In the decade before the pandemic, SF Music Day arrived like a big fat cherry on top of the heaping sundae of the Bay Area music scene. But, after a two-year in-person hiatus, the free seven-hour music marathon returns Sunday, March 20, to the War Memorial Veterans Building feeling more like a dessert buffet following a long, difficult fast.
Launched in 2008 by San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music (now known as InterMusic SF), the annual one-day program quickly multiplied from eight acts to several dozen, offering an unusually wide-angle selection of leading Bay Area ensembles exploring chamber music, jazz, new music and various international musical permutations.
Featuring some 100 Bay Area musicians in 30 different groups, the 14th annual SF Music Day celebration arrives at a moment of transition, as the city withdraws pandemic regulations. No one will be checking vaccination status upon entering the Veterans Building or its performance spaces, and masks are highly encouraged, but not required.
Along with the number and diversity of acts on tap, what makes SF Music Day exceptional is that it’s designed to allow for easy exploration. Come for the lieder but also check out the wailing saxophone duo, the Latin flute ensemble, the soul jazz vocal star and the Carnatic funk trio.
“Presenting this wide range of styles and artists does make us unique,” said Cory Combs, the InterMusic SF executive director who’s shepherded the organization through the pandemic. “We’re not alone in having a broad spectrum of styles. The SFJAZZ Center presents all kinds of music. But we can really go from baroque to new-music premieres.”
With many musicians still emerging from home after two years with few in-person performance opportunities, artists are itching to present some of the projects they’ve been working on. Violinists Irene Sazer and Kate Stenberg, both veteran string music innovators, introduce their climate-change-inspired Mycos Project via a 30-minute multimedia work with film and live music in Hersbt Theatre. It’s the first glimpse at their ambitious collaboration with San Francisco biologist Ravinder Sehgal, whose research focuses on the ecology of diseases in birds, and Costanoan Ohlone and Chumash artist/educator Kanyon Sayers-Roods’ work bridging Indigenous and contemporary Western value systems.
Classical Revolution, the collective that started in the Mission’s Revolution Café and sparked an international movement that brings European classical music out of concert halls and into convivial settings, celebrates Bach’s 337th birthday performing the 3rd and 6th Brandenburg Concertos. While Revolution Café shut down early in the pandemic, Sunday’s performance highlights Classical Revolution’s enduring foothold, with regular slots Tuesday evenings at Gestalt Bar, Saturday afternoons at Liberties, and Sunday nights at Arcana.
Finding the right venue for a concert series is a delicate dance. One reason why SF Music Day has taken root is that the event’s founder, Dominique Pelletey, patiently expanded the programming to fit each new space. The first festival, in 2008, was a modest affair with eight ensembles at the Berkeley Piano Club. He found a succession of forums that helped the event grow, presenting with the de Young Museum and Yerba Buena Center For the Arts before SF Friends of Chamber Music started producing SF Music Day on its own at the War Memorial Veterans Building.
With four different stages, the building offers a great deal of flexibility. The Green Room on the second floor mostly showcases small string ensembles or percussion-free combos. The Taube Atrium Theater and Educational Studio on the fourth floor are bigger and can accommodate larger groups with wider dynamics. And the 900-seat Herbst Theatre pretty much guarantees that there’s always something to see if the other spaces are full.
“I’ve never seen Herbst at capacity,” Combs said. “If the Green Room is full, we encourage people to go to the theaters that have space. This year, I don’t know what to expect. Our reservations are running a little behind 2019, and the covid policy changes could bring more people or make them more cautious. People might come to see a particular artist, but because it’s a free event it’s a low-risk, high-reward proposition.”
The payoff can indeed be priceless, and come from entirely unexpected quarters. Part of what makes SF Music Day so alluring to music fans is the element of surprise. Jeremy Cohen’s ViolinJazz features 82-year-old drummer Harold Jones, a consummate musician who toured and recorded with Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and the Count Basie Orchestra (including the classic cameo in “Blazing Saddles“).
Combs is getting into the action himself as one of two bassists anchoring saxophonist Rent Romus’s sprawling 10-piece Life’s Blood Ensemble, which is presenting the new piece “Itkuja Suite.” Created by Romus and Finnish multi-instrumentalist Heikki Koskinen, the extended work weaves together jazz and free improvisation inspired by the mythopoetic oral traditions and laments from Finland and Finno-Ugric culture.
Combs joined InterMusic SF in late 2016, and “the first two SF Music Days, I didn’t hire an event manager,” he said. “I did it myself. But in 2019 I did, which gave me a chance to say ‘yes’ to a couple of things. It is fun to learn how the event goes from that perspective.”
On stage or in the audience, the SF Music Day offers a smörgåsbord for music fans of just about every taste on Sunday.
SF Music Day and it’s free!