There’s no doubt about it: San Francisco is a musical masterpiece. Whether known or not, residents and tourists experience tunes from the city’s natural soundscape (a hum of Muni buses or cheers from AT&T Park) and from the countless busking musicians posted on corners across the city. Few performing acts recognize this city’s potential as yet another instrument like John Brothers Piano Company (JBPC), who first grew their fan base by dragging a beat-up piano to BART stations around the Bay and making street corners a personal stage for the afternoon.
Although it is a unique setting for many artists, Stern Grove Festival is still a ready-made performance space like fellow Bay Area staples The Independent and Fox Theater, equipped with concert hall speakers and barricades. But unlike many venues, artists not only have to perform: they have to fire up the crowd and remind them that they are not just in a public park for the day, but at a live concert that demands the same energy as any other festival stage. For some artists, this can be a challenging task, but the men of JBPC are very familiar with this game:
“When we play on the street, we must, in essence, create the context for the performance as opposed to one that is readymade as in a club or venue,” explains JBPC pianist and trumpeter Arlo Perlstein. “Our show must be impressive enough to snap people out of their daily grinds, to turn the sidewalk into a venue. When we have an attentive audience in a jazz club or at festival, for example, we are much freer in the music we play because don’t need to be simultaneously performing and saying ‘this is a performance!’” It’s an unfortunate reality that people often equate quality of music or art with a performance’s setting and price point. This thought was well conveyed in an experiment by the Washington Post where one of the best concert violinists in the world performed in a subway station on a 3.5 million dollar violin, but only seven people stopped to listen to him play. JBPC is very familiar with this reality, as a good portion of their audience are pedestrians who did not expect to come across a concert on their commute, and often do not stop to listen at all.
“To get people to even notice us we have to make the music interactive with the environment,” says drummer and pianist Jimi Marks, who notes that their performances often reflect the crowd’s energy. “We won’t play the same song to a street full of headphone-wearing commuters with their heads down as we would to an engaged crowd. But there are ways to engage people that may have otherwise walked straight past us, and part of that is playing to your surroundings, being part of the environment, and inviting others to stop and be a part of it too.”
Marks looks forward to having the freedom to play music with subtlety and nuance at SGF that “maybe would not fare so well at a busy BART station.”
We’re thinking some of that subtlety may show up in “Katabasis”, the new piece JBPC has written as part of this season’s local artist commission series, where ten Bay Area bands and dance groups create new works inspired by the theme “In Concert with Nature” and debut them on the Stern Grove Stage. The band has been coming together to write this new work over recent months in preparation for their show this Sunday, practicing their craft outside in parks to really experience the theme.
“Feeling ‘in concert with nature’ is usually quite an inward, soulful experience,” says Marks. “The challenge will be to capture that experience on a personal level for such a large and diverse audience.”
Although they’ve been hired individually to create original works, the band as a whole has never participated in a commission series and are discovering that multiple voices can be both a blessing and a curse when creating something new.
“The most challenging aspect of this piece is, incidentally, what I also find to be most exciting: it is the process of creating together,” says Perlstein, noting that it can be easy to become attached to a part of a song that you’ve written, and difficult to abandon the part when it doesn’t work out in the final piece. “Each member of the band brings different musical sensibilities and ideas to the table and, invariably, some must be sacrificed for others when writing together. However it is also by this process that we as band can produce music of vibrancy and richness.”
And how vibrant and rich the music of JBPC is. Visit Stern Grove Festival’s 79th season this Sunday, July 17 to hear an admission-free performance by John Brothers Piano Company when they open for the legendary songstress Joan Osborne at 2 p.m., and keep your ears open for the debut performance of “Katabasis”.