A Noontime Concert in Old St. Mary’s Cathedral
A Noontime Concert in Old St. Mary’s Cathedral

San Francisco’s Noontime Concerts, Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. in Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, have a distinguished legacy. When London endured air raids in World War II, theaters and museums were all closed, pianist Myra Hess used the empty National Gallery to stage free daily concerts — 1,700 over six years.

The tradition continued in New York and Chicago, and some 33 years ago, singer Alexandra Ivanoff started it up in San Francisco. More about her and the beginning of the concerts below.

“I need space for silence, peace, harmony, and pure joy,” says Noontime Concerts Executive Director Robin Wirthlin. “One of the places where I take refuge is in my job. Presenting Noontime Concerts live, and online programs, is like making an offering of soothing balm to a wounded world.

“The concerts have been a refuge of inspiration and peace to thousands of concertgoers and musicians from San Francisco and all over the world. [The series’] performances have transcended the relative illusions of the best and worst of times. It is truly our privilege to provide these free world-class programs each week to all who wish to attend.”

Wartime London’s Noontime Concert
Wartime London’s Noontime Concert in the bare National Gallery, art removed to bomb shelters during the Blitz

Besides serving audiences, the program also benefits artists and, with the establishment of the Helen von Ammon Fund for Emerging Artists, provides musicians at the beginning of their careers an important performance opportunity, as well as exposure and recognition.

Noontime Concerts are free, but donations are solicited to ensure all can enjoy performances regardless of ability to pay. In addition to the Tuesday concerts in Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, another program, of Sunday concerts in the historic San Francisco Mint, may also be revived.

When COVID struck, the program switched to streamed concerts but continued the work. Now, with the easing of the pandemic, live performances resume, and there are some big plans for the future.

After today’s concert with violinist Iris Stone and cellist Evan Kahn, the June 14 concert will feature cellist Angela Lee, accompanied by pianist Evelyne Luest. The program includes Andrii Didorenko’s Postcards From Ukraine and Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor, Op. 40.

On June 19, the series streams a Juneteenth video program of spirituals, art songs, and solo piano pieces written by African American composers, presented by prominent Bay Area artists.

The Telegraph Quartet and mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer perform the music of Grażyna Bacewicz, Robert Sirota, and Maurice Ravel on June 21; followed by violinist Martin Stoner and pianist Miles Graber on June 28 with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7 in C Minor, Op. 30, No. 2, and the music of Fritz Kreisler, Lukas Foss, and Gabriel Fauré.

Soprano Hope Briggs
Soprano Hope Briggs sings as part of the “Majesty of the Spiritual” program

On Aug. 28, Noontime Concerts will hit the road and present a full live concert in Herbst Theatre, called “Majesty of the Spiritual,” featuring sopranos Hope Briggs and Shawnette Sulker and baritones Robert Sims and Bradley Kynard, with pianist Carl Blake. The program will include works by Florence Price, Hall Johnson, Jacqueline Hairston, Harry T. Burleigh, John Carter, Margaret Bonds, Lena McLin, and others.

The program is similar to Lincoln Center’s “Masters of the Spiritual,” showcasing a program of spirituals written by three African American composers and performed by renowned African American opera singers.

Noontime’s home at Old St. Mary’s provides an environment that’s consistent with the venues for which many classical compositions were originally written.

At its completion in 1853, Old St. Mary’s was both the first cathedral and the tallest building in the new state of California. Restored after San Francisco’s devastating earthquake and fire of 1906, it was rededicated in 1909. The historic cathedral remains an important San Francisco landmark and a beautiful and serene setting for concerts.

Ivanoff — a singer, teacher, and journalist — who is now covering the European music scene from her home in Budapest, founded Noontime Concerts in 1988 “on the kitchen table with my typewriter and a bottle of Wite-Out” with her then-husband, organist/composer John Karl Hirten, who had just started his new job as music director at Old St. Mary’s.

Alexandra Ivanoff
San Francisco’s Noontime Concerts founder Alexandra Ivanoff

“We had recently moved from New York, where I had sung in the professional choir at Trinity Church on Wall Street (which is also where we had met). We both carried the idea of Trinity’s popular Noonday Concerts with us when we surveyed the beautiful interior of Old St. Mary’s, [which] also had a Steinway grand piano. On Dec. 4, 1988, we held our first Noontime Concert there with a solo pianist.

“From that date on, I saw a win-win situation for both the historic church and the many hundreds of fine musicians in San Francisco. We started scheduling weekly Tuesday concerts following the noon Mass and soon added a second one on Thursdays just for pianists. Eventually we extended the concert schedule to St. Patrick’s Church at Yerba Buena and the Bank of America’s Giannini Auditorium.”

Among the highlights of her running Noontime Concerts was hosting the SF Symphony at the church while they were on strike. “They gave six weeks of free concerts to the public; the final performance was their gift to the church for hosting them, and to me for my voluntary work for the orchestra.

“In my 11 years as the concerts’ director (and sometimes performer), I got to know hundreds of lovely and generous people who became regular attendees. I enjoyed meeting thousands of tourists who would stop by to enjoy the music, and I felt great pride that we were helping Old St. Mary’s stature as a welcoming place for the world through the language of music.”