They say that jazz is best as a cool, late-night experience, and classical concerts are often a nighttime affair. But don’t let that notion get in the way of enjoying the season where both genres hang a little loose, and let their formal suit buttons out. Here’s a solid list of picks for the club, concert hall and outdoor setting this summer.
May 26 and 27
San Jose Center for the Performing Arts
Like trap music or TikTok, video game music is a generational divider: younger people who came of age playing Super Mario Bros. recognize it as high art, and a certain older generation dismisses it as commercial decoration. While not all video game scores rise to the brilliant level of, say, Final Fantasy VII, there’s enough craft in the canon at this point that symphonic concerts of video game music have become frequent — and popular. In Game On!, game composer Andy Brick conducts the San Jose Symphony in an evening of music from titles like World of Warcraft, Diablo, Assassin’s Creed, League of Legends, Until Dawn and more.
As inspiring as the Women, Life, Freedom movement in Iran may be, it’s important to remember that the opposition of the country’s morality police is strong, deadly, and not waning. To keep the movement in the public eye, and to express the issues of women’s rights and democracy through song, the Navaya Azadi Ensemble sings contemporary texts in Farsi, accompanied by violin and piano. The concert is part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, itself a cornucopia of socially conscious performances over an 11-day span.
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
In this summer’s most anticipated new work, the story of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s rollercoaster romance gets a creative treatment by Boonville-based composer Gabriela Lena Frank and librettist Nilo Cruz. Set three years after Kahlo’s death, and weeks before Rivera’s own, the opera imagines Rivera (Alfredo Daza) pining to see his wife Frida (Daniela Mack) one last time. Since it happens to be Día de los Muertos, his wish becomes an absorbing journey for both of them. With a relatively short run time of just over two hours, consider Frida y Diego a perfect option for introducing first-timers to the opera.
Put the classical canon in an air fryer, send it 50 years into the future, and play it at 1.5x speed, and you’d get something close to the atmospheres created by the Kronos Quartet. The Bay Area institution’s annual festival is always thrilling, with guest performers and daring works. This year’s lineup includes pieces by West African singer Angélique Kidjo, Pulitzer winner Henry Threadgill, Bay Area composer Gullermo Galindo, jazz-thrash polyglot Trey Spruance, and even some reliable standbys like Terry Riley (above) and Philip Glass. With Aizuri Quartet, Attacca Quartet and Friction Quartet joining Kronos, check your preconceptions at the door.
If you’ve ever wanted to travel back in time to see John Coltrane recording his landmark album A Love Supreme, Isaiah Collier & the Chosen Few have a deal for you. For the saxophonist’s 2021 album Cosmic Transitions, he brought his group to the same recording studio where A Love Supreme was made, and on John Coltrane’s birthday, no less. This quaint anecdote could have ended there — if the results weren’t so vital and stunning. Live, Collier is always on his game, and in the classic confines of this Tenderloin basement club, his sets are bound to be a transporting experience.
Willie Colón’s name is near-synonymous with the New York Salsa renaissance of the early 1970s. In a series of underworld-themed albums on the Fania label, the trombonist, vocalist and bandleader worked with Hector Lavoe, Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades and many others. The Latin music legend headlines this package tour with Los Hermanos Rosario, Hector Acosta, Los Hermanos Flores and Fulanito. Pro tip: For a free concert of New York Latin music without the snarled traffic into and out of the parking lot, the Latin soul legend Joe Bataan plays with Mission District favorite La Doña at Yerba Buena Gardens on the same day, July 15.
The music and mystique of Sun Ra just keep growing, and while Ra himself left this Earth to travel the outer spaceways in 1993, his mission is, thankfully, kept alive by 99-year-old saxophonist and bandleader Marshall Allen. Cunningly, the group’s residency is split in half: two nights of Ra’s more borderless, avant-garde music, and two nights of his singular take on big-band swing. Attendees are advised to be ready for a journey — no one who experiences the music of Sun Ra in a live setting leaves unchanged.
Dude, I don’t know either. The classical establishment is always looking for ways to make classical music more enticing to younger people, and this seems to be its latest attempt: a touring production that blends the symphonies of Tchaikovsky with the half-melodic melodies and incel-adjacent bars of the famous Canadian rapper Drake. For a more local spin on this experiment, San Francisco rap icon Andre Nickatina hosts a “reimagining” of his music with a classical ensemble just one block away from Davies on June 24. Attention, NBA Youngboy and Yo-Yo Ma: your move!
San Francisco’s first-of-its-kind Transgender District was founded in 2017, and in 2022, it partnered with Opera Parallèle to celebrate trans and nonbinary classical musicians. The series returns in a year that’s seen increased attacks on trans rights, both in distant state legislatures and on San Francisco’s own streets. Performing this year are singer Katherine Goforth, harpist Ahya Simone (above) and mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz. With host Afrika America, expect poignancy, humor and artistry of high order.
It’s remarkably common for small festivals to lose their steam and peter out after a couple years. Rare is the festival, like San Jose Summerfest, that just gets bigger and better each year. This year’s fun comes in the form of headliners like bassist extraordinaire Marcus Miller, experimentalists The Bad Plus, Zambian rock band W.I.T.C.H., soulful vocalist Gregory Porter and jazz phenomenon Veronica Swift. Spread out over central San Jose, the festival offers the sublime opportunity to listen to Patrice Rushen (above) on a Sunday afternoon, laying on a blanket in Plaza de César Chávez. Does summertime get much better?
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