With the first steps into their building, I was immediately blown away by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The new campus on Oak Street is gorgeous, and I was lucky enough to attend their first annual Tuned In fundraiser. All groups performing during the evening had to have either a current conservatory student or an alumni in their membership. With those kind of credentials, I knew the caliber of talent was going to be high. Perhaps I’d encounter Yngwie Malmsteen’s and Victor Wooten’s imaginary love child?
Kicking off the evening was the Pacific Guitar Ensemble in a very intimate performance space with people seated along the walls. They had mad skills. Yes, mad skills. It can be quite a battle to sync up five guitarists playing incredibly complex runs, but the ensemble did it with style and grace. Their attention to detail was absolutely impeccable and I got chills while watching from above. They had a video of some classic footage displaying in the background and it got me thinking – the footage being displayed was classic black and white, only decades old. The music, on the other hand, was considered classic as well, but was hundreds of years old. Film will never be able to achieve the maturity of music; it’s that simple.
I dipped out towards the end of their set for a minute to recharge my beverage (thank you Anchor Steam for supplying the beer – I love you guys), before going to catch Edmund Welles, a bass clarinet quartet. I really had no idea what to expect from them, but they were hands down the dark horse winner of the evening. They play heavy chamber music with an avant garde flavor, and their clarinets’ powerful belt sounded like a pipe organ a mere ten feet in front of me. When speaking with Gabriel Sakakeeny of the Conservatory, I described them as “gnarly” and he said that was the only word appropriate for it. Do yourself a favor and check these guys out. Abso-freakin’-lutely amazing.
Next up on the docket were Bay Bridged favorites Birds and Batteries. I was curious just exactly how they fit the bill, and it turns out bassist/keyboardist Jill Heinke studied flute in the conservatory’s master’s program. Pretty cool if you ask me. They performed in the largest hall and it sounded great. When you see a band perform in a space that was made to complement the music (and isn’t built of concrete with pillars in the middle of the floor), you feel all the nuances that the artist worked so hard to incorporate into the songs. As a special bonus, they performed their new EP, Up to No Good, straight through. I hadn’t gotten the chance to listen to it yet so I was loving it. Dark at times, yet filled with pop sensibility, and definitely a rockin’ good time.
One of the bands I was most excited to see was 49 Special , especially after hearing about them being crowned champions of the California Bluegrass Association competition. They had the classic bluegrass setup – banjo, fiddle, guitar, standup bass, all standing around a single microphone. “North Country” and “Picker Licker” stood out as two of my favorite songs from them. They were just good ol’, down home, whiskey-and-overalls bluegrass. Well, except for the overalls, because these guys (and gal) were sharp dressers.
The last group that I was able to catch during the evening was the Magik Magik Orchestra. Music director Minna was absent as she had to deal with the Magik Magik debut in New York, but the performance wasn’t lacking at all. One of the dudes from Edmund Welles kicked off the set with a supremely difficult bass clarinet solo piece. As he left the stage a female cellist took center stage, surrounded by gentlemen playing xylophone and some droning percussion instrument that I had never seen before. The group lived up to their title as the preeminent indie orchestra one hundred percent. They were an orchestra, and they were definitely indie. I highly recommend them if you’re ever trying to switch things up a bit.
As I was getting ready to call it a night, folks in the lobby area were treated to a good old hootenanny from 49 Special. A nightcap if you will. From what I saw, the evening was a real success. Even though the fundraiser has passed, I’m sure the folks at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music would gladly accept any donations you’d be willing to give. Click here to support our awesome local musicians and the facility that helps them bring their mad skills to the greater public.