The Bay Area’s most unique music festival is at Chapel of the Chimes

When Sarah Cahill first entered the building at the end of Piedmont Avenue, she was astonished by the mazelike corridors and alcoves filled with gardens, stained glass, intricate stonework and endless rows of book-shaped urns holding cremated remains of the deceased. Soaring atriums and warm-toned surroundings transformed the gloomy undertones of Chapel of the Chimes, giving this Oakland columbarium a feeling of “enchanted wonderland.” Strolling around in 1996, she thought, this is the perfect place for a concert. 

After finding her way out of the labyrinth, Cahill, an accomplished pianist and a member of a network of musicians called New Music Bay Area, secured permission from the building’s owners for a mini music festival. The innovative concept of a roving concert was an instant hit after the first show, and now every June 21, the sound of harps, clarinets, xylophones and gongs echoes throughout the chapel, mixing with the awed and appreciative murmurs of thousands who attend the annual celebration. “It’s different from a traditional concert where you have to sit still for hours. You get to walk around and explore this beautiful place while finding new music,” Cahill explained.


People walk through the Chapel of the Chimes Funeral Home & Crematory, in Oakland, during the Garden of Memory musical event on the summer solstice, Wednesday June 21, 2023. 


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Bassist Lisa Mezzacappa performs inside the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, on Wednesday, June 21, 2023.

Bassist Lisa Mezzacappa performs inside the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, on Wednesday, June 21, 2023.


Charles Russo/SFGATE

John Schott, left, and Cecilia Engelhart perform inside the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, on Wednesday June 21, 2023. 

John Schott, left, and Cecilia Engelhart perform inside the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, on Wednesday June 21, 2023. 


Charles Russo/SFGATE

An interior view of the Chapel of the Chimes Funeral Home & Crematory, in Oakland. 

An interior view of the Chapel of the Chimes Funeral Home & Crematory, in Oakland. 


Charles Russo/SFGATE


The annual Garden of Memory event at Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, Calif., features performances from artists such as John Schott and Cecilia Engelhart, lower left, and bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, upper right. (Charles Russo/SFGATE)

The annual Garden of Memory performance is held every summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and involves dozens of musicians playing simultaneously in different rooms throughout the huge labyrinthine building. Despite the setting’s morbid connotations, the overwhelming mood is uplifting. The blend of ethereal music and awe-inspiring architecture provides an ideal atmosphere in which to celebrate the official beginning of summer.    

Chapel of the Chimes was constructed in 1909 when a streetcar station serving Mountain View Cemetery was converted into a crematorium and columbarium. It was expanded significantly in 1928 under the masterful direction of architect Julia Morgan. Morgan, who grew up in Oakland, is best known for designing the iconic Hearst Castle, but her genius is apparent in this hometown landmark, which is open to visitors seven days a week. According to the building’s official history, “it was conceived as a haven of peace and tranquility with an innovative array of gardens, cloisters, alcoves, stairwells, fountains and chapels that rose toward vaulted ceilings and were illuminated by soothing natural light.”    

I’ve been attending the concert for the past decade, so walking into Garden of Memory during the solstice two weeks ago, I had to remind myself of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years: You won’t get to see everything, so don’t even try. The building’s layout is so complicated that even trying to decipher the map is challenging. It’s best just to drift wherever your ears take you. 

Musician Wendy Reid plays near her African grey parrot Lulu during a performance at the Garden of Memory event inside Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, Calif., on June 21. 

Musician Wendy Reid plays near her African grey parrot Lulu during a performance at the Garden of Memory event inside Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, Calif., on June 21. 

Charles Russo/SFGATE

In the first room I entered, a large drum was filled with what appeared to be glowing milk. A man was using some kind of electronic device nestled inside an old leather briefcase to send signals to the drum, which emitted a ghostly droning noise while the milk danced in psychedelic patterns. After a few minutes of staring at this hypnotic spectacle, I made my way out of the dimly lit space and up a few stairs, where I was greeted by the sight of a man “playing” a table full of glass containers. Using padded mallets, he tapped the containers, which looked like giant wine glasses and were filled with varying levels of water. They sounded like church bells, which seemed appropriate, given the spiritual surroundings. I looked at the hundreds of urns lining the walls all around me and wondered what it would be like to spend eternity inside a book.

