The assignment is always difficult, and the year just past was no different. And so, ten must be expanded to fifteen. Here, in our normal reverse order, are the best performances we witnessed in and around Sacramento in 2013.
15. The April performances by Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis). Anchored by Mr. Ailey’s now legendary “Revelations,” the fifteen dancers from the Ailey academy performed several other works of note, including an erotic “Night Creatures” (featuring Alicia Graf Mack and Vernard J. Gilmore) and “Petite Mort” (to a pair of Mozart concertos).
14. The Capital Stage September production of “Clybourne Park.” The recent Tony Award winning play was the first of four productions by this outstanding theatrical company to make our “best-of-the-year” list. It was directed by Michael Stevenson and brought to life by a top-notch seven-member cast.
13. The February performance by Pilobolus Dance Theatre at the Mondavi Center. Seven dancers joined in the eye-popping physical unions that Pilobolus has become known for in giving new meaning to modern dance.
12. The November performance by the Camellia Symphony of Beethoven’s Ninth at Fremont Presbyterian Church. Music Director Christian Baldini conducted his musicians through a wholly credible performance of the great symphony. The concert was also enlivened by two of Mozart’s comic arias, sung (and acted) by the baritone, Eugene Brancoveanu.
11. The November adaptation by Capital Stage of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Setting the great play in a post-apocalyptic world was slightly off-putting, especially with most of the Bard’s original dialogue intact, but under Stephanie Gularte’s direction, Scott Copewood (as Macbeth) and Janis Stevens (as his wife) made it a memorable production.
10. Arlo Guthrie’s solo performance at Mondavi in April. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father, Woody, the consummate folk singer sang several of his own compositions (“I Don’t Want to Pickle,” “Mr. Customs Man”) along with a number of those his dad had made famous in a concert that was full of the Guthrie spirit that has clearly passed from father to son.
9. The San Francisco Symphony’s April performance at Mondavi. This one featured two youthful men at the height of their talents. Twenty-nine-year old Augustin Hadelich starred on Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and 85-year-old Herbert Blomstedt conducted the orchestra’s 100 musicians in stirring accounts of Paganini’s “Caprice No. 24” and Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony.
8. The MOMIX “Botanica” production at Mondavi in October. MOMIX offers modern dance productions in a manner akin to the way Julie Taymor might envision a Cirque du Soleil show. In “Botanica,” creator Moses Pendleton has devised a multi-media feast that also happens to contain a fair amount of modern dance. It featured ten athletic dancers who appeared in a variety of ingenious costumes as they performed acts that sometimes seemed to defy the laws of physics. The result was a mesmerizing trip consisting of a series of glorious gimmicks.
7. The Capital Stage adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” in May. With the magnificent Stephanie Gularte in the title role and Jonathan Rhys Williams and Peter Mohrmann in strong supporting roles, this Janis Stevens’ directed adaptation of the classic frustrated-feminist tale was as good as dramatic theater gets.
6. The Capital Stage production of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety” in July. This Kristoffer Diaz Pulitzer-nominated play was the happy theatrical surprise of the year. As directed by Jonathan Williams, and with a bravura lead performance by Andrew J. Perez, the play was a farce built around the manipulative marketing aspects of professional wrestling until the last line hit home like a body slam to a hardwood floor.
5. The opening night concert of Mondavi’s eleventh season in September. Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club was billed as the headline act, and with 15 outstanding veterans of the Cuban jazz scene doing their thing, they certainly were crowd pleasers. But the highlight of the night was the opening set by pianist Roberto Fonseca’s quintet, which featured selections from “Yo,” his current album. It’s an amalgam of Cuban and African rhythms, and Mr. Fonseca and his mates really stole the show before the headliners ever took the stage.
4. Gil Shaham’s solo recital on November 1. He may have outgrown his “boy wonder” handle, but Mr. Shaham has certainly lived up to the expectations he created in his early performances. His Mondavi solo recital was a tour de force for a master of his instrument. Juxtaposing three Bach compositions with a remarkable new work, William Bolcom’s “Suite No. 2 for Solo Violin,” which Mr. Bolcom composed specifically for him, the 43-year-old superstar commanded the Mondavi stage as few soloists ever have. It was a performance to cherish having witnessed.
3. The October concert by Ahmad Jamal’s Quartet. Mr. Jamal, now 83 years old but with his piano virtuosity still very evident, showcased his compositional talents with a succession of arrangements that were fascinating in their complexity while, at the same time, being eminently listenable and wholly entertaining. With his three excellent band-mates, he electrified the capacity audience as few jazz performers have in Mondavi’s Jackson Hall.
2. The St. Louis Symphony’s excellent concert at Mondavi in March. Conducted by Artistic Director David Robertson, whose joy in directing his musicians is entirely evident, the orchestra offered an exciting interpretation of Beethoven’s second symphony. But surpassing that performance were Berg’s atonal violin concerto, with a perfect solo turn by James Ehnes, and a surprisingly glorious rendition of Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme by Haydn.”
1. The Russian National Orchestra’s concert at Mondavi in February. We noted at the time that it would be hard to imagine a stronger candidate for the best concert of the year, and in the ten months that followed, none topped it. The highlight was the amazing display of virtuosity by pianist Daniil Trifonov (all of 20 years old at the time) of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, but the program also included near-perfect accounts of Dvorak’s splendid sixth symphony and Smetana’s Overture to “The Bartered Bride.” Giancarlo Guerrero’s energetic conducting was also a treat in a concert that will be long remembered by those who attended.
Those were the best we saw last year. We can only hope 2014 will be as bountiful.