Best Bets: Hardly Strictly, Taylor Mac, California Symphony

The beloved, free music festival Hardly Strictly Bluegrass runs over three days this weekend.

Freebie of the week: Billionaire venture capitalists aren’t necessarily the first ones you think of as inspiring warm and fuzzy thoughts of gratitude. But if you happen to find yourself in Golden Gate Park this weekend, grooving under an intoxicating sun to hours of first-rate music delivered by A-list artists all at no cost to you, take a moment to thank Warren Hellman, one of the Bay Area most amazing financial success stories.

The venture capitalist (1934-2011) broke in with the Lehman Brothers before forming his own investment company that at one point acquired Levis Strauss & Co. Hellman also was known for his many interests and passions, from skiing to long-distance running and water sports to local news reporting (he sponsored and ran The Bay Citizen for a time) and, oh yes, music. Hellman, an accomplished banjo player who fronted his own band, in 2001 founded what would become an annual free music festival in San Francisco.

Hellman at first envisioned a lineup of solely bluegrass artists, but regular performers including Emmylou Harris and others convinced him to loosen the musical reins a tad. The event, which became known as Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, has grown into a three-day extravaganza featuring scores of widely varied musical acts.

This weekend’s lineup ranges from HSB regulars Harris, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller and Berkeley’s own Laurie Lewis to acts like 24-year-old blues guitar hotshot Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Valerie June and her “organic moonshine roots music.” The music starts at 1 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday at Hellman Hollow in the park. And did we mention it’s all free?

The complete schedule and more information are at

Brenda Wong Aoki (right foreground) brings her new show “Soul of the City” to San Francisco’s Presidio Theatre on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. (Courtesy Brenda Wong Aoki)

A story with ‘Soul’: Brenda Wong Aoki is a Bay Area talent who creates the kind of shows you just won’t find anywhere else. The playwright, actor, and storyteller’s works are an eclectic blend of Eastern and Western traditional narratives, dance, poetry, Asian and traditional jazz music and other elements that come together in a way that feels both ancient and of the moment.

Her latest work, “Soul of the City,” centers on a beleaguered storyteller who is haunted by demons and ghosts and has run out of what she needs most – stories, and people to tell them to. The show follows her desperate journey to find the “soul” of San Francisco and a return to her once-rich life.

The production incorporates live Asian American jazz, poetry, traditional Japanese theater, contemporary spoken word and multimedia effects. Attendees are encouraged to wear celebratory attire and are invited to bring personal effects to be left at a Soul of the City sacred tree. A Buddhist priest will be on hand to perform a purification ceremony. In a sense, everyone in the audience is invited to see the production as a journey to the soul of their own city.

Performances are 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Presidio Theatre, 99 Moraga Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$60; go to

Matt Standley performs in “Gary, A Sequel to Titus Andronicus” for Oakland Theater Project. ( Courtesy Ben Krantz Studio/Oakland Theater Project)

Mac attack: Taylor Mac, who grew up in Stockton, is a theater maker who has attained near legendary status in the stage world, even if people can’t always quite figure out what he’s up to.

Mac’s bizarro shows aim to entertain while turning conventional narrative and character elements on their head. His ridiculously lengthy 2017 show, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” has, despite its staging challenges (in its original form, it runs for 24 hours) been heralded as one of the best plays of the century and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. His 2019 Broadway hit “Gary, A Sequel to Titus Andronicus” (starring Nathan Lane) earned rave reviews and is now getting its Bay Area premiere by the Oakland Theater Project (sans Lane).

As its title suggests, the play picks up after the bloody finale of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and its characters must grapple with the existential question: Who is going to clean up this gory mess?

Featuring Mac’s trademark blend of dark humor, weirdness, politics and pointed observations about the human condition, the 90-minute production, directed by Emilie Whelan, runs through Sunday at the FLEX Art & Design building, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr., Drive, Oakland. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $28-$55. The show will be available on video on demand through Sunday ($15-$25). Go to

Soloist Kelly Hall-Tompkins will perform Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto in D as part of the California Symphony’s season opening program. (Courtesy R. Gregory Routt)

Multicultural America: The Walnut Creek-based California Symphony opens its 2023-24 season this weekend with a concert specially designed to pay tribute to the diversity of influences that shape our country.

Conductor Donato Cabrera leads a concert titled “Copland – American Traditions,” highlighted by a performance of iconic American composer Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring Suite.” The program opens with the Bay Area premiere of Guadalajara native Juan Pablo Contreras’ “MeChicano,” a work co-commissioned by the California Symphony that premiered under Cabrera’s baton at the Las Vegas Philharmonic. The first piece Contreras wrote after becoming an American citizen, it is replete with flourishes of mariachi, Tejana polka and American jazz and rock.

Grammy-winning composer Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto in D is also on the program, with social activist and Naumburg International Competition winner Kelly Hall-Tompkins as the soloist. The lineup also features “Rissolty Rossolty” by the late Ruth Crawford Seeger, who became the first woman composer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930.

Performance times are 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday at the Hofmann Theatre in the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek. Find tickets, $20-$90, at (925) 943-7469 and

The Alexander String Quartet, with new violinist Yuna Lee, plays in San Francisco Performances opening gala. (Courtesy Martyn Selman)

New season, old friends: San Francisco Performances is about to embark on its 44th year in business, and the last 35 of them have been conducted with the highly respected Alexander String Quartet as the ensemble in residence.

This year, the presenting organization and the quartet, following the retirement of violinist Fred Lifsitz earlier this year, welcome new member Yuna Lee, a violinist now from the Bay Area who has had extensive experience with the San Francisco Symphony, the St. Louis Symphony, the New World Symphony and the Knights Chamber Orchestra in New York.

The quartet performs at 7 p.m. Friday at the Herbst Theatre as part of San Francisco Performances’ opening gala, playing the String Quartet in F Major by Maurice Ravel and the Quartet No. 2 in A Major by Dmitri Shostakovich. The evening includes cocktails and a gala, but tickets for the performance only, at $50, are available at (415) 392-2545 and

Comments are closed.