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Top 2017 Bay Area Summer Music Festivals


Taking it on the road – classical and beyond

It’s that time again – Summer Music Festivals – and the Bay Area is popping. Here is our short list for summer fun.


Coming right up is the Mendocino Music Festival, which opens with a bang with a dinner and Zydeco dance party this Friday, July 7, and then segues into three events on Saturday, July 8. There is a free orchestra rehearsal in the morning for the Sunday concert – and that includes Gershwin and Piazzolla! – an afternoon of Mendelssohn and late Beethoven by the sublime Calder Quartet, and an evening of contemporary a capella music by The House Jacks, who describe themselves as “a rock band without instruments.” This is the band that wrote the arrangements for the film Pitch Perfect. Waddaya waiting for?

Mendocino Music Festival Tent-2016

More highlights of this very eclectic festival include bluegrass from Laurie Lewis, an homage to Lou Harrison on his centennial by pianist Sarah Cahill with violinist Kate Stenberg and percussionist William Winant, jazz-folk by Kathleen Grace, Cajun with The Pine Leaf Boys, the contemporary piano duo ZOFO, Lone Star blues, Big Band, taiko, a completely staged Donizetti comic opera, and the Mendocino Festival Orchestra led by Festival co-founder Allan Pollack in three exciting programs.

The Festival ends on July 22 with orchestra, chorus and soloists in Verdi’s Requiem

If you want dynamite in a circus tent overlooking the Pacific, or eclecticism on a shoestring, this is the Big One. See for complete lineup and tickets. For those who prefer the charms of nature over mints on their pillows, Van Damme State Park is just two miles south of the town of Mendocino, and one can pitch a tent quite reasonably. They do fill up quickly, but mid-week sites are often available up to the last minute.


Also tapping into genre hopping, the Bear Valley Music Festival will “rock you” for three weeks of smart programming. And that does include a Queen Tribute Band that is certain to sing, “We will rock you!” Balancing that night of stomp is the vibrant, young Thalea String 

Michael Morgan, photo by Pat Johnson

Quartet, the Quartet-in-Residence, bringing the quintessence of the Classical and Romantic genres. And anchoring this festival since 2012, the Oakland Symphony’s own Maestro Michael Morgan will lead the Bear Valley Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 (the “Emperor”) with Vladislav Kern as soloist, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pastorale.”

Featured programs also include Hal Ketchum singing his own chart-topping country tunes, pianist/historian Richard Glazier as our guide through Hollywood movie music, a tribute to Fleetwood Mac, the Kalil Wilson jazz trio performing American standards like Gershwin and Cole Porter, and renowned tenor Jonathan Blalock singing Britten’s haunting song cycle, Les Illuminations. And for children, there will be two free concerts on the final Sunday – violinist Dawn Harms leading the way through 300 years of music, followed by three young musical prodigies accompanied by the entire Bear Valley Orchestra.

Situated in the high Sierras, Bear Valley has hiking, kayaking and swimming just down the road from the Festival Tent. There are several campgrounds, and rooms at the Bear Valley Lodge are discounted if you also buy tickets to a Festival program. See for complete listings and tickets.


After a breakout first festival, the Piedmont Chamber Music Festival returns for its second season with three concerts in the first week of August, each cleverly programmed to stretch our expectations. Led by pianist Juliana Han and violinist Wayne Lee, along with the Formosa Quartet and guests, they open on Wednesday, August 2, at 7:30 p.m. with Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp, Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata in E-flat, and then cross over into energetic classical/jazz in Four Grapelli Jazz Tunes, arranged by violinist Jasmine Lin.

Formosa Quartet-photo by Sam ZauscherOn Friday, Aug. 4, at 7:30 p.m. they will perform a Beethoven trio for clarinet, cello and piano, and Debussy’s famed trio for flute, viola and harp, closing with Dvorak’s Piano Quintet. Each of those three pieces is exquisite.

And on Sunday, Aug. 6 at 3:00 p.m. they begin with “irrepressibly buoyant Schubert,” then channel the coloristic realm of birds with Ravel, and close with Thierry Pélicant’s seductive, Argentinean-inspired Milonga for eight musicians. “It’s guaranteed to raise the roof!” claim the Festival directors. And if it is anything like last year, it will sell out.


Moving down the peninsula, Music@Menlo has celebrated chamber music for a heady fifteen years now, bringing a cadre of artists from around the world and particularly from Lincoln Center. Under the Artistic Direction of pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, this year’s concerts will explore the personal and poetic path of virtuosity, in the “Glorious Violin,” running from David Finckel and Wu HanJuly 14 to August 5.

