Phantoms of the opera

After a shotgun marriage, the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera is getting curtain calls

Photo courtesy of Tia Gemmell

Gregg Wager is a composer, critic and author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

In fantasy role-playing games, an incantation from a deft cleric can bring your dead character back to life again. It’s not over ’til it’s over. And even then, it isn’t over.

When the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera announced its 2019-20 season last month, the five classical music events, one opera performance and one pops show demonstrated thoughtful and sophisticated programming. Classical music is alive and well here.

But Sacramento is unlike most cities when it comes to maintaining its orchestra. Ever since a bitter bankruptcy of the once stalwart Sacramento Symphony more than 20 years ago, attempting to establish a more modest organization hasn’t always gone well.

Opera has never substantially taken root in town, either, even though we can boast that Sybil Sanderson (1864-1903), one of Europe’s most historically important sopranos, was born in Sacramento. Audiences might still remember feeling optimistic in the spring of 2014, when a staged production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore arrived after several troubled seasons in a row, only to be suddenly disappointed when the first half of the following season was partially canceled for lack of money.

“But I hope you’re not going to dwell on the past,” says Alice Sauro, SPO’s executive director, when reminded about that dreaded season. In all fairness, she started her tenure during the tail end of the canceled season and has been leading the Philharmonic through an era of steady prosperity ever since.

Sauro says SPO is doing better than ever, though there is still no permanent conductor since Michael Morgan, who led the orchestra since 1999, retired and was bestowed an “emeritus” status in 2015.

Also, the upcoming season won’t take place in its usual home, the Community Center Theater, because the venue is undergoing a year-long renovation.

“All of Sacramento is our stage, and ongoing activities, such as our education program and pop-up concerts, show how much we enjoy Sacramento,” Sauro says. “We are in this community and a part of it.”

Photo courtesy of the Sacramento Philharmonic & opera

Sacramento should welcome any optimism about 2019-20. It marks Sauro’s fifth full season at the helm, and with a combination of smart programming and solid performances, the Philharmonic has been running smoothly.

The season’s seven concerts will each be led by a different guest conductor at three venues: Memorial Auditorium, Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and Fremont Presbyterian Church, with its Reuter 67-rank pipe organ center-stage.

Organist James Jones performs the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony there next March, and violinist William Hagen plays the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto for the opening concert at Memorial Auditorium in October. Composer Zhou Tian premieres a new work in February 2020 commemorating the sesquicentennial of completion of the transcontinental railroad, giving the season something truly emblematic of Sacramento and its history.

Since the 2012-13 season, Sauro says attendance and subscriptions have risen 60 percent. The Verdi opera may have helped get the ball rolling, but now concerts are routinely selling out. SPO also increased its annual operating budget over the past four years from $1 million to nearly $2 million.

But what can the ghosts of SPO teach other arts organizations undergoing hardship?

Not forgetting the miracle

In the summer of 2013, the Philharmonic and Sacramento Opera merged into the Sacramento Region Performing Arts Alliance. But a year later, the money set aside to run the new organization was gone. Canceling the first half of its 2014-15 season came after the alliance tried cutting back to a bare minimum because of budget problems, bad blood and downright bad luck.

“At that time, there was nothing left, really,” remembers Thomas Derthick, SPO’s principal double bassist and a longstanding warrior against its political and monetary strife. “There was one leftover staff position, but everyone else running the organization had gone.”

Also gone was the director of the Verdi opera, Robert Tannenbaum. He was originally supposed to stay on, but like other out-of-towners brought in to help, he left when the going got tough.

Photo courtesy of Kyle Rynicki

Derthick recalls the money problems, but also the bad feelings during the Philharmonic & Opera merger, calling it a “shotgun marriage” because neither organization wanted it.

It took a generous donation in the nick of time to jump start the organization again.

“I went to her house with Michael Morgan and [bassoonist] Maryll Goldsmith, and we all sat down and made the case to her,” Derthick says, not naming the donor. While some arts donations in Sacramento have been squandered, this time the investment took hold.

An orchestra season is not like baseball, where scores and statistics coldly determine how well a season goes for a team, which then determines what players get traded the next year. Attendance and ticket sales can be measured, but for the most part, the success of a performance is open to each listener’s own interpretation. Otherwise, orchestras typically hire trained musicians who consistently play well, while politics behind the scenes determine what gets programmed, who gets the spotlight or who will be the next guest conductor.

A team from the Detroit Symphony was called in after the cancellation to rescue the 2014-15 season, and right off the bat, the out-of-towners proposed a summer performance of Mahler’s 2nd or “Resurrection” Symphony, waging a war of symbolic gestures against any lingering jinxes.

The symbolism may at least have helped garner attention and boost attendance. With a little imagination borrowed from fantasy games, some might even believe the Detroit team acted as clerics using the Mahler incantation to bring the Philharmonic back to life.

Sauro had worked for the Detroit Symphony and had already moved to Sacramento when her Motor City colleagues were doing their magic. They recommended her as executive director of SPO.

“What she inherited required a steep learning curve,” says Derthick, “and no one was there to help her.”

Whatever the challenges early on, Sauro has endured with reliable and steady competence, even if classical music and opera in Sacramento has plenty of room to grow.

“Moving here was wonderful,” Sauro says. “The city of Sacramento is going through a renaissance, and the way we are excelling is a model for the future.”

You can’t call it a second wind, because SPO was never breathing normally in the first place. Call it a miracle, and leave it at that.