While 2016 may have been a less than satisfactory year in some areas for some readers (we’ll leave the political reviews to others), in terms of the performing arts that were available in and around Sacramento, it was first rate. In fact, trying to pick the ten best performances of the approximately fifty we attended was very difficult, so difficult, in fact, that we have ended up with a second ten that makes for twenty all told.
When the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Renee Fleming and Yo-Yo Ma (along with the touring production of “Book of Mormon”) can’t crack the top ten, you know it’s been a pretty good year. But artistic appraisal is very much a matter of personal taste and opinion, and, therefore, any list such as ours is fully debatable (especially since we missed many performances and productions that others reviewed favorably). And so, with apologies to any who feel we were too harsh in considering some performances or too enamored of others, here is our list, from twentieth to first (with extended comments for the top ten):
20. The May 7 performance by the Sacramento Philharmonic of Beethoven’s Ninth in the Community Center Theater.
19. The October 7 concert by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis).
18. The January concerts of traditional Chinese dance by Shen Yun in the Community Center Theater.
17. The Capital Stage production of Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” in May.
16. Renee Fleming’s March 2 solo recital at Mondavi.
15. The Broadway touring production of “Book of Mormon” in March in the Community Center Theater.
14. Yo-Yo Ma’s May 11 cello recital (with accompanist Kathryn Stott) in the Community Center Theater.
13. The October 8 concert by the Sacramento Philharmonic that included Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in the Community Center Theater.
12. The December 3 concert by the China Philharmonic that featured Qigang Chen’s “Enchantements oublies” at Mondavi.
11. The Music Circus production in August of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at the Wells Fargo Pavilion.
10. The October production of Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County” by Capital Stage. Directed by Benjamin T. Ismael, and with a powerhouse cast led by Janis Stevens, Amy Resnick, and Jamie Jones, the many unresolved relationships and deeply guarded secrets that are unveiled following a funeral made for theatrical drama of the highest order.
9. The August production at the Music Circus of the Gershwin brothers’ “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” Directed by Charles Ripole, and with a strong cast led by Matt Loehr, Kristie Kerwin, Michael Kostroff, Madeleine Doherty, Paige Faure and Jamie Jones (again), the Gershwin music (directed by Craig Barna) worked perfectly in the story Joe DiPietro built around it.
8. The December 11 concert by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Mondavi, in which the 20 musicians (in various groupings) played all six of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, most of them with period instruments. Any one of these great Baroque compositions can be a joy to hear performed, but having all six on the same program, played with such precise attention to detail by this ensemble, was a rare treat.
7. The February production of Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information” at Capital Stage. Directed by Benjamin T. Ismael (again), this series of some 50 vignettes (all seemingly unrelated) provided a reflection of the lives most of us, either by choice or by circumstance, are living in this new millennial information age. A strong eleven-member ensemble cast handled all of the play’s many characters and momentary incidents.
6. The January 23 concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Mondavi. With Pinchas Zukerman both conducting and playing solo violin for Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto, this excellent orchestra included Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings” and Brahms’ First Symphony and then added the overture from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” as an encore in a symphonic concert that was about as good as a symphonic concert can be.
5. Cecile McLorin Salvant’s April 29 concert at Mondavi. Backed by a tight three-piece band, this 2010 winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition and Grammy award nominee showed herself to be a fascinating singer with a style all her own and a voice that can be gruff and almost growling or delicately soft and that is capable of exuding that emotional range in a single phrase of lyrics.
4. The Russian National Orchestra’s Mondavi concert on February 20. With the great young pianist Yuja Wang soloing on Mozart’s Ninth Piano Concerto, and with Mikhail Pletnev conducting this terrific orchestra on Tchaikovsky’s Suite from “Swan Lake” and Schumann’s Overture to “Genoveva,” a packed house was reminded of the joys of hearing great symphonic music when it is played by a great orchestra.
3. The October 21 concert by Joey Alexander’s trio in the Vanderhoef Studio Theater at Mondavi. In a normal year, this superb concert by this young phenom (he is all of thirteen years old) would have been our selection for the top performance of the year. Together with his considerably older colleagues (Ulysses Owens, Jr. on drums and Reuben Rogers on bass), the Indonesian born pianist played selections from his two excellent CDs with a sense of composed soulfulness that was a joy to behold.
2. The July Music Circus production of “Cabaret.” As interpreted by director Glenn Casale, this Tony Award winning musical was the surprise home run of the summer. Casale ignored the movie version of the story in favor of focusing on the dark aspects of history in the early years of the Nazi regime in Berlin, Germany. His vision of what the play can be was consistently conveyed right through the silent curtain call that perfectly ended the stunning production.
1. The November 2 Mondavi performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. As the only work on the program, the Ninth was brilliantly interpreted by the orchestra’s Music and Artistic Director, Gustavo Dudamel. Leading his large complement of excellent musicians (over 100 strong) through the four movements of this monumental work, Mr. Dudamel ended the closing death section of the last movement with a majestic silence that created a symphonic moment never to be forgotten and to be cherished forever.