Many of the rooms on the chapel’s top floor have retractable ceilings. A duo, one of whom was wearing a metal bird mask, made chirping sounds that seemed to float upward to a sky that was still bright blue as 7 p.m. approached. This bounty of daylight gave me a sense of timelessness until my attention was drawn to the death dates engraved on the wall behind the performers, reminding me that, at least for us mortals, time is indeed finite.

Susan Davis, of Albany, is photographed inside the Chapel of the Chimes Funeral Home & Crematory, in Oakland, during the Garden of Memory musical event on the summer solstice, Wednesday June 21, 2023. 

Susan Davis, of Albany, is photographed inside the Chapel of the Chimes Funeral Home & Crematory, in Oakland, during the Garden of Memory musical event on the summer solstice, Wednesday June 21, 2023. 


Charles Russo/SFGATE

Musician Felix Fans plays inside the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. 

Musician Felix Fans plays inside the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. 


Charles Russo/SFGATE

Giacomo Fiore performs inside the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, on the summer solstice, Wednesday June 21, 2023. 

Giacomo Fiore performs inside the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, on the summer solstice, Wednesday June 21, 2023. 


Charles Russo/SFGATE

Summer Maddux, of Sacramento, is photographed inside the Chapel of the Chimes Funeral Home & Crematory, in Oakland, during the Garden of Memory musical event on the summer solstice, Wednesday June 21, 2023. 

Summer Maddux, of Sacramento, is photographed inside the Chapel of the Chimes Funeral Home & Crematory, in Oakland, during the Garden of Memory musical event on the summer solstice, Wednesday June 21, 2023. 


Charles Russo/SFGATE


Faces from the Garden of Memory event inside Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, Calif., on June 21; clockwise from top left: concertgoer Susan Davis, of Albany, Calif. (wearing flowers from her garden); musician Felix Fans; attendee Summer Maddux, of Sacramento, Calif.; guitarist Giacomo Fiore. (Charles Russo/SFGATE)

I walked from a room where a woman was dancing with long multicolored ribbons next to a harpist into a room with a fountain and live plants where a solo saxophonist was playing an interpretation of a classical Indian raga. The sounds of strings and horns wafted throughout intersecting corridors and bounced between levels. In another corner, two people were fiddling with synthesizers that emitted a pulsing, otherworldly thump. 

One of the joys of Garden of Memory is encountering the unexpected. Even the organizers don’t know exactly what will happen. Cahill told me there are usually at least one or two “rogue” musicians who set up in one of the building’s remote crannies and perform without having been invited. As long as these unsanctioned acts aren’t too disruptive, like a giant gong or a tuba, Cahill welcomes the spontaneous additions. 

Musicians perform a wide range of musical genres at Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, Calif., for the summer solstice on June 21. 

Musicians perform a wide range of musical genres at Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, Calif., for the summer solstice on June 21. 

Charles Russo/SFGATE

The final performance I watched was a women’s vocal ensemble called Kitka, which specializes in “traditional songs from the Balkans, Caucasus and Slavic lands.” As soon as the members launched into their set, which included a Ukrainian folk song associated with ancient solstice rituals, I was transported. As their voices reverberated throughout the buttresses and stained glass of the chapel, I noticed that darkness had fallen outside and remembered that each day for the rest of the year would be slightly shorter. 

Looking around at the packed room, I imagined what the older people had looked like when they were younger and what the younger people would look like when they aged. I thought of those mysterious ancient Celts known as the Druids, who honored the solstice long before the Bible made its way to Ireland, and wondered if I still carry any of their blood in my veins. According to some theories, the word Druid may be traced to a Celtic phrase meaning “knower of the oak tree.” Is there something buried deep within my DNA that drew me to Oakland?

The women’s vocal ensemble Kitka performs the final performance of the Garden of Memory event at Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, Calif., on June 21. 

The women’s vocal ensemble Kitka performs the final performance of the Garden of Memory event at Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, Calif., on June 21. 

Charles Russo/SFGATE

As the women’s voices crescendoed, my thoughts collided, and then it was over. After the standing ovation subsided, I walked out into the twilight, leaving the chapel to descend once again into a peaceful silence.