Don’t look now, but the new year is already into middle age. With six of the twelve months now behind us, and with the summer doldrums (artistic performance-wise, at least) setting in fast, here’s a look at the best of what we’ve had to entertain us in and around Sacramento so far this year. We’ve picked ten that stood out above the others.
And leading the list has to be the incomparable Sonny Rollins, who returned to the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis) in May, as he approached his 80th birthday, to give a performance that few musicians half his age could match. He brought an excellent quartet with him, but they were almost window dressing as the “Colossus” fully lived up to his name with a non-stop barrage of great sax solos in a two-hour concert.
Not far behind Rollins for both artistic excellence and pure entertainment value was Arlo Guthrie, who brought his large and talented family (numbering 15 children and grandchildren) to Mondavi in April for a feel-good concert that had everything an audience could have wanted (with the exception of “Alice’s Restaurant, which, the very good-natured Arlo assured was “on the record”).
Third on our list would be another Mondavi treat, the belated performance by the Vienna Boys Choir in February (last year’s scheduled appearance was cancelled at the last minute). As it turned out the 26 boys (aged 10 to 14) were well worth the wait. Led by their charming and witty director (a very youthful Florian Schwartz), the choir sang a repertoire of tunes that ranged from early European Baroque to mid-twentieth century American pop.
The Moscow State Radio Symphony’s March Mondavi concert was highlighted by an exciting young pianist, Alexander Sinchuk (all of 21 years old), who gave a stirring performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” Rachmaninoff’s grand Second Symphony was the other major work on the program and it was wonderfully delivered by conductor Alexei Kornienko and his musicians.
Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” enjoyed a well-received short run on a quick tour stop at the Community Center Theater in February. The musical ran for twelve years on Broadway, and the touring production gave ample evidence of why the show, a rock version of Puccini’s “La Boheme,” is so popular. Adding to the luster of the Sacramento performances were the two original leads, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, reprising their roles.
The Russian National Orchestra’s February performance at Mondavi featured a powerful performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto by a young virtuoso named Stefan Jackiw. He played every note in the majestic first movement at such a quick pace that he overwhelmed the audience to the point of receiving a sustained ovation at its conclusion. His performance of the second and third movements was no less impressive. The concert also featured two terrific encores that offered American works, played with a robust flair.
The Sacramento Choral Society concluded yet another terrific season with a lovely a cappella performance at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in June. Director Donald Kendrick led his 150 singers through a number of “schools” of choral music, of which Mozart’s grand “Coronation March,” featuring excellent solo work by soprano Yoo Ri Clark, was a highlight. The concert was the second in a “Stained Glass Series” that is but another reason to admire the work of this excellent organization.
The Saint Louis Symphony, led by musical director David Robertson, delivered a unique program in its April performance at Mondavi. It included two recently-composed American works, both highly interesting and well received as well as the welcomed return of violinist Gil Shaham, who added an exquisite read of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto.
Vladimir Feltsman, the Russian born, now American pianist, delivered a nearly perfect, albeit short, recital that featured works by J.S. Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin. Emotionally satisfying and technically inspiring, his playing left little to be desired, other than a longer program.
And rounding out this top ten would be the excellent Capital Stage production of Peter Sinn Nachtrich’s “Hunter Gatherers,” on the stage of the Delta King Riverboat in Old Sac. If you haven’t yet seen this very dark, leave your sense of propriety at home. This one is not for the prudish.
But ten is never enough, and so here are two very honorable mentions, both decidedly one-man shows. Ira Glass gave a capacity Mondavi audience a sense of what the preparation of his “This American Life” radio show requires in an entertaining Mondavi appearance in April. And Mike Sands performed his own creation of the “Life and Times of Woody Guthrie,” playing Woody’s songs and voicing Woody’s story in a truly memorable performance at the Unitarian Church in January.
Now, let’s get past these summer doldrums and experience some performances to match the excellence of these.