With the completion of its seventh season as the Sacramento region’s principal venue for the performing arts, the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis) has established itself as a wonderful place to hear great music, see quality performances, and listen to interesting speakers. The 2008-2009 season provided generous offerings of each kind of entertainment.
Here is our review of the season, with highlights appropriately noted and the few disappointments acknowledged. (Among the latter was the cancellation of a performance of the Vienna Boys Choir, occasioned by a mechanical malfunction of stage apparatus that left the great hall dark for over a week this spring.)
The season actually opened with a disappointment as the operatic baritone Thomas Hampson eschewed his forte in favor of an evening of traditional American songs. The songs, mostly from the nineteenth century, were a mix of familiar tunes and personal favorites of the singer. It was pretty much a yawn of an evening, save for the Puccini aria that he offered as an encore.
The remarkably talented Laurie Anderson offered her latest exploration of multi-media, techno-electric wizardry with her performance of “Homeland,” an enigmatic ambiguity on the history and culture of the United States that befit her stage persona and left more than a few in the audience appreciative, if also a bit bemused.
November brought the first of the touring orchestras for the season. Under conductor Leon Botstein’s direction, the Jerusalem Symphony offered an excellent performance of Aaron Copland’s third symphony and featured the violin of Robert McDuffie on Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade for Solo Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion.”
Later that month, the season’s second disappointing performance was given by jazz legend Cassandra Wilson, who appeared unnerved, if not bored, by the experience of playing in the large Jackson Hall.
Jeffrey Thomas and his American Bach Soloists offered yet another version of Handel’s “Messiah,” this one the First Foundling Hospital/City of London version from 1750 in January. It was better than others the organization has dusted off in past years.
Mavis Staples gave a terrific performance in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January, singing songs from her commemorative CD “We’ll Never Turn Back” with what she called “joy, inspiration, and some happy vibrations.”
In February, the State Ballet Theatre of Russia presented a production of Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” that was heavy on charm but exceedingly light on excitement. It was another disappointment.
That cannot be said, however, of the all-Beethoven concert offered by the Munich Symphony under the direction of conductor (and piano soloist) Philippe Entremont later in the month. The maestro starred in conducting and playing the composer’s first piano concerto and in leading his excellent musicians through a stirring rendition of the seventh symphony.
In March, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the all-male a cappella choir from South Africa, provided an evening of high quality singing and impressive high-kicking/dancing. The ensemble reminded us of the Soweto Gospel Choir in its ability to express pure joy and spread it to its audience.
The Estonian National Symphony Orchestra’s concert in April, under conductor Eri Klas, featured the young Korean Joyce Yang in a superb performance of Prokofiev’s 3rd piano concerto. It more than made up for a lackluster offering of the second symphony by Jean Sibelius.
The season included another set of excellent “distinguished speakers” (even though one, Gloria Steinem, was a no-show). Current Mid-East envoy George Mitchell, Supreme Court observer Jeffrey Toobin, and film-maker Paul Haggis were all interesting and informative, but the personal story of redemption from his years as a child soldier in Sierra Leone that Ishmael Beah offered was absolutely riveting and inspirational.
A definite disappointment occurred in March when a company from Pasadena, Opera a la Carte, offered a low-budget production of the great Gilbert and Sullivan light opera, “The Gondoliers.” Bring back Carl Rossi’s company!
The annual visit of the San Francisco Symphony, under Michael Tilson Thomas, featured an intriguing new work, “B-Sides,” by Mason Bates, another Sibelius symphony (his fourth), and another excellent Prokofiev piano concerto (his second), this one featuring another impressive young woman pianist, Yuja Wang, who provided a highlight with a dazzling encore (an arrangement of a Mozart march).
And May ended with the celebratory concert in honor of retiring U.C. Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef and his wife Rosalie that starred Patti LuPone in her ode to great Broadway show tunes she “coulda, woulda, shoulda” sung if she’d only been asked. Ms. LuPone was a delight, and the evening was a great success, as was much, if not all, of the seventh season of Mondavi offerings.