SF Music Day goes virtual with Herbst broadcast

Performers pre-record sets in empty, iconic theater

Coronavirus dictated not only that the 13th edition of SF Music Day this weekend would take place online, it also determined that the program feature only piano, string and percussion instruments.

“It ended up being a pretty cool theme, after all was said and done. Next year, if we can get back together again, I’ll make up for it with a heavy brass, winds and vocal program,” says Cory Combs, executive director of InterMusicSF, the nonprofit which sponsors the annual extravaganza of chamber, jazz and contemporary music.

Most years, the fun, free, unpredictable event takes place throughout the San Francisco War Memorial Veterans Building, where thousands of visitors wander about, taking in performances by myriad soloists and small ensembles featuring hundreds of Bay Area musicians.

But this year, due to the pandemic, it’s a free streamed event on Oct. 25 featuring 10 groups that prerecorded 30-minute sets from the Herbst Theatre, the festival’s perennial main stage.

As Combs made plans for 2020 activities – which offered different but equally challenging logistics than in previous years – he learned that the health code permitted no more than 12 people in the room for each recording session. Also: Singers, wind and brass players, whose projection could be dangerous, would not be allowed at all.

Performers who taped their sets last month were enthralled by the experience.

Oakland jazz harpist Destiny Muhammad, who hadn’t played with bassist Chico Lopez and drummer Leon Joyce Jr. since the pandemic shut them down, said, “We brought the fire,” adding, “Everyone is still very excited and grateful, one, to still be alive — hello! — and two, to still be doing what you love. The excitement was at a high level.”

Jazz harpist Destiny Muhammad and bassist Chico Lopez were among the performers invited to appear in SF Music Day 2020. Courtesy 
Marcus Phillips

Jazz harpist Destiny Muhammad and bassist Chico Lopez were among the performers invited to appear in SF Music Day 2020. Courtesy Marcus Phillips

Muhammad, a Southern California native who was a barber before she took up harp almost 20 years ago, said her trio’s set list includes her own original compositions, a reimagined piece by late jazz harp pioneer Dorothy Ashby, and a “throwback that I feel speaks directly to the times” with which she wants to surprise those who tune in.

Making her fourth SF Music Day appearance, Muhammad said she was honored to be asked back, and described the invaluable support InterMusic has given her, from the crew stomping their feet and snapping their fingers at the recording session, to a partnership that makes her feel like she’s part of a “family working together for this greater good of good music.”

Oakland violinist and composer Jeremy Cohen, a member of Violinjazz and of the Grammy-nominated Quartet San Francisco, has the same reverence for InterMusicSF, which provides grants and fiscal sponsorships and promotional assistance to Bay Area classical, jazz or contemporary musicians and composers working individually or in small ensembles.

Mentioning how most musicians have become devalued in modern society, particularly due to the internet, Cohen says, “We have always been shoveling just fast as we can, just to remain musicians. Without an organization like Intermusic, that would be exponentially harder.”

Like Muhammad, Cohen was thrillled by his Herbst recording session with cellist Andrés Vera, who’s also a member of Quartet San Francisco. (Cohen calls the foursome an “oddball string quartet” playing mostly works by living composers; “the only dead people we play are people who lived in our lifetime,” he says.)

Cohen and Vera’s SF Music Day program includes jazz, tango and Cuban-style duets Cohen wrote years ago that the pair performs in educational settings and on YouTube videos.

“We have this material, it’s practiced, it’s part of our repertoire, we were able to pull it up and perform the entire set of eight works; it was really cool,” says Cohen.

As they greeted each other in person after such a long separation, and tried to keep their distance, Cohen said they each extended, then touched their bows together, kind of like Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel.

Calling the setting “surreal,” with the nearly empty house sparkling with gorgeous lights (it was so striking, the photographers decided to shoot from the stage out into the hall), Cohen reveled in what he calls the “perfect resonance” of the Herbst.

“After all these months and not being able to tour and perform, just to stand on a stage and listen to a hall respond to your sound, was kind of like being in a dream. … I’m not trying to be corny; it was really moving,” he says, adding, “They were shooting with great gear. I’m sure they’re really going to be able to capture some of that mojo in the broadcast.”

The lineup includes:

Classical & Contemporary Music

Del Sol String Quartet

Telegraph Quartet

Tom Stone/Elizabeth Dorman/Amos Yang

Motoko Honda’s AIR Trio

Jazz & Global Music Traditions

Mads Tolling & The Mads Men

Destiny Muhammad Trio

Ricardo Peixoto Trio with Marcos Silva and Brian Rice

Terrence Brewer Group

Jeremy Cohen & Andrés Vera, of Quartet San Francisco

Rob Reich & Daniel Fabricant Duo

SF Music Day 2020 streams for free from noon to 6 p.m. Oct. 25; watch here.

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