I spent a lovely hour and change in Old St. Mary’s Cathedral the other day—and miracle of miracles, the church is still standing. But I myself was blown back by the free Noontime Concerts Series (they actually start around 12:30), which brings some of the brightest stars of classical performance to the Chinatown sanctuary every Tuesday. This time around it was a cello duo: Georgia’s Robert Howard and our own Angela Lee, paired for a breathtaking hour of sonatas and divertimentos, ending with a modern “pillow fight” of a piece by Béla Bartók.
Other recent Noontime Concerts have featured flutist William Underwood III and pianist Carl Blake performing contemporary works and pieces by Black composers, Midsummer Mozart Festival Chamber Players featuring soprano Brooklyn Snow, and Quinteto Latino presenting pieces by young Latin American composers. It’s a fabulously diverse approach to classical programming that feels loose and organic, while showcasing an awesome breadth of talent and styles in this intimate setting. (Perhaps the last word that would spring to mind in a cathedral is “intimate,” but you really are right there with the musicians.)
There’s something that sets the Noontime Concerts apart from other church recitals, as well: The intimacy of the performance, the coziness of the setting, and the glow of the crowd that comes for a little soul-lift every week go hand-in-hand with the state-of-the-art technology being used to stream each performance. Walking toward the altar is like entering a sound studio, with hanging mics, technicians in headsets, and a full soundboard. (Here’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes video featuring Quinteto Latino.)
The concerts are streamed live at the time of performance on the Noontime Concerts site, and many are archived on the Noontime Concerts’ voluminous YouTube channel for later enjoyment, mixing accessibility with public service. It’s a reminder of the utopian side of tech’s possibilities, at a time when we really need it: showcasing superb artistry and making it widely available—for free.
“People can come into this special place and become immersed in music for an hour during their busy lives,” says Noontime Concerts Executive Director Robin Wirthlin, who also does all the booking. “Often if it’s their first time, they tell me, ‘I can’t believe you’ve been here 35 years!'”
The history of the Noontime Concerts series actually stretches back more than 80 years—to World War II, when British pianist Dame Myra Hess had the idea of temporarily converting London’s National Gallery into a concert space where daily music programs could be staged, as a cultural respite during the dark days of the London Blitz. (There were more than 1700 concerts given over a six-year period, and musicians carried on even during air-raid sirens and exploding bombs.)
Here in San Francisco, a small but determined group led by renowned vocalist Alexandra Ivanoff revived the concept, creating an oasis of art in the once-mad hurly-burly of downtown commerce. Now, Wirthlin, along with audio-visual expert John Wetzl, and other board members of the tiny nonprofit institution, keep the flame lit with Tuesday concerts at the 170-year-old cathedral year-round.
“I have a lot of valuable background when it comes to contacts in the classical world,” says Wirthlin, who originally came aboard the Noontime Concerts board in 2000, and who introduces most of the concerts herself, adding emcee to the many hats she wears. “It can be a challenge, especially when there are no gaps in the weekly programming. I do a lot of listening and keeping my ear to the ground for talent.”
Noontime Concerts even recently expanded for a major show at Herbst Theatre. Called “Majesty of the Spiritual” and curated by baritone Robert Sims, the event brought together a dozen revered opera singers, including the legendary Frederica von Stade, to sing the works of living African American composers Lena McLin, Roland Carter, and Jacqueline B. Hairston. “It was an incredible evening,” says Wirthlin, “with one of the most diverse San Francisco audiences I’ve seen in a while. It was a tribute to Robert’s life work, presenting spirituals as a true American classical music.
“One of the things we’re trying to do, really, is expand the definition of ‘classical music’ in most peoples’ minds to include so many of the wonderful things musicians and composers are doing, although we do have plenty of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms as well. We’re focused on making this music accessible to everyone. And we usually get who we want, when we want—considering what we can afford. Luckily, I’m a good negotiator!”
Like many institutions, Noontime Concerts were existentially threatened by COVID. Fellow board-member Wetzl took this as an opportunity to “super-charge” something that had long been developing in the concerts: an increased technological outreach.
“Live streaming had been something bubbling up for us, and you could say we were already on the path,” says Wetzl. “But then COVID came, and we went into overdrive on the idea. We wanted to make sure the concerts could continue safely, and that meant we needed to get going on the technology. We shifted on a dime: Once we engaged a sound engineer, it was like, let’s go—cameras, pre-amps, booms. We even talked about getting Comcast to dig up the street outside and bring in extra cable,” he laughed.
“Of course, since we’re such a small organization, we connived with the board to bring in a crew at a price point we could handle. It took a bit of catching up, but the result was so engaging that it immediately became part of our game plan. Now we regularly have four or five cameras and crew members, and it goes pretty smoothly. What started out as a means of survival, for us and the musicians who relied on us, has now become one our hallmarks that we’re very proud of.”
The streaming is terrific, and in this moment when COVID protocols are being thrown to the wayside in the arts, accessibility be damned, the Noontime Concerts are a very bright spot on the landscape indeed. Still, if you are able, making it in person is a dreamy experience, sharing a moment of hush in a sacred space while brilliant music unfolding around you. The last time I went there were people of all ages and backgrounds enjoying this tuneful refuge.
“As downtown wakes up again, and as some people return to work, I think everyone’s pleasantly surprised that we’re still here for them to have a moment of beauty and discovery,” says Wirthlin. “You can come and go as you please, since it’s not as much of a commitment as a ticketed concert. Just enjoy a bit of peace during your day.”
NOONTIME CONCERTS take place every Tuesday, 12:30pm-1:30pm, free at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, SF. More info and schedule of upcoming performances here.