In a concert of epic proportions, GRAMMY-winning artist Brad Mehldau came to the SFJAZZ Center last week to perform his musical narrative, Highway Rider, a concert experience comprising nearly two hours of music that epitomized the composer’s distinctive voice among contemporary jazz musicians. The acclaimed pianist was joined by the SFCM Alumni Orchestra, a group consisting of approximately 30 alumni conducted by Dan Coleman, as well as four other musicians that included saxophonist Joshua Redman, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummers Jeff Ballard and Mark Guiliana. The packed house on the opening night of performances was a clear indication of not only the interest in Mehldau’s stellar musicianship, but a sense of intrigue surrounding the rare programming of this work that called for a 28-piece orchestra.
Before Thursday night’s performance, Randall Kline, executive and artistic director of SFJAZZ, addressed the audience noting that this series of concerts would only be the fifth time Highway Rider saw live performances. The album-length work follows an abstract story told mainly through the saxophone, but enhanced by the addition of other voices and an orchestra that weaves harmony and melody with nuance and power. With number titles such as “Now You Must Climb Alone” and “We’ll Cross the River Together,” Highway Rider grabs the listener and develops characters, creating a scene in the music one can’t help but follow to the end.
These concerts weren’t just a special treat for the broader community of San Francisco music lovers, they also made a strong impression on the participating alumni. Reflecting on the performances, alumnus Andres Vera (‘13), a member of Quartet San Francisco, commented, “I think it's awesome that we were able to make this opportunity come to fruition; it was a great first step in exposing SFCM alumni to the community. Being a part of the orchestra... it was a beautiful thing. There's nothing hard about playing with the alumni. Everything came together so fluidly. We're all professionals and we need to do this more!”
In a review of the concert, Downbeat Magazine commented: “The experience of hearing this concept album live was just as moving as one would hope … Highway Rider still translated magnificently to the 21st-century chamber hall-meets-small theater setting of the SFJAZZ Center.”
SFCM’s tight-knit community of alumni are well known in the Bay Area and throughout the country. Joining the ranks of major symphony orchestra and opera company rosters, and starting new and exciting projects that have resonated in the classical music world, SFCM alumni are continually engaging in the most high-profile and cutting-edge projects on the scene.