With the end of another year, we are again called upon to provide our ranking of the best artistic performances of the last twelve months. It is a task to be undertaken cautiously and with great humility, as all critical impressions are completely subjective. One person’s music may well be another’s noise.
That said, we are reasonably confident that none of the performances that made our final list would ever be called noise or anything close to disagreeable. Rather, these are the best of the many excellent displays of artistry that commanded our attention last year.
In keeping with tradition, we’ll offer a top ten list and note them in ascending order (from tenth to first). And, because ten is never enough, we’ll note another five honorable mentions at the end.
10. Hilary Hahn’s recital at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis) in October – Ms. Hahn offered a mix of old and new in a strong display of virtuosity and grace. Highlights included selections from her latest recording (all new compositions) and Brahms’ Scherzo for Violin and Piano in C Minor.
9. Mark O’Connor’s “Hot Swing” concert with his quartet at Mondavi in January – The brilliant violin player joined forces with a young guitar phenom (Julian Lage) in a concert that ranged from jazz to blue grass and also included some exquisite ballads that were sung by Heather Masse. The two virtuosos each provided extended solos to complement the great ensemble playing with guitarist Matt Munisteri and bassist Kyle Kegerreis.
8. “Anything Goes” at the Music Circus in July – The Cole Porter musical was wonderfully staged in the round with great ensemble singing and dancing under the direction of Marcia Milgrom Dodge, who also benefited from star turns from Vicki Lewis, David Elder, John Scherer, and, in a scene-stealing role, James Graee. This show was almost as good as it gets in terms of what Sacramento’s great summer musical theater venue can provide.
7. The Branford Marsalis Quartet and the Terence Blanchard Quintet at Mondavi in April – The Marsalis foursome offered an hour of solid jazz that served as a good warm-up for the imaginative and stimulating creativity of Mr. Blanchard’s quintet. A highlight of the Blanchard set was a recorded conversation with Professor Cornel West that explored the interplay of justice and music; another was the title song from Mr. Blanchard’s latest CD, “Choices.”
6. The MOMIX production of “Botanica” at Mondavi in January – A wild mix of modern dance and Cirque du Soleil theatrics (with a touch of Julie Taymor staging and costume designs) made this production a crowd pleasing show unlike few that have ever graced the Mondavi stage. Using multi-media effects to complement the dancing by the ten skilled performers, the show is loaded with gimmicks that all work to mesmerize the audience, and they did.
5. “Or,” by Capital Stage in July – Ending its six-year run on the stage of the Delta King Riverboat, this production of Liz Duffy Adams’ hilarious farce was one of the most enjoyable, ribald, very-adult plays produced by this cutting-edge theatrical company. Skillfully directed by Peter Mohrmann, and with great acting by Stephanie Gularte, Jonathan Williams and Jessica Bates (the latter two playing a number of roles), the play was a laugh riot that was a delightful way to spend a summer evening in Old Town.
4. The San Francisco Symphony at Mondavi in October – The great orchestra, this time conducted by James Conlon, gave the audience a rare treat with the 14th Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich. This most unique composition is the composer’s ode to death. It features a succession of songs for solo soprano (Olga Guryakova) and baritone (Sergei Leiferkus), accompanied by a small string section and percussion. It was a breath-taking performance, so remarkable that the highly popular Ravel arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” that followed it, while well played, was something of a letdown.
3. The St. Petersburg Philharmonic at Mondavi in March – The return of this great orchestra (last at Mondavi in 2004), featured the brilliant young cellist Alisa Weilerstein playing the Shostakovich Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, the stirring Easter Festival Overture by Rimsky-Korsakov, Brahms’ deeply emotional fourth symphony, and as a special treat, a memorable performance of the passionate “Nimrod” movement from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” As conducted by artistic director Yuri Temirkanov, it was nothing less than exquisite.
2. “Master Class,” by Capital Stage in March – Directed by Jonathan Williams and with a bravura performance by Janis Stevens as the aging diva, Maria Callas, this production of Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning play was as close to perfection as live entertainment can get. The heart of the play is contained in extended monologues that Ms. Stevens delivered with such depth of feeling that even those who knew nothing about the opera star she was portraying could not help but be moved. It was everything great theater should be.
1. “Miss Saigon” at the Music Circus in August – The Tony Award-winning musical was produced with great spectacle that gave tremendous power to the story of the Vietnamese woman and her American G.I. lover at the end of the Viet Nam War. Brilliantly directed by Stafford Arima, the production included scenes that were quite literally awesome in their design and execution and with acting that was so heartfelt as to be emotionally painful. In addition to star turns by Kevin Gray as the engineer, Eric Kunze as the G.I. and Ma-Anne Dionisio as the doomed Vietnamese girl, an ensemble cast sang and danced in the best tradition of this outstanding organization.
Honorable mention: The New Century Chamber Orchestra’s first-ever performance at Mondavi in February; Yefim Bronfman’s recital at Mondavi in March; the China Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert at Mondavi (featuring a great performance of Ravel’s “Bolero”) in April; the Return to Forever reunion concert at Mondavi (with Dweezil Zappa’s band in tribute to his father as the opening act) in September; and the Sacramento Philharmonic at Three Stages at Folsom Lake College (featuring Olga Kern on Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto) in September.