Now that the calendar has turned, it’s time for our picks for the best performances we saw in and around Sacramento in the year just past. We’ll start with these “honorable mentions”:
o Alicia Hunt’s bravura solo performance in George Brant’s “Grounded” at B Street in July and August;
o The Sacramento Philharmonic’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony at the Community Center Theater on October 17;
o Capital Stage’s first musical, “The Behavior of Broadus,” in December;
o Gary Wright’s “Of Kites and Kings” (directed by Eric Wheeler) at the Pollack Stage of the Sacramento Theater Company in November; and,
o The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra concert at the Mondavi Center on September 21.
And here, in descending order, are the ten best performances that we saw:
- The Sacramento Philharmonic’s “Resurrection” Concert (June 27). Returning to the Community Center Theater after a “dark” year (taken to restore some financial stability), the musicians of Sacramento’s professional orchestra were led by guest conductor Andrew Grams in a stirring performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony. The five-movement masterpiece was lifted by the singing of soprano Kelley O’Connor in the fourth movement and by the enlarged percussion section in the fifth.
- “Uncanny Valley” at Capital Stage (June and July). As part of the rolling premier of Thomas Gibbons’s new play, Jonathan Williams directed this production. The two-person cast (Jessica Powell and Michael Patrick Wiles) excelled in delivering the mind-bending sci-fi story and the intriguing, if not chilling, message that is contained in it. This production was the best of the season for this cutting-edge company, and the last under Mr. Williams’s artistic direction.
- The St. Petersburg Orchestra’s Concert (January 22). Conductor Valdimir Lande led this excellent orchestra in a rewarding concert at the Harris Center that featured pianist Andrei Gavrilov as the soloist for Rachmaninoff’s challenging “Rach 3” (the third piano concerto). Mr. Gavrilov offered a relatively undisciplined rendition that was interesting and, ultimately, effective. And the orchestra distinguished itself with a near-perfect performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.”
- The Sacramento Philharmonic Pops Concert (November 28). In offering its first pops concert as the newly rejuvenated orchestra it has become, the Philharmonic musicians took a back seat to the talents of conductor Brent Havens and lead singer Brody Dolyniuk, who, with a strong four-piece band, offered two hours of tribute to Freddie Mercury and Queen. The band, featuring strong guitar work by George Cintron, pretty much stole the show on a night that had the audience dancing in the aisles.
- Cornel West’s Oratory (May 30). It may be a stretch to consider a basic speech an artistic performance, but Rev. Cornel West’s presentation at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis) should certainly qualify. The human rights advocate delivered a fiery and impassioned address on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the university’s Cross-Cultural Center. Invoking the teachings of W.E.B. Dubois, while weaving in references to Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen, and John Coltrane, he called on the students in the audience to follow a calling rather than seeking a career.
- Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” by the American Bach Soloists (December 13). Departing from its traditional Mondavi Center holiday offering of Handel’s “Messiah,” the American Bach Soloists, under the direction of founder Jeffrey Thomas, offered a definitive interpretation of Bach’s great work. Playing with period instruments and with the orchestra and chorus pared back to a size comparable to that which Bach would have intended (25 musicians, 16 singers, and four excellent soloists), this performance of the six-part masterpiece was sublime.
- Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” 50th Anniversary Concert (April 16). The iconic song about the young singer’s draft day experience was the highlight of Mr. Guthrie’s inspirational concert at the Mondavi Center. He was backed by a four-piece band that included his son on keyboards. But no Arlo Guthrie concert is complete without a steady stream of stories and inspirational messages, and for the many baby boomers in attendance, those messages and the songs were a reminder of once-cherished idealism.
- Sankai Juku’s “Memories Before History” (October 13). The much anticipated Mondavi Center performance by this organization featured minimal synchronized movements (butoh dancing) to various strands of music that were often no more than extended sounds. The effect was both mesmerizing and somnolent, the mood mostly somber, with dashes of innocuous humor. The eight dancers appeared in various couplings and in different costumes in a succession of vignettes that were performed with integrity and that conveyed pure artistry.
- “West Side Story” at the Music Circus (August). The great musical was wonderfully delivered in the round under the direction of Bob Richards (with choreography by Diane Laurenson and musical direction by Craig Barna). Just about everything in this production was great, from the acting (Justin Matthew Sargent, Carolann M. Sanita, Desiree Davar and Shane Rhodes), to the set designs, to the costumes. It was a Music Circus production on a level with the greatest (“Miss Saigon,” “Les Miserables,” “The Music Man”) of past years.
- Lang Lang’s recital (March 25). The rock star pianist is now the pre-eminent virtuoso soloist on the classical concert scene, as he proved in his Mondavi Center performance. Seeming to have choreographed every pose as he flew through the difficult program of works by Bach, Tchaikovsky and Chopin, he provided everything a true master artist should, right down to his post-performance bows. He’s a true superstar, and when a superstar performs at his best, his performance has to be the best of the year.