Fall is usually the time for classical and jazz events. After all the big outdoor summer festivals are over, audiences start to wear layers again, new seasons are announced, and we all gather inside dark theaters for communal experiences as the leaves turn to brown.
And then there's 2021, when nothing is so predictable. Still, at least for the time being, the fall slate is full of diversity, innovation and inspiration in its classical and jazz performances.
Reminder: COVID precautions remain in flux. Proof of vaccination is a requirement for many indoor events. Before making plans, and again before arrival, be sure to check event websites for the latest protocols.
If you move in sports circles, Opera at the Ballpark is the perfect way to trick a friend into liking opera. You lure them with promises of walking on the same baseball field where Giants like Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey and Johnny Cueto play, you buy 'em a beer, and then watch as they lay in the grass, transformed by the singing of Jamie Barton and Rachel Willis-Sørensen. That's the idea, anyway: to make opera accessible to the public while a performance at the War Memorial Opera House is simulcast on the large scoreboard screen above the outfield. On top of it all? Admission is free. Ultimately, if your friend is successfully won over, there's also San Francisco Opera's upcoming runs of Beethoven's Fidelio (Oct. 14–30) and Mozart's Cosí fan tutte (Nov. 21–Dec. 3) to cement the obsession.
Along with Roy Haynes and Jack DeJohnette, Billy Hart is a jazz treasure whose time behind the drum kit spans generations. A master of rhythm and touch in a live setting, Hart proves himself adept at all styles as an empathetic listener and tremendously creative soloist. Now 80 and with no sign of slowing down, Hart appears here in a quartet with tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, bassist Peter Barshay and pianist Ethan Iverson, the estimable former leader of The Bad Plus. The setting is a new, intimate art gallery venue booked by former Healdsburg Jazz Festival artistic director Jessica Felix.
The first time back in front of an audience has proven to be a connecting emotional experience for performers this year. For members of the Santa Rosa Symphony's orchestra, that moment will be soundtracked by American composer Libby Larsen's Deep Summer Music, an appropriately blissful evocation of rebirth. Also sharing the program with Elgar's Enigma Variations and Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 (performed by the young soloist Julian Rhee) is Rust, by the boundary-breaking Berkeley-raised composer Gabriella Smith. Rust's score at times demands total freedom of its players, underscoring the adventurous spirit of Santa Rosa Symphony's Francesco Lecce-Chong, an exciting young conductor whose easy rapport with audiences makes even the most challenging pieces inviting.
New sounds have burbled in jazz for several years now, with the joyful noise created by artists like Shabaka Hutchings and Kamasi Washington on one end of the spectrum, and the subdued, skittering electronic influence of Makaya McCraven and Kamaal Williams on the other. The latter field includes the Brooklyn-based drummer, rapper and producer Kassa Overall, whose range is matched only by his depth. Political and cultural themes abound in Overall's music (along with a sense of humor; a 2019 album is cheekily titled Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz). His live shows contain multitudes.
The Silicon Valley Symphony kicks off its season with two favorites: Dvorak's New World Symphony and Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture and Scherzo. What makes the program special is a world premiere by the Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz, whose work stretches back 30 years. D'Colonial Californio is a concerto for flute and orchestra, performed here by soloist Marisa Canales and under the direction of JoAnn Falletta. Inspired by the Peninsula's main route El Camino Real—part of a fraught, revisionist history—the piece promises to bring contemplation among the celebration at the California Theater.
Since he first picked up a saxophone, the inventive musician Ravi Coltrane has dutifully fulfilled constant requests to perform the music of his famous father, John Coltrane. These past few years, though, one thing has changed: he's now asked to also perform compositions from his mother, Alice Coltrane, the deeply spiritual harpist, pianist and singer whose music has recently undergone a widespread and welcome cultural reappraisal. Over four nights (and a Sunday matinee), Coltrane mines his ancestry in ways he's never done before, exploring solo and collaborative work by both parents.
An entire farewell tour had been planned for Michael Tilson Thomas' 25th and final season as music director for the San Francisco Symphony, but COVID had other plans. Now, Tilson Thomas returns to the podium at Davies Symphony Hall for the first time since conducting his final piece as music director there, Mahler's Symphony No. 6, on a very trepidatious March night in 2020. Along with Schumann's Symphony No. 1 and the short, rarely played Three German Dances by Mozart, the program includes Tilson Thomas' own Notturno, with Demarre McGill on flute.
As the story goes, Canadian trumpeter Bria Skonberg arrived in New York City a decade ago and immediately went to jam with friends in the park when, strolling by, Wynton Marsalis stopped to listen and give a thumbs up of approval. New York's performing arts sector has since embraced the supple-toned horn player and singer, although her playing style owes more to New Orleans than Harlem. With an ability to take popular jazz standards into literal pop territory, Skonberg is a natural crowd pleaser.
Dedicated to innovations in chamber music, SF Performances' PIVOT series regularly showcases the type of compositions you only thought were possible. In October, that includes performances by Theo Bleckmann, Missy Mazzoli, Jennifer Koh, Brooklyn Rider and Nicolas Phan. A highlight is Lyra, a collaboration between the Living Earth Ballet and Post:ballet that blends film, choreography and dance, and draws inspiration from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
For a time in the 1980s, some of the most commercially successful jazz was released on GRP Records, an outfit specializing in then-new digital recording techniques that matched the popular synthesized sounds of the time: electric keyboards, modified electric guitars and even electrified saxophones. For a week at Yoshi's, then comes roaring back into the now with some of GRP's biggest sellers. While the smooth fusion of progressive jazz outfit Spyro Gyra (Sept. 18 and 19) has yet to come back into hipster vogue, guitar aficionados will no doubt flock to Lee Ritenour's unusual fret skills when he appears with his longtime collaborator, the film-scoring saxophonist Dave Grusin (Sept. 16 and 17).
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