Pianist. Chorus master. Conductor. Teaching artist. Music director. Bruce Olstad has many titles, every last one of which has something to do with music. Now, he's adding yet another to the list: founder and artistic director.
Last year, Olstad launched a new music series on the Peninsula: Bodhi Tree Concerts North. The next concert, "Songs From the Old World ... and the New," takes place tomorrow, Saturday, Sept. 13.
A graduate of UCLA's undergraduate music program and USC's master's program in keyboard collaborative arts, Olstad has been based in the Bay Area for 15 years. In addition to performing as a concert pianist and accompanying acclaimed opera singers including soprano Marie Plette and baritone Thomas Hampson, Olstad has built a career as a conductor and director in the opera world. He has conducted for West Edge Opera, Opera San Jose and Opera Bravura. Currently, he serves as chorus master for Sacramento, Livermore Valley and West Bay Operas, as well as music director at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.
As a result of playing so many roles, Olstad is broadly connected in Bay Area classical music circles. With Bodhi Tree Concerts North, he's taking advantage of that extended community.
What distinguishes Olstad's series from scores of others in the region isn't the music itself though he draws respected classical musicians and opera singers from around Northern California. It isn't the venue, though the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto provides a beautiful and tranquil space, with good acoustics to boot. What makes Bodhi Tree Concerts North truly different is its mission: to use music as a catalyst for social change.
The proceeds from each concert are earmarked for a particular charity, with 100 percent of ticket sales going to support the work. Funds raised this month will go to InnVision Shelter Network, a nonprofit that helps homeless families across the Silicon Valley -- including Palo Alto -- regain permanent housing. At tomorrow's performance, a representative from InnVision Shelter Network will give a brief pre-curtain talk about the organization and its work in the community.
A classical music concert may seem to have little to do with solving homelessness, but Olstad sees a clear link.
"At Bodhi Tree Concerts North, we believe it is possible to combine these two ideas -- that community can be built both through the joyful sharing of live music and through supporting organizations that seek to meet the needs of the underserved," he explained. "The appreciation of a public performance of music is such a communal -- almost primal -- thing. The idea that musical performances can be used to build community in other ways is just a beautiful thing to me."
The model for Bodhi Tree Concerts North didn't originate with Olstad; it was his former college roommate Diana DuMelle who, along with her husband, Walter, founded Bodhi Tree Concerts in San Diego in 2011 with the commitment to donate all profits to local charities.
"We wanted to be able to give back to the community," DuMelle said. "We weren't wealthy, but through music we found our own grassroots form of philanthropy."
The name for the series comes from the tree beneath which Buddha gained enlightenment.
"We felt that music brings us together, teaches us about each other, and creates respect and understanding," DuMelle explained.
Olstad, who followed the development of their fledgling series closely, was inspired by their vision: that high-quality musical performances could be a means for social good.
"I approached her and asked whether she minded if I started a spin-off in the Bay Area," Olstad explained, adding that others around the country have since expressed similar desires. "It's quite possible that there will soon be Bodhi Tree Concerts South and East."
In the meantime, Bodhi Tree Concerts North is moving ahead with its second season. To date, Olstad has held three concerts and raised about $4,000 for three charities: Health Trust AIDS Services, Reading Partners, and Music For Minors. He has presented Grammy Award-winning musicians, including mezzo soprano Kelley O'Connor and jazz saxophonist Aaron Lington, as well as accomplished classical music singers and instrumentalists. From the beginning, the Unitarian Universalist Church has donated its space free of charge to the series, which it feels complements is social justice mission.
Last season, Olstad ran the entire series from his kitchen table, where he gave himself a crash course in marketing and publicity. In recent months, he has formed a board of directors and begun the process of incorporating and seeking 501(c)(3) status. Olstad said he expects Bodhi Tree Concerts North's charitable contributions to grow as the cost of tickets becomes tax-deductible and word about the series gets out.
On the bill for tomorrow night's program are mezzo soprano and Juilliard grad Betany Coffland; soprano Carrie Hennessey; and pianist Veronika Agranov-Dafoe, who studied piano performance at the renowned St. Petersburg Conservatory before immigrating to the United States. The program will include songs by composers Antonín Dvořák, Leonard Bernstein and Amy Beach, among others.
Thanks to contributions from his supporters, Olstad is able to pay his performers a fair rate and still donate all proceeds to charity. Though many of the artists he presents are Bay Area-based, he's willing to bring in talent from outside the region, too. For Olstad, it's bringing truly gifted artists to the community and passing along that gift to the most vulnerable members of the community -- that makes the series worth all the work.
When asked about the origins of his deep conviction in the transformative power of music, Olstad spoke about an experience from his college days that had an unexpectedly profound effect on him.
"When I started at UCLA, music wasn't even on my radar," he remembered. "I was living in the dorms, and they had a talent night in the dining hall. This kid I had never met stood up, walked over to this rickety upright piano and ripped through some Chopin piece. I just listened open-mouthed the whole time, and by the time he finished, I knew that that was what I should be doing."
Twenty years later, he remains passionately invested in the music world and convinced of music's power to bring people together and to transform lives.
"I like to think we're building stronger community," he said, "one concert at a time."
What: "Songs From the Old World ... and the New"
Where: Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, 505 E. Charleston Road
When: Sat., Sept. 13, at 7:30 p.m.