As 2018 fades all too quickly into the past, 2019 got off to a great start in Sacramento’s performing arts’ scene with a memorable concert by the Sacramento Philharmonic and a near-perfect production of an intriguing play.
The concert was the first of two all-Beethoven programs (billed as a “Beethoven Festival”) at the Community Center Theater. (The second, which I did not attend so I could see the play mentioned above and reviewed below, was last weekend.) It featured the pianist Jeffrey Kahane who also doubled as the conductor of the 60-member orchestra.
The concert opened with the Piano Concerto No. 4, which, along with No. 1, is probably as popular a concerto as Beethoven composed. It features challenging solo passages that Mr. Kahane managed deftly while somehow remaining fully engaged with the orchestra that he was conducting. Just watching this man as he continually rose from his piano bench to conduct and then sat on the bench to play was fascinating in and of itself. But the skill with which he handled the soaring arpeggios that carry much of first and third movements was what made the performance so special.
The concerto would have been the highlight of the evening, and it was absolutely great, but after returning for yet a third time to the insistent standing ovation, Mr. Kahane announced an encore. Without telling us what he would play, he said he would like to try a little improvising. He then proceeded to offer the most beautiful take on “America, the Beautiful,” which, considering how fraught the country was on that night (three weeks into the federal government shutdown, with many in the audience wanting to rediscover the American spirit), was a perfect antidote to feelings of despair and hopelessness. It was one of those memorable moments in a concert that can make attending a concert such an uplifting experience.
The second half of the program opened with “Ah, perfido!” Ably sung by Mary Evelyn Hangley, who has a lovely soprano voice, the singer is torn between her love for a man and her disgust with his behavior. The lyrics are classic ambivalence, with the woman wishing her man would burn in Hell (or some horrendous equivalent) at one moment and begging the gods to keep him safe at another.
The program closed with Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony (No. 6), which features one of the most beautiful opening movements, wherein the composer melds two haunting melodies into a picture of morning in the countryside, which was Beethoven’s intent according to his published notes on the piece.
The orchestra’s playing was bolstered by flute (Mathew Krejci) and clarinet (Ginger Kroft) solos that were played perfectly. The “Pastoral” is nothing like the Fifth or the Ninth, being far less bombastic than either of those much-loved works, but it more than holds its own as a worthy offering to celebrate the greatness of the composer.
Throughout, Mr. Kahane, who is short of stature but gives up nothing in his passion for his work, conducted the fine orchestra that the Philharmonic has become as if he did it all the time. But, then, when does he have time to practice his piano? The audience again gave him, and the orchestra, another long standing ovation, calling Mr. Kahane back three times before they let him and his musicians retire for the night.
As good as the philharmonic’s concert was, the opening night performance of Greg Pierce’s “Slowgirl” at Capital Stage the following week was even better. (Subjective judgments of artistic performances are problematic enough; ranking them is clearly a fool’s errand. I stand guilty of the attempt, as my ranking, below, of the top performances I was in 2018 proves.)
“Slowgirl” is a two-hander that places a premium on great acting. And in the Cap Stage production, director Jennifer King has two of the best. Stephanie Altholz plays Becky, a seventeen-year-old girl who may be in serious trouble for something that happened before the play begins. We learn about the trouble slowly over the course of the four scenes that make up the one-act play. It opens as she arrives at a residence that has no doors in the middle of a forest in Costa Rica. She is there to spend a week with her Uncle Sterling, who has taken up a solitary, almost hermitic, existence in this strange place for reasons that become clear over the course of the play.
Becky is not the slow girl of the play’s title, but that nickname becomes meaningful as, slowly, Becky reveals her role in the accident that now has the girl of the title in a coma. Sterling’s past is also brought to light slowly as the two characters grow to rediscover the closeness they had when Becky was just a little girl (she last saw Sterling when she was eight). Sterling is played by Tim Kniffin, and he was instantly relatable, even though we don’t fully understand him until much later in the story. Mr. Kniffin is a gem, pure and simple. And Ms. Altholz is every bit his equal. Together, they deliver what Mr. Pierce must have intended in writing the play and what Mr. King most assuredly hoped for in directing it.
The play is mostly dialogue; not a lot happens in terms of action. Hence, the ability of the actors to make it work is critical. And these two actors pull it off perfectly. Each is fully believable as the guilt-ridden souls they clearly are, the man really needing to be forgiven, the woman desperately needing to be understood. Each scene is exquisitely delivered by these pros, the intimacy of the theater adding to the growing drama as each scene reveals a little more about both characters and their troubled pasts.
The production is aided by a terrific set design (by Brian Redfern), excellent lighting (designed by Leah Farrelly) and the sounds of the jungle (by the always on point Ed Lee). Rebecca Valentino designed the costumes (with numerous changes for Ms. Altholz), and Christa Kinch handled the design of the props. Wesley Apfel served as Ms. King’s stage manager.
“Slowgirl” is a play about people in need. And it is perfectly staged in this production. You’ll care about Becky and Sterling. You’ll relate to them, even empathize with them, and by the close of the play, you may find a way to forgive them. If you love great theater, see this play. It will run at the Capital Stage Theater until February 24. Tickets and information are available at the box office (2215 J St.), by phone (916-995-5464), and online (capstage.org).
Now, regarding 2018 and the many great artistic performances I saw and experienced, here is my annual list of the best (the top 20 this year because I couldn’t leave any of them out):
1 – “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” (Capital Stage in December)
2 – Sacramento Philharmonic’s January 20 concert featuring Tchaikovsky’s 1st piano concerto (Andrew Von Oeyen, soloist), Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” (Case Scaglione, conductor)
3 – “The Thanksgiving Play” (Capital Stage in June)
4 – The Rising Stars of Opera (Mondavi Center on October 4 with Brian Jagde, David Lomeli, Daniel Montenegro, Amitai Pati, Kyle van Schoonhoven, Philippe Sly and Brad Walker, accompanied by Mark Morash (piano) and UC Davis Symphony Orchestra (Christian Baldini, conductor)
5 – “Sweat” (Capital Stage in November)
6 – The Czech Philharmonic’s Mondavi Center concert on November 12 featuring Tchaikovsky’s 1st piano concerto (Kirill Gerstein, soloist), Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” and Tchaikovksy’s “Francesca da Rimini, Symphonic Fantasy,” (Semyon Bychkov, conductor)
7 – “Marjorie Prime” (Capital Stage in May)
8 – The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra concert on September 22 at Mondavi Center featuring Wynton Marsalis’ “Spaces” (Lil Buck and Jared Grimes, dancers)
9 – “Gypsy” (Music Circus in July)
10 – “The Crucible” (Sacramento Theater Company in October)
11 – “Steel Magnolias” (Sacramento Theater Company in November)
12 – The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert at Mondavi Center on January 17 featuring Shostakovich’s 1st symphony, Britten’s violin concerto (Augustin Hadelich, soloist), Adès’ “Powder Her Face” Suite (David Robertson, conductor)
13 – Mozart’s “Requiem” (The Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra on April 7 at the Community Center Theater)
14 – The Bill Charlap Trio with Cécile McLorin Salvant (Mondavi Center on February 9)
15 – “On the 20th Century” (Davis Shakespeare Festival in July)
16 – “One Man, Two Guvnors” (B Street Theater in March)
17 – The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s performance of all six of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (Mondavi Center on December 8)
18 – “Mary Stuart” (Davis Shakespeare Festival in July)
19 – “Ironbound” (B Street Theater in October)
20 – “Singin’ in the Rain” (Music Circus in June)