What’s different about this SF Music Day, showcasing 27 ensembles from noon to 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 9, is that it’s the first time there’s been two such events in the space of a year. What’s the same is the virtuosic artistry and delectable cross-genre variety you can expect to hear and see across four floors of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center.
“What’s also new is that we’ll be making our signage on the first floor very clear and as first-time friendly as possible,” says Cory Combs, executive director of InterMusic SF, which has produced the 14 previous Music Days, with recent changes prompted by the pandemic. “We just did Music Day in March of this year, but that one was supposed to have been in October of ’21,” Combs points out. “The positive of this is that we now know we can do this: wrap up one and immediately start organizing and fundraising for the next.”
Getting the word out with the new scheduling has been a bit of a challenge. “But our really unique situation is that ticket sales don’t make or break this event,” says Combs. In fact, admission is free. Some of the participating ensembles benefit from InterMusic’s Musical Grant Program, though for Music Day “they may not be premiering the work they were just funded for.”
Grantee Faye Carol is new to Music Day but has previously performed in InterMusic’s Presidio Sessions. “This year, she’s our foremost performer of soul and rhythm and blues,” says Combs. “And I worked with her pianist, Joe Warner, when I was director of education at SFJAZZ and he was a student and part of the High School All-Stars program.”
Other performing grantees include chamber groups Ensemble Ari, the Bernal Hill Players, and the MANA Quartet; new- and world-music innovators Ensemble for These Times, George Brooks, and Gary Muszynski; jazz, blues, and funk ensemble Vitamin Em; and Sarah Wilson’s Brass Tonic, a horn-led celebration of dance, film, and jazz.
Combs cops to certain personal preferences, including saxophone ensembles (“The MANA Quartet will be the first time we’ve booked a saxophone quartet in the Green Room”) and duos of all stripes. “We welcome people to reach out to us, and that’s included cellist Matthew Linaman and pianist Robert Mollicone, who are together doing a program of women composers. It’s relationship building for them. And I pitched to Terrence Brewer and Marcus Shelby, with whom I have long personal and professional relationships. They both lead large ensembles, and I said, ‘Would you be interested in playing duo?’ So they’ll have this very intimate guitar/upright bass connection, with conversation, and they’re quite excited about the idea.”
Another of Combs’s encounters from the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars is pianist and accordionist Sam Reider. “He now has a group called The Human Hands, and he’s performing this time with two students of his own who are virtuosic at the high-school level, Teo and Miles Quale. They’re doing this crossbreed of jazz and Americana.
“Richard Howell, whom I presented before, is choosing to do something really different, too. Jazz is his home base, but he’s also known for rhythm and blues and has played with Chaka Khan. He’s leading a group called the Joy Protocol Ensemble, which is our biggest group this year, a large band doing a longer set, about 45 minutes. Their idea is to study musically where we are after moving through the sorrow of the past few years and coming back now to what he hopes will be a more joyful position for performers and audiences.”
The Trinity Alps Chamber Music Festival, which hosts a summer season, winter residencies in the mountains, and tours across Northern California, is an affiliate of InterMusic SF, benefitting from the organization’s fiscal sponsorship. Combs approached pianist Ian Scarfe, Trinity Alps’ founder and director, “and asked him if he wanted to showcase some of the work and musicians he might present at the festival. In this case, it’s a trio of world-class performers,” comprising violinist Rochelle Nguyen, pianist Elektra Schmidt, and Scarfe. “We’ve been thinking about ways we can strengthen the profile of those on our roster who are presenters, as Trinity Alps is.”
In planning Music Days, Combs also takes notice of “anything which comes to my attention where I’ve neglected a region. It’s very appealing to recognize an artist committed to raising awareness.” This prompted Combs to contact Ellie Falaris Ganelin, an affiliate of InterMusic SF through her Greek Chamber Music Project. The group will be the first Music Day booking with a Greek connection. Ganelin grew up in Maryland but made summer visits to Greece with her father, who was raised in Thessaloniki. “We’d almost always go to a concert or two, and it would be mostly laïká, which is popular music, or the rembetiko tradition, associated with urban nightlife.
