BY BLAIR JACKSON
The year 2021 was supposed to be one of celebration for concert producer Richard Patterson and his San Francisco-based Omni Foundation for the Arts, which has been going strong as one of the guitar world’s most successful regular series for 40 years. And as proof of Patterson’s ingenuity, skill, and resilience, 2021 was an extremely impressive milestone year—just not in the way he had imagined it going in.
Rather than presenting his usual series of classical and steel-string Dynamite Guitars concerts at various cool venues around San Francisco, the COVID-19 crisis forced him to get creative, and working with folks all over the world, he managed to produce spectacular concerts by some of classical guitar’s best players, captured in a host of exotic locales that made each seem truly special, and presented online for free—and also produced a bunch of other concerts closer to home. What mensch!
“When we were forced to cancel all performances from March 6, 2020, through the end of the ’19–’20 season—our 39th—I assumed we would be fine for our 40th season, ’20–’21,” the soft-spoken and affable Patterson says. “Brochures were printed, contracts were finalized and publicity was in place to launch the season. As the summer progressed, we had the realization that the pandemic was changing everything and live performances were not going to happen, so we cancelled the upcoming season.
“We watched large organizations going online with various types of performances and I decided to video live performances in one of our regular venues. We called it Live From St. Mark’s. We featured talented local artists or players who were able to come to San Francisco. We released five of these live performances between October 2020 and March 2021. The series was so appreciated and watched by an ever-expanding online audience from all over the world.
“We wanted to continue offering high-quality online concerts, but travel to San Francisco was difficult and dangerous. I had a call with the great guitarist David Russell who was quarantined at his home in Spain. We were thinking of ways to present a concert by David and he mentioned the possibility of gaining access to a 12th century church close to his home. That was the birth of the Omni On Location—Concerts From Historic Sites series.
“I knew that the brilliant Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang was quarantined in Beijing, and one of my favorite young players, Marko Topchii, was locked down in Kiev [Ukraine]. Both artists were intrigued by the project and were able to arrange to record in fantastic locations. I was overjoyed with the results of both series, Live From St. Mark’s and Omni On Location. These eight concerts have received around six million views so far! That was the result of our 40th season and I couldn’t be happier.
“We decided to continue offering concerts online with David Russell performing the complete works for lute by J.S. Bach from baroque monasteries, churches and palaces in Spain. And we also continued our Live From St. Mark’s series through 2021 and beyond. With the millions of views of our 40th season series, it is obvious that we have entered a new era of presentations. I am receiving requests on a daily basis from all over the world to continue sharing our concerts online.
“Our videos capture the sound and feeling of being there due to the great work of our cameraman, Matthew Washburn of Washburn Imagery. People feel like they are having a front- row experience. The sound, which is recorded on four channels using AKG mics and Zoom Audio mics is mastered in post-production by Rainer Gembalczyk of Sienna Digital. The sound quality of these recordings has been exceptional.”
Indeed it has, and the visuals outstanding as well. Viewers have been treated to one beautiful and majestic concert site after the next, including the 18th century St. Andrews Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine (Topchii), the 15th century ZhiZhu Temple in Beijing (Yang); and an assortment of churches and monasteries in Spain and Portugal as David Russell has worked his way through J.S. Bach’s four Lute Suites, one at time.
St. Mark’s in S.F., too, is a gorgeous concert setting and in the past and current season hosted performances by such established and still-young guitarists as Tengyue Zhang, Ana Vidovic, recently crowned Guitar Foundation of America competition champion Bokyung Byun, LAGQ stalwart Scott Tennant, Eliot Fisk, Beijing Guitar Duo virtuoso Meng Su, and others. This winter and spring will also see plenty of action in San Francisco at St. Mark’s and the larger, also gorgeous Herbst Theatre beginning with a concert from “Next Generation” players Emilia Diaz Delgado, Elle Davisson, Jack Davisson, Reade Park, and Eric Wang (Jan. 29, 2022); the Dublin Guitar Quartet (March 26); British sensation Laura Snowden (March 26); the aforementioned giant David Russell (April 2); the always spectacular Romero Quartet (April 8); Brazilian phenom (and Omni regular) Yamandu Costa, with Richard Scofano (April 16); and, once again, because San Francisco loves her, Ana Vidovic (April 23).
Through the years, too, Patterson’s Dynamite Guitars series has also showcased some of the steel-string guitar world’s finest players, including Leo Kottke, Tommy Emmanuel, and others.
Patterson has managed to succeed for four decades in the volatile world of concert production through a combination of smart booking—he really keeps up with the classical guitar world as much as anyone out there, establishing long-lasting relationships with guitarists, all of whom he treats practically like family—and the ability to secure funding for the OmniFoundation and his guitar series. He is quick to laud both the many individual donors who regularly support Omni, and of course, the corporate partners who keep the wheel turning—even during the pandemic. He told us recently, “We are so fortunate to have the support of the City of San Francisco, the D’Addario Foundation and a partnership with San Francisco Performances since 1984.”
It no doubt helps Patterson immeasurably that he was (and is) a player himself, understands what it takes to be a great musician, and knows how to make the artists he books feel comfortable and confident. I asked him to fill me in a bit about what led him this career.
“Although I always had music in my life, as a child the thought of a career in music never entered my mind,” he says. “My mother was a soprano soloist in our church choir and played the piano. I gravitated towards blues and rock in high school. Then came one of the major disruptions of my life, the Vietnam war.
“I was drafted into the Army at the age of 19 and had my 21st birthday in the jungles of South Vietnam. I spent a year on a base camp in the Mekong Delta where we came under fire from the Viet Cong almost every night. I was discharged to Hawaii and carried my Gibson guitar with me. The Gibson had shrapnel holes in its top from an attack. I can remember the exact moment I sat by the ocean picking some blues when I made the decision to become a musician. I decided to do something that was not destructive but would be positive and bring something good and healthy to the world. From that point on, I did nothing that was not related to music: study, teach, perform, record, compose, arrange, produce. It has never been easy but what a satisfying adventure!
“My emphasis in music has always been about performance,” he continues. “When I returned from music studies in Spain [where he studied with the esteemed José Tomas] to go to graduate school in San Francisco, I took a job helping to run a small music club [south of San Francisco] called the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. The crusty old beatnik who owned the place, Pete Douglas, took me under his wing and constantly lectured me on what could be achieved through a performance by a masterful player in an intimate space: the mystery and transformative power of a true musical experience. So that is what we look for in a player and in a performance.
“After presenting chamber music and recitals of all types, I focused on the classical guitar and constantly searched for players who could deliver that kind of experience. I attended booking conferences, guitar festivals, music conventions, and guitar competitions around the world seeking those special players. When you find one, you do everything you can to support, encourage and offer them a stage to show their talents.
“It seems that there are always a few, very special talents that emerge with every generation—performers who have superior talent, a charismatic presence, vision, and work harder and at a level that most people can’t comprehend. They work so hard because they have to. They are inspired. These are the performers we are looking for.”
You can find out more about the Omni Foundation, upcoming concerts, or view past live concerts for free at omniconcerts.com.