Vitamin Em at Dorothy Day House. Courtesy: Emily Onderdonk

Most Saturday shoppers strolling through the Center Street Farmers’ Market would likely be surprised to learn that they’re walking by a bustling village hidden in plain sight. Blending right into the various city offices that flank it, the façade of the Dorothy Day House at 1931 Center St. disguises a thriving hub that provides food, shelter, clothing, and services for people struggling with homelessness. 

Berkeley violist Emily Onderdonk discovered Dorothy Day House’s downtown presence while looking for an organization to partner with for a new set of tunes commissioned through the Berkeley Civic Arts grant program. She knew the Dorothy Day name, but had no idea she’d often walked and driven past the organization’s building. Her all-star group Vitamin Em introduces the Dorothy Day House Project at a free public concert Saturday afternoon in Civic Center Park.

Doing research for the grant, “I went online to look for a group to donate to and Dorothy Day House popped up,” Onderdonk said. “When I clicked on their link it really blew me away, how they talked about the people they care for. I called them up to ask how they would feel if a music group played a benefit concert and we hit it off.” 

Formed in 2015, Vitamin Em brings together some of the Bay Area’s most prodigious musicians. Violinists Evan Price and Mads Tolling both earned Grammy Awards as members of Turtle Island Quartet. Price has also been a longtime member of the Hot Club of San Francisco, while Tolling is often on the road these days with Bob Weir. 

YouTube video

Cellist Michael Graham performs with the Oakland Symphony, the San Francisco Ballet, and the New Century Chamber Orchestra. A dedicated teacher, he’s also toured with Van Morrison. Berkeley-reared bassoon master Paul Hanson has been a leading force taking the double reed into new territory for more than three decades, while Oakland accordion player Rob Reich is a brilliant chamber jazz composer who leads the Circus Bella All-Star Band

A recent tour of Dorothy Day House gave a good sense of what inspired Onderdonk. Anyone can come by during the day to take a shower, get a meal, or use a computer. A patio in the back of the building provides an oasis of calm in the middle of downtown. “We have an awesome chef, and most of the people serving food are volunteers,” said Christy Mack, Dorothy Day House’s director of development and communications. “We have 20 to 25 beds and work to get people into permanent housing.” 

The organization grew out of a free food program serving People’s Park and isn’t associated with New York’s Dorothy Day Center for Study and Promotion of Social Catholicism or other Dorothy Day shelters around the country. 

Onderdonk’s music reflects the region’s multiplicity, with a strong dose of funk. She wrote a song called “Lizzo” inspired by the artist of the same name, and “What Is Funk?,” offers a hat tip to Bruno Mars and Tower of Power. Combining classical influences and blues, her tune “Home” evokes the word’s deep associations “since so many people that Dorothy Day House serves don’t have one,” she said. 

YouTube video

She composed the samba-meets-clave “Yoly’s Song” for a woman who worked at Espresso Roma Café, and “Making Waves” draws on Middle Eastern scales. “In the grant I said I was going to take elements of different cultures in the East Bay and put them in the music,” Onderdonk said. 

Her tune “Beautiful Child” offers another clue as to her interest in championing Dorothy Day House. She wrote the piece for her older brother Matt, who fell to heroin addiction and died in the Tenderloin in 1998 at the age of 43. A gifted musician who played guitar, organ and drums, he spent years cycling and out of treatment.

He introduced her to rock, soul and funk when they were growing up, but the Onderdonk home was full of interesting sounds. Her mother, Sieglinde Isham, was a piano teacher who worked with students at their house, and her father, Henry Onderdonk, was an influential teacher and composer who anchored San Francisco State’s music program for more than three decades. 

When she graduated from Manhattan School of Music he wrote a challenging piece for her that’s “full of crazy rhythms,” she said with a laugh. “So many people studied with him. The San Francisco Symphony was full of his former students.” 

She’s found her own path as a composer, with Vitamin Em serving as her primary vehicle. Since the pandemic eased, the group has performed at the Berkeley City Club and Piedmont Center for the Arts. In recent months, developing the Dorothy Day House material “has been consuming,” she said. “It’s just taken over.”

She’s planning on releasing the material on Bandcamp, and is working with videographer Daniel Lucca Parenti to document the concert in order to create a video useful for Dorothy Day House. Inspired by the message of Day, the anarchist-turned-Catholic Worker co-founder, Onderdonk seeks to provide a different but equally essential form of sustenance. 

“Day believed that food for the soul is as important as food for the body,” she said. “We’re really hoping to make this an annual event.”

A free barbecue lunch (suggested donation to benefit Dorothy Day House: $10) will be held at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in Berkeley’s Civic Center Park, with the concert running from 2-4 p.m.

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....