Sactown symphony saga

What will become of Sacramento's classical music scene?

photo by stokkete/istock/thinkstock

September is the month when many symphony orchestras launch their new concert season. But at Sacramento’s Community Center Theater, the Sacramento Philharmonic and the Sacramento Opera will be silent this fall. And thereby hangs a tale.

A year ago, the Sacramento Philharmonic and Sacramento Opera tooted the trumpets as they announced their merger—under a new umbrella organization called the Sacramento Region Performing Arts Alliance, with the catchy slogan “Two In Tune.” They hired an executive director with years of experience managing arts groups in Europe, Robert Tannenbaum.

Things didn’t work out. Tannenbaum departed abruptly in the spring. Sources indicate that the problems included an inherited budget that had financial holes and certain board members from the two organizations who weren’t necessarily singing in harmony.

To make matters worse, there has been no resolution in the long-running debate about whether to renovate the frowzy, technologically obsolete, 40-year-old Community Center Theater (which has bad acoustics, inadequate restrooms and lobby space, and dismal accessibility for disabled people) or launch what would be a decade-long effort to build a better venue (on a yet-to-be-determined site, with yet-to-be-identified funds).

Facing more uncertainties than answers, the alliance opted for a fall hiatus: No performances. They are now conducting “a three-month review of all available opportunities to preserve the opera and philharmonic for the community, including the possibility of a modified or partial season that would be presented in early 2015,” according to a July statement. This review may or may not involve a revamp of the organization’s long-standing business model. The Community Center Theater is an expensive hall and they could conceivably try another venue, although no good alternatives downtown spring to mind. How they’ll recruit a competent new manager after Tannenbaum’s walkout remains to be seen.

But while symphonic music is apparently going dark downtown, at least for now, the Mondavi Center at UC Davis is bringing in the San Francisco Symphony and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra this fall. And the Harris Center for the Arts at Folsom Lake College is hosting Branford Marsalis with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and the Prague Philharmonic Choir.

What’s more, the region’s four semipro orchestras—the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento, the Auburn Symphony and the Folsom Symphony—are all rolling out seasons of four-to-seven programs each. These will be presented in newer venues that are (for many people) closer to home than the Community Center Theater downtown, and with better sound as well. All four of these orchestras have grown in artistic stature in recent years, and they’re drawing crowds that sometimes rival attendance at Sacramento Philharmonic’s downtown concerts.

So what becomes of the Sacramento Philharmonic and Sacramento Opera merger? Can they figure out a better game plan? Can the City of Sacramento, after doing nothing to fix up the Community Center Theater as better venues opened up nearby, develop a plan to provide a better hall for music? Or will a complacent community conclude that the combination of touring orchestras at the Mondavi and Harris centers, plus the four semipro orchestras in their respective quadrants, is good enough? Will downtown Sacramento, which already hosts dramatically fewer concerts compared to decades past, consolidate its emerging status as a “cultural flyover zone” as far as music is concerned?

Stay tuned.