Mike and Nancy Mills, a retired physician and nurse, respectively, relocated to Northern California from Lexington, Virginia, three years ago. Interested in how Sacramentans celebrate the holiday season, they walked three blocks from their new home, stumbled upon the month-long lunchtime Capitol Holiday Music Program and have been devotees of this festive happening ever since.
Last year, approximately 10,000 people enjoyed the free concert series, which is hosted in the rotunda of the State Capitol. The diverse holiday-themed performances — which are free of charge and include music and dance groups — will continue through Dec. 23 and often bring in a large audience comprised of downtown workers, visitors and supporters of the specific performers.
Phil Sexton is a state park interpreter, a lifelong music fan and husband of a cellist who is in the Avalon Strings, one of the groups performing at the Capitol. He frequently enjoys the daily performances.
“For those of us who work in the Capitol, as well as many visitors, it’s such a nice part of our day. I work in the basement, but even right now I’m listening to the Salvation Army Brass Ensemble, and as a former brass player in high school and college, it’s a wonderful thing to hear and just improves my day,” said Sexton.
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While holiday music and celebrations have been going on at the Capitol since 1869, the California State Capitol Museum helped created the Capitol Holiday Music Program in 1997.
What began with 22 acts has blossomed into 63 different groups in multiple genres. The Camellia City Flute Choir, Consumnes River College Chamber Singers, the Sacramento Capitolaires and the Sacramento Recorder Society have been performing since the official launch.
Dr. Martin Melicharek, of the Camellia City Flute Choir, which had a standing-room-only crowd for their performance, says his large group is keen to make a name for itself at the rotunda performance. They performed in the rotunda even before the parks department formalized the program, and they make sure all of their fans and everyone on the mailing list is made aware of their yearly performance.
“The audiences are always great and it is nice for us playing for people who might not have seen us before,” said Melicharek.
Erin Renfree, the Capitol Holiday Music Program director since 2005, says he always makes room for new groups to participate in the prestigious series. The groups audition and, if selected, perform for free, but the performers get as much out of the experience as do their audiences and they are often invited back to return year after year.
One of the newer additions to the program is a pair of choirs from Lincoln High School. They are led by Cindy Hagman, choral director, who incorporates fan favorites like “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” in addition to core music standards like Handel’s “Messiah,” as well as some introspective and serious music to the holiday or winter-themed playlist.
Something that makes these performances even more special for the performers is the fantastic acoustics made possible by the architecture of the rotunda.
That’s part of the draw that led Hagman to bring her students to perform for this series.
“My daughter got married at the Capitol 10 years ago and we were walking through the rotunda and getting paperwork done or whatever we were doing, I looked up and I thought that this is would be a fantastic place for acoustics for singing,” Hagman said. “And oftentimes I walk into a building like that and really quickly make a sound, and if I can hear my voice ... I think, ‘Well I’d love to bring my choirs here to sing.
“I was able to take my choir one year to Europe and we sang in several cathedrals in Europe. And this is the closest that we have in our area to one of those cathedrals. So the acoustics are fantastic and this experience is always wonderful because we’re welcomed with open arms.”
One of Hagman’s students, Hannah Eaton, a 16-year-old junior, has performed at the Capitol twice and loves the camaraderie she experiences with her choir mates and enjoys the festive holiday environment.
“My favorite thing about performing at the Capitol is hearing the amazing acoustics in the rotunda. It makes the experience of singing there so much greater,” said Eaton. “My personal favorite song I’ve performed there was ‘Mary, Did You Know’.”
It isn’t just the ears that get a holiday feast. Dance has been recently added to the program.
Jane Zhang, founder and music director of the youth group Davis Splash Music Ensemble, recently brought the Sacramento International Dance Club to the Capitol. The group consists of more than 30 amateur dancers who are all over 50 years old and perform international ballroom and Latin dances with a holiday theme that are choreographed by Rose Ding. While the group has had to adapt their dances to the space, they enjoy the experience.
“Sacramento International Dance Club likes the floor of the rotunda, where we are able to spin and glide freely. The floor requirement for international ballroom dances is pretty high and the rotunda is the place,” said Zhang. “We all very much like the holiday decorations there. It is a sweet, warm and festive atmosphere.”
The quality and diversity of holiday performances are what keeps drawing new crowds as well as bringing back fans year after year.
“There are a lot of talented people in Sacramento,” said Mills. “The major take away from the shows and music is that life is not as hard and difficult as it seems from the news we get from phones, TV, and newspapers. It gives my wife and I some hope to keep on keeping on.”
If You Go
Capitol Holiday Music Program
Where: Rotunda of Capitol, 1315 10th Street
When: Through December 23; Time: 11 a.m. and noon, Monday through Friday and noon to 3 p.m. on weekends
More information: Call (916) 324-0333 or go to the California State Capitol Museum website here.