Along with seven main stage concerts in Menlo and Atherton will be five recital concerts, five separate lectures, fifteen master classes, and numerous free “Prelude” performances before each concert by gifted younger musicians. See for calendars and tickets and links to in-depth discussions of each program. If you live anywhere west of the Rockies, you will want to drop in on these “best of the best” concerts.


The Valley of the Moon Music Festival delivers Romanticism and Art song in Sonoma on three weekends from July 16 – 30, celebrating the chamber works of Robert Schumann and of the composers he loved. This festival, organized by cellist Tanya Tomkins and pianist/composer Eric Zivian, is now in its third year. See for events and tickets.


Santa Cruz is a perennial destination spot for the young with its Big Dipper on the boardwalk and Big Surf along the cliffs and beaches. But along with cotton candy and water sports – and a large UC campus – Santa Cruz also hosts the Cabrillo Festival, now in its 55th year and still insanely energetic and fresh. Created by Lou Harrison, a composer who built his own Java-influenced musical instruments, this festival consistently brings new composers onto the forum of the world stage.

Marin Alsop, who led this festival with humor and intelligence for the last twenty-five years, stepped down after last summer, and her replacement is Cristian Macelaru, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and a rising star who has already guest conducted many of the world’s top orchestras. From August 1 to 12 he will lead six different concerts on two long weekends, and will showcase a dozen of the most prominent living composers, along with another half-dozen promising new voices.Cristian Macelaru

Writing for full orchestra is daunting and costly and a gamble for most orchestras, so an entire festival dedicated to such works is rare, and we are truly fortunate to have it in our own backyard. The chance to be part of that birth process draws dedicated musicians every summer from all over the country. This year’s festival will include seven World Premieres and 11 composers in residence, which sets an exceptionally high bar.

The festival begins on Tuesday, August 1, with “In the Works,” a free concert of works by three young composers, Yi-Yiing Chen, Michael Gilbertson and Jules Pegram. It is also the culmination of a Conductors workshop, and this is a chance to hear six young conductors leading those works.

The Friday Aug. 4 concert, “Departures,” has two world premieres: Michael Gandofi’s Points of Departure and Clarice Assad’s Ad Infinitum, a percussion concerto featuring Dame Evelyn Glennie. Bay Area regulars of the New Century Chamber Orchestra would recognize Assad as the brilliant young Brazilian who wrote many of their arrangements, along with a violin concerto premiered by Nadya Salerno-Sonnenberg. And the Scottish Glennie, although completely deaf, is a renowned percussionist. The night ends with Aaron Jay Kernis’ moving Second Symphony, inspired by the Gulf War.

Saturday’s line-up includes Three Latin American Dances by Berkeley-born composer Gabriela Lena Frank, Tributes, a violin concerto by James Stephenson and written for and starring violinist Jennifer Frautschi, and The Conjured Life by David T. Little, his tribute to Lou Harrison.

And the following weekend is just as big, with prominent composers William Bolcom, Jörg Widmann, and Jake Heggie, along with exciting newer entrants Cindy McTee, Karim Al-Zand and Christopher Rountree.

When music is this fresh it is helpful to hear it more than once. Perks of this festival include free daily orchestra rehearsals. In former summers I rented a campsite at the near-by Henry Cowell State Park and went each day to those rehearsals. What a treat! And for those more carefree, one can forgo the motel pool and enjoy both nature and music.


Just a little further south, Carmel is one of the most picturesque get-away spots on the California coast, with its lively beaches and quaint bed and breakfasts, and a main street populated with boutiques, ice cream shops, art galleries and even a high-end boot store where the unwary can peer in or prance out with $1000 cowboy or cowgirl boots.

In addition to its many charms, it hosts the Carmel Bach Festival, held at the Sunset Center under the guidance of artistic director Paul Goodwin. This year’s festival, the last two weeks of July, draws extraordinary musicians and singers from around the country, with all concerts in Week 1 repeated for a second week and culminating in a “Best of the Fest” concert/celebration. The many events (up to three concerts a day!) include both an appreciation for the timeless beauty of Baroque music, and Bach as a departure point and inspiration for contemporary thoughts. To that end, Goodwin has commissioned new work each of his six previous seasons. See for this year’s schedule and tickets.


And did I mention those boots? I think I need to buy my wife a pair!


—Adam Broner

Photos from top: Festival Tent on the Mendocino headlands, photo by A. Broner; conductor Michael Morgan, photo by Pat Johnson; Formosa Quartet, photo by Sam Zauscher; Wu Han and David Finckel, photo courtesy of artists; and conductor Cristian Macelaru, photo courtesy of artist website.


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