It wasn’t until she’d completed training at the University of Maryland as a flutist that Ganelin became curious about the little-known Greek contributions to chamber and classical music. She founded the Greek Chamber Music Project in 2011 and began seeking sources in Athens. “There was definitely a new-music scene there and in universities around Greece, but it was a very small ecosystem,” says Ganelin. “The Athens Concert Hall had a library with a few scores by Greek composers, and there was stuff in people’s private estates and collections. So I pieced my repertoire together from all of these sources.”
As she gained material, Ganelin founded a record label and began performing and recording with pianist Mary-Victoria Voutsas in the Washington, D.C., area. Their albums present “chamber music by Greek composers and arrangements of songs by Manos Hatzidakis, who wrote ‘Never on Sunday.’ These are songs that most Greeks would recognize; they’re reinterpretations or elevations of rembetiko.”
After relocating to Berkeley with her husband, Ganelin made the acquaintance of pianist Elektra Schmidt, who was raised in Athens, and composer Costas Dafnis, a Greek American living in Millbrae who’d been collaborating with instrument inventor Tom Nunn. A family of these instruments had taken shape: bronze rods resting on inflated balloons in small buckets, welded to steel sheets and sounded by a bow. Ganelin recorded a performance by Dafnis on one of these instruments, dubbed a “ghost plate.”
Ganelin’s Greek musical companions and discoveries will be showcased on Music Day. “Georgios Kasassoglou and Nicolas Astrinidis were both active in the 1950s and ’60s, and both pretty much pulled from Greek folk music,” says Ganelin about two of the composers she’ll be featuring. “Astrinidis wrote chamber and orchestral works and was instrumental in establishing opera in Thessalonki. Kasassoglou wrote for theater and ballet in Athens, including settings of ancient Greek tragedies.
“The Four Greek Dances [by Kasassoglou] I found at the Athens Concert Hall library,” continues Ganelin, about the piece she’ll perform with Schmidt. “There are four movements, each representing a different Greek dance style. But they’re packaged up in classic chamber music styling. I play these for Greek audiences here who don’t ordinarily listen to classical music, and it’s an entry point for them.” She believes the piece will appeal similarly to Music Day audiences unfamiliar with Greek music.
“Astrinidis’s stuff has been recorded more, and you can find his Capriccio in Modo Balcanico on YouTube, by four or five different interpreters,” Ganelin points out. In the Music Day set, Schmidt will perform this piece with Erik Andersen on cello. Despite the Balkan allusion in the title, “the mode used sounds Greek to me. The first half is kind of slow, lyrical, and emotional, and the second is lighter and sprightlier, in a ‘two’ meter.”
Dafnis’s Talos Dreams, one of Music Day’s most eye-and-ear-catching offerings, will feature the composer on ghost plate, Ganelin on flute, Andersen on cello, and Flora Espinoza on oboe. The title references a mythical giant robot engaged by King Minos to protect the island of Crete from invaders. “The ghost plate is a metal being as well an acoustic instrument, and its sounds could be made by a robot,” comments Ganelin. “When I play my flute really close to it, it reverberates and picks up the pitches. The movements of the piece are about Talos’s creation and how he was able to embrace and ‘cook’ invading soldiers.”
As the looming threat of COVID may be abating, Combs notes there will be no requests for proof of vaccination on entering the War Memorial building. “We found most people wore masks in March,” he says, “and we’re going to encourage masking this time, but it won’t be required.” Combs anticipates that InterMusic SF “will do something again in March of ’23 but not on this scale, maybe three or four ensembles.”
The real success of Music Day, Combs believes, rests in “its engaging with the artists and raising their profiles. And that they’re going to be playing to pretty full houses.” The full Music Day lineup and more information can be found on InterMusic SF’s website.