Sacramento is a surprisingly good city for live performances, especially if you are willing to take the short drive to the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis), where a steady diet of musical tastes from jazz to classical symphonic orchestras is available from September to June. With our own Sacramento Philharmonic, the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra, and the Camellia Symphony, along with the stage productions at the B Street Theater, the Music Circus, Capital Stage, and the Sacramento Theater Company, you can enjoy a live performance of one kind or another every week, if you’ve a mind to.
And I haven’t even included in that list the pop and rock concerts that are available at venues as large as the Golden 1 Arena and as intimate as Harlow’s Restaurant and Nightclub, or the symphony, opera, and Broadway touring productions in not-too-distant San Francisco, or, for that matter, the performances that one might catch while traveling on vacation or business.
My work provides a number of opportunities to travel, and my wife and I also have been travelling more for pleasure since we’ve been “empty nesters.” As a result, I see more than my share of live performances every year. The list last year included shows, concerts, or theatrical productions that I attended in Chicago; New York City; Ashland, Oregon; and Paris and Nice, France. In all, I saw 40 performances that ranged from the most local and non-professional (of which the River City Chorale’s very fine Christmas concert is a good example) to the most distant in august halls (the Nice Philharmonic’s concert in the city’s historic auditorium would highlight those in that group).
Very few of those 40 were disappointments, so any attempt to create a list of the ten best is fraught with difficulty. In compiling the list I do provide here, I juggled about two dozen before settling on 16 that clearly stand out. And then, because ten is just the number that seems to be required in columns like this one, I edged out six that I’ll now award “honorable mention” status. In chronological order they are these performances:
The Bruckner Orchestra Linz concert at the Mondavi Center on February 11 (featuring Robert McDuffie on Barber’s violin concerto).
The St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert at Mondavi on March 18 (conducted by the legendary Yuri Temirkanov and featuring Garrick Ohlsson on Brahms’ first piano concerto).
The Capital Stage production of Rajiv Joseph’s “Guards at the Taj” in March.
The concert by Cristina Pato’s quartet at Mondavi on October 6 (featuring Ms. Pato’s engaging personality and her technical skill on the bagpipe).
The Rising Stars of Opera concert at Mondavi on October 8 (with soprano Sarah Cambidge, tenor Kyle Van Schoonhoven, and bass-baritone Brad Walker, accompanied by Mark Morash on piano and conducting the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra).
The Hot Sardines jazz/tap dance concert at Mondavi on December 8.
And here, in descending order, are my top ten:
10. The show at the Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris, France (June 5) – While the classic Can-Can dance number was closer to a PG-13 than a full-on R rating, the cast of over 60 male and female dancers (complemented by a half-dozen singers) revealed themselves (figuratively and literally) to be in excellent physical shape. The highlight had to be the nude woman who descended into a large water tank where she proceeded to swim with three giant pythons.
9. The Music Circus production of “Sister Act” (August 23) – The surprise hit of the Music Circus season, this Glenn Casale-directed musical starred Zonya Love in the role Whoopi Goldberg played in the original film. Ms. Love was a major reason for the success of the production, but she was ably supported by a strong ensemble cast. The story is silly, of course, but Alan Menkin’s songs are good, and Mr. Casale had everything working for this outstanding production.
8. The Capital Stage production of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” (December 9) – Eschewing the standard holiday season fare, Cap Stage co-founder Peter Mohrmann instead directed a delightful “sequel” to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” and, wow, was it great. The play, co-written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, picks up the Austen story two years after two of the Bennet sisters got married, when the sisters and their men meet to celebrate the holiday. This one was an unexpected joy.
7. The Camellia Symphony’s performance of Mozart’s “Requiem” (November 11) – Michael Morgan, emeritus artistic director of the Sacramento Philharmonic, led the Camellia in a marvelous rendition of Mozart’s great work. With a strong chorus, excellent soloists, and the orchestra playing cohesively, the performance was first-rate. Add the atmosphere provided by the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, and the result was, well, heavenly.
6. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert in the symphony’s Orchestra Hall (April 6) – Only months before his esteemed career apparently ended (as a result of sexual harassment allegations), Charles Dutoit conducted this great orchestra in its historic hall in a thoroughly satisfying concert. It began with a Stravinsky work (“Funeral Chant”) that had only recently been found and had never been played in the U.S. Prokofiev’s 5th symphony and Dvořák’s cello concerto (Truls Mark, soloist) were also superb.
5. The Music Circus production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” (June 21) – The season opener at the Wells Fargo Pavilion was the season’s best. Again, Glenn Casale directed, and his use of the original Disney costumes, along with a top-notch cast (led by Jessica Grové as Belle, James Snyder as the beast, and Peter Saide as Gaston), helped keep the dark story from overwhelming the upbeat music (by Menken and Howard Ashman; lyrics by Tim Rice for songs added by Menken).
4. The Capital Stage production of “An Octoroon” (September 2) – The season-opening production at Cap Stage was a bold choice by producing artistic director, Michael Stevenson. It revealed some hard truths about the racism that was blatant in America’s past and still exists today. The play, by Branden Jacob-Jenkins, featured a superb cast, led by David Everett Moore. It was ably directed by Judith Moreland, who brought out all of the play’s humor before hitting hard with its very serious climax.
3. The New York Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Verdi’s “Requiem” (November 24) – James Levine, in one of his very last concerts as conductor of the Met Opera’s orchestra (before he, too, like Mr. Dutoit, was relieved of his position after allegations of sexual abuse surfaced), led the opera’s chorus and four excellent soloists in Verdi’s great choral masterwork. The audience gave Levine, who conducted from a special chair since he cannot stand (the result of a serious accident years ago), an extended ovation that was probably the last he will ever enjoy.
2. “Hamilton” (April 5) – Yes, it’s great. And my wife and I were lucky enough to get tickets just days before we flew to Chicago (for a moot court competition). Chicago is the only other city (aside from New York) where a permanent production of the Lin-Manuel Miranda play can be seen. Everything we had heard was true, except that it is far more than a rap musical. Many songs are more traditional, with actual melodies, harmonies and choruses. And the history is really the star. “Hamilton” is must-see theater. So how can it only be number two on my list?
1. “The Odyssey” (August 4) – The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Homer’s story was knock-your-socks-off amazing. The adaptation is by Mary Zimmerman, and it has been produced elsewhere in the past. But the production under the stars in the Allen Elizabethan Theater in the little town of Ashland was breath-taking. It included an ingenious use of multi-media effects that at one point had the giant Cyclops looking like a real giant. The terrific cast was led by Christopher Donahue as Odysseus and Christiana Clark as the goddess Athena. This production, directed by Ms. Zimmerman, was the best theater I saw all year, which in a year that included “Hamilton,” is the highest praise I can give.