In case you haven’t noticed, we have passed the half-way mark of the year 2016. With the end of several seasons of performances (Mondavi, in particular), the time seems right to note the ten best performances of the first half of the year. With apologies for any that we may have missed that should be on the list, here’s our top ten (in reverse order):
- The Sacramento Philharmonic’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on May 7 at the Community Center Theater. The orchestra was in top form for this much anticipated concert, with a sold-out audience in attendance. Guest conductor David Alan Miller opened the program with selections from “Fidelio,” Beethoven’s only opera. For the Ninth, the full 60-member chorus and four soloists left little to be desired in the climactic fourth movement.
- The Shen Yun traditional Chinese dance concert at the Community Center in January. Heralding Falun Gong, the spiritual creation of Li Hongzhi that has been banned in China since 1999, the performance was heavy-handed at times in its “message,” but otherwise it dazzled with a series of dances that depicted stories and myths from traditional Chinese beliefs (largely from Buddhist and Taoist traditions).
- Ayad Akhar’s “Disgraced” at Capital Stage in May. The four character play is a study in the assimilation of culture and heritage that is supposed to be part of the American dream. But the playwright adds the issue of Islamic fanaticism in his portrayal of two otherwise ordinary, up-scale couples who find themselves in heated conflict at a dinner gathering. As directed by Michael Stevenson, and with strong performances by the members of his cast, the production packed a wallop.
- Renee Fleming’s March 2 recital at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis). Ten years removed from her first Mondavi recital, Ms. Fleming still displayed the distinctive soprano that has brought her accolades in the world of opera and in classical singing. Accompanied on piano by Gerald Martin Moore, she put her coloratura on full display in a succession of songs by, among others, Rachmaninoff and Richard Strauss.
- “The Book of Mormon” at the Community Center Theater in March. The long anticipated arrival of this terrific musical was greeted with packed houses for its entire run. While the production in the archaic hall at CCT was not as intimate (and special) as those on Broadway or in other major cities, the humor (mostly good natured) and music (all terrific) in the telling (revealing) of the Mormon religion was nothing less than great entertainment.
- Yo-Yo Ma’s recital at the Mondavi Center on May 11. The superb cellist shared the stage with Kathryn Stott, his piano accompanist in performances of five selections from their “Songs from the Arc of Life” CD and then dazzled with Shostakovich’s Sonata in D Minor and Cesar Franck’s violin sonata (transcribed for cello). The pair also offered three encores, but Mr. Ma, after charming the audience with brief remarks earlier, neglected to introduce them or to speak again, a minor disappointment in an otherwise excellent concert.
- Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information” at Capital Stage in February. Ms. Churchill’s play is so radical in its structure that it can be off-putting. But as staged by the eleven-member cast, under the skillful direction of Benjamin T. Ismail, many of the over fifty vignettes (some only lasting a minute with just a single character or two) were stirring. And by its closing scene, the production had delivered a none-too-subtle message about life in the modern world that was quite powerful.
- Cecile McLorin Salvant’s jazz concert at the Mondavi Center on April 29. In her first local appearance since bursting onto the scene in 2010, this extremely unique and talented singer put her voice on display in a succession of songs that each bore her signature. Backed by a tight three-piece band, she sang songs by Cole Porter, Burt Bacharach, Billy Strayhorn and Irving Berlin and made each of them her own.
- The Royal Philharmonic’s symphony concert at the Mondavi Center on January 23. In its third appearance at Mondavi in the last five years, this stellar orchestra was again led by Pinchas Zukerman, who again both conducted and soloed (on Mozart’s fifth violin concerto, the “Turkish”). The orchestra offered a grand performance of Brahms’ first symphony that was wondrous. For an encore, they returned to Mozart for the overture from his “Magic Flute.”
- The Russian National Orchestra’s concert at the Mondavi Center on February 20. This great orchestra has also graced Sacramento audiences any number of times over the years, but the concert it offered on this trip must rank as one of its very best. It never hurts to have Yuja Wang as your soloist, and Ms. Wang certainly added luster and grace in her performance of Mozart’s ninth piano concerto (the “Juenehomme”). The orchestra’s main offering was Tchaikovsky’s suite from “Swan Lake,” and it proved to be equally as satisfying as Ms. Wang’s performance.
That’s our take on the year’s first six months. It will be interesting to see how many of these ten performances make our year-end list in six months.