.”
6. Patti Smith at Mondavi (May 9) – Billed as one of Mondavi’s Distinguished Speakers, Ms. Smith talked some, sang some, and reminisced a lot in a joyous and inspirational presentation of her life (drawn from her best-selling memoir, “Just Kids”). Her singing, accompanied by her long-time band-mate, Lenny Kaye) was spot on, especially on “Because the Night,” which she had written years ago with Bruce Springsteen.
5. Chucho Valdez and the Afro-Cuban Messengers at Mondavi (February 18) – Now 70 years old, the great jazz pianist led his band in its unique blend of Cuban and African jazz with sprinkles of other genres all reflecting the leader’s musical genius. His virtuoso solos were matched by the outstanding talents of his band-mates in one of the best jazz concerts Mondavi has ever hosted.
4. Rachel Barton Pine at Mondavi (February 4) – Ms. Pine loves playing her violin, as she more than proved in performing all five of Mozart’s violin concertos. She was accompanied by the 16-member Chamber Soloists Orchestra of New York, but this concert was a one-woman show that was nothing less than awe-inspiring, as she played them all flawlessly and without musical scores.
3. “Blanche Neige” by Ballet Preljocaj at Mondavi (March 17) – For its black-tie gala performance the Mondavi staff couldn’t have booked a more impressive act. The ballet, drawn from the real Grimm’s Brothers’ fairy tale (not the Disney version), focused on the wicked queen as well as the forlorn Snow White. The dancing was only half the fun, as the seven dwarfs climbed up cliffs and otherwise cavorted about and a topless female as a buck deer pranced across the stage.
2. Lang Lang at Mondavi (October 1) – The rock star’s return to Mondavi five years after his first appearance showed him to be no less amazing in his complete artistry (to include seemingly staged facial expressions at various points in the works he played). The recital featured three Mozart Sonatas in the first half and four Chopin Ballades in the second. And for an encore he dazzled the audience with a performance of Chopin’s First Waltz that was nothing less than breath-taking.
1. “Enron” at Capital Stage (September 22) – In opening the organization’s eighth season as the city’s premier theatrical company, this Lucy Prebble play was masterfully directed by Stephanie Gularte and featured top-notch performances by Jonathan Rhys Williams, Aaron Wilton and Shannon Mahoney, with a strong supporting seven-member ensemble that had everyone playing multiple roles. The play itself is powerful, detailing the corporate corruption that became the norm and destroyed the country’s economy seven years later, but this production was as good as anything a top Off-Broadway company could hope to produce.
Was this Sacramento’s best ever year for the performing arts? We can’t say for sure, but we’re hard pressed to think of one that was better.