Sarah Cahill is a woman of many parts: writer, music critic, radio show host, and a concert pianist specializing in contemporary classical music, aka New Music, who has had works composed for her by such luminaries as Terry Riley and John Adams.
One day 20 years ago she happened to wander into the Chapel of the Chimes, a columbarium on 51st Street, next to Mountain View Cemetery in North Oakland.
What's a columbarium? A repository for the ashes of the dead. But this is no ordinary columbarium. The Chapel of the Chimes was designed by the great architect Julia Morgan, and it's one of her masterpieces.
She filled it with gardens, cloisters, fountains, alcoves, vaulted ceilings and her trademark, stained glass. And she put the glass everywhere: not just the walls, but the ceilings, too. Result: a shimmering ballet of ever-changing lights and colors.
Cahill took one look, and the inspiration hit her: Wouldn't this be a great place for a concert of New Music?
So she enlisted her friends in the New Music community, and in 1995 the first "Garden of Memory" concert was held. She placed a different musical act in each room. The idea was to listen to as much of each act as you like, then wander to the next room for something completely different.
And with all that stained glass being such an important part of the experience, what better day to hold the concert than June 21, the longest day of the year?
This year's concert will feature 38 different acts in 38 different rooms or alcoves. In the Meditation Chapel, professional whistler Jason Serinus – aka "the Pavarotti of Pucker" – will be whistling Mozart and Puccini arias.
In the Garden of St. Mark, kids and adults can help Mills College music professor Maggi Payne play her supercharged Theremin. (Think of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations.")
"The movement of your hands towards and away from the two antennas affects the sound of the Theremin and the two synthesizers that it controls," she explains.
You can also hear Orchestra Nostalgico playing the music Nino Rota wrote for the Fellini movies, Tim Phillips playing his Bubble Organ (blowing bubbles into a variety of acoustic chambers filled with water), Gretchen Jude playing the photo-koto (which uses light sensors to translate the koto player's gestures into digital sounds), quin master Wang Fei performing one of the world's oldest surviving written music (1400 years old), and much, much more.
"This year, June 21 falls on Saturday, so I hope that will make it easier for people to come," says Cahill, who purposely keeps the ticket price low - $15 general admission, $10 for students and seniors, $5 for kids under 12, and free for kids under 5 – to make it accessible as possible.
The music starts at 5 p.m. and lasts as long as the sunlight does – usually around 9 p.m.
"People should definitely bring their kids," says Cahill, "and let the kids decide where you're going to go next, rather than vice versa."
I know people who wouldn't dream of missing this concert and show up faithfully every year. (One of them, Lucy Mattingly, recently signed on as Cahill's co-producer.) But whether you go every year or only once, Garden of Memory is definitely something for your bucket list.