Best Bets: Yerba Buena Garden fest, Oakland Ballet, ‘Wonderful Joe,’ California Symphony, Awadagin Pratt 

Cuban-born percussionist and bandleader Pedrito Martinez (center) and his group perform at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival on May 4. (Courtesy of Pedrito Martinez)

Freebie of the week: It’s the time of year when the outdoor concert season heats up throughout the Bay Area, and many shows are free. One of the most impressive and rewarding performance series, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, kicks off this week, offering more than 100 free concerts, dance performances, kids’ shows, poetry readings and a regular group workout/dance lesson called Dance Outdoors. The series’ first concert arrives at 1 p.m. Saturday, featuring Cuban-born, New York City-based percussionist and band leader Pedrito Martinez. Early in his career, Martinez was, coincidentally enough, a founding member of a band called Yerba Buena. These days, he’s a revered bandleader and musician who’s jammed with music stars including Wynton Marsalis (who calls him “a genius”), Paul Simon, Paquito D’Rivera, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, James Taylor and Elton John.

Others on the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival lineup include the women’s vocal group Kitka (May 11), Bay Area singer Thao Nguyen (May 18), jazz/soul singer Pher (May 23), Bay Area dance troupe RAWdance (June 14-15), Circus Bella (three shows June 21-22) and many, many more. All shows are free and held at the Yerba Buena Gardens Great Lawn off Mission Street, between Third and Fourth streets. A complete schedule and more information are at

Oakland Ballet Artistic Director Graham Lustig will present a new work, “Faun,” in a program with two weekend performances. (Courtesy Oakland Ballet)

Love for Lustig: Oakland Ballet is giving props this weekend to its longtime artistic director and acclaimed choreographer Graham Lustig, who is marking his 24th season as head of the popular dance troupe. In two performances this weekend, the company will showcase Lustig-choreographed works, including a new one that pays homage to a Russian dance legend who’s been a major inspiration to Lustig. The title of the new work, “Faun,” refers to the 1912 ballet “Afternoon of a Faun,” created and danced by the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky for the Ballet Russes. Lustig’s work envisions and aged Nijinsky reliving his life through his dance works. Lustig, who has said that as a ballet-infatuated child, he had a poster of Nijinsky as the Faun in his bedroom, will portray the elder Russian dance legend in the new work. Also on the bill is Lustig’s Elvis-Presley-and-speed-dating work “Heartbreak Hotel” and two additional short Lustig pieces. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Laney College’s Odell Johnson Performing Arts Center in Oakland. Tickets are $20-$100, go to

The Ronnie Burkett puppet play “Wonderful Joe” comes to Stanford University May 1-4. (Courtesy Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes)

Puppet magic: Canadian Ronnie Burkett has gained fame as one of the best puppeteers on the planet, but his works are not always aimed at little kids. After winning acclaim and a regional Emmy Award for his puppetry on a PBS production titled “CincerRabbit,” Burkett founded a stage company that produced adult-oriented plays with marionettes. This weekend, he’s bringing a new show to Stanford University’s Bing Studio. “Wonderful Joe,” a puppet play commissioned by Stanford Live, UCLA and TO Live in Toronto, follows a homeless man named Joe and his canine companion Mister who set off on a last adventure to seek magic in a teetering world. Along the way, they encounter Santa Claus, Jesus, Mother Nature and a host of other characters, and learn there is joy to be found in places and situations where it isn’t necessarily expected.

The show, recommended for viewers 16 and older, includes an original score by Joe Alcorn. Performances are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; tickets are $50. Go to

California Symphony premieres “Mishwar,” a piece by composer-in-residence Saad Haddad, in concerts this weekend. (Courtesy Matt Dine)

A love triangle? History has been unable to pinpoint the exact nature of the extremely close relationship between gifted composer and pianist Clara Schumann, the undisputedly devoted wife of fellow composer Robert, and his much younger disciple, Johannes Brahms, who went on to become a musical giant in his own right. But there was an exchange over several decades of many letters between them we could dub “respectably steamy,” especially on his part, as he once confided to a friend, “Apart from Frau Schumann, I am not attached to anybody with my whole soul.” This weekend, the Walnut Creek-based California Symphony closes its season with concerts called “Brahms Obsessions” that explore the musical connections the two shared. Schumann’s only surviving Piano Concerto is paired with Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, which he famously labored over for many years in the looming shadow of Ludwig van Beethoven before bringing it to fruition.

The concerts will begin with the world premiere of a new overture from Saad Haddad, Cal Symph’s current young composer-in-residence. Called “Mishwar,” which means “A Trip” in Arabic, it is inspired by the composer’s childhood memories of driving up and down the California coast with his two siblings, all American-born, as their father plied them with games meant to help them retain some command of the Arabic language. The concerts will be conducted by music director Donato Cabrera, and the guest soloist for the concerto will be Robert Thies, whose winning of the gold medal at the Second International Prokofiev Competition in St. Petersburg in 1995 made him only the second American pianist to capture a first prize in a major Russian event since Van Cliburn did it with the inaugural Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.

Performance times at the Lesher Center for the Arts are 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday. Find tickets, $20-$90, at or by calling (925) 943-7469. 

with the New Century Chamber Orchestra in three Bay Area concert locales. (Courtesy Awadagin Pratt)

A couple of ‘Rounds’: Awadagin Pratt, the first Black pianist to win the Naumburg International Competition in 1992 (he is also a violinist and conductor), a social justice champion and the newly minted professor of piano at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, joins music director Daniel Hope and the New Century Chamber Orchestra for concerts this weekend that celebrate the exuberance and inventiveness of American compositions for piano, strings and percussion. Pratt is the featured soloist for Jessie Montgomery’s 2024 Grammy Award winner for the best contemporary classical work, “Rounds,” which Pratt commissioned and has performed in 30 venues all over the country since its premiere.

Also on the program is David Diamonds’ similarly titled “Rounds,” composed in 1944 to help dispel the wartime gloom with its frolicsome nature, and Florence Price’s “Adoration” from 1951. The concerts close with Leonard Bernstein’s beautiful five-movement “Serenade” from 1954, with concertmaster Hope serving as the violin soloist.

Performances take place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park and 3 p.m. Saturday at the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco. Tickets, $30-$70, and more information are available at for the Green Music Center and at     

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