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SF Symphony Heads South to Stanford’s Frost Amphitheater

June 5, 2019

Rendering of Frost Amphitheater by CAW Architects, 2019

SF Symphony Heads South to Stanford’s Frost Amphitheater
New series presented by Stanford Live kicks off this summer
by Richard Scheinin

On July 10, when the San Francisco Symphony performs under the stars at Stanford University’s newly renovated Frost Amphitheater, a bit of history will be made.

Inaugurating the San Francisco Symphony at Frost summer series, presented by Stanford Live, the performance will be the first by the Orchestra at the open-air venue since 1980.

Rekindling a partnership with the university that dates back more than a century, the program—featuring the Orchestra led by New Zealand-born conductor Gemma New (in her SF Symphony debut) in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 and the Violin Concerto (with Gil Shaham)—also will open a new chapter for the Orchestra as it reaches out to Peninsula and South Bay music lovers at Frost, a venue with its own long history and special reputation.

“We are breaking down the walls around orchestral music and bringing it to a place where people can say, ‘Wow’,” said Symphony President Sakurako Fisher, a Stanford trustee and alumna whose own graduation took place at Frost. She described the tree-lined bowl as a kind of sanctum, where music can envelop an audience: “It’s just dappled light. It’s so beautiful—and it’s quiet; it’s so quiet.”

Performing at Frost makes practical sense: Twenty-three percent of ticket buyers for the Orchestra’s programs at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco come from the South Bay and Peninsula.

The Frost series—which also includes performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, led by New Zealand-born conductor Gemma New (in her SFS debut) on July 13 and 14—offers a chance to engage with those listeners on their home turf. It also extends an invitation to others who have never attended a performance by a full symphony orchestra: “We want people to understand there are no boundaries” around orchestral music, Fisher said.

(Above) The San Francisco Symphony performs at Frost Amphitheater, June 20, 1941. Photo courtesy of Stanford University.

“We exist for and survive because of our audience, and we want everyone to feel included. Music should be a place to allow curiosity and imagination to run amok, and what better place than with 107 people committed to making music at its highest level and in a place that allows you to not just enjoy it, but to be immersed in it.”

The San Francisco Symphony’s first performance at Stanford University took place in 1913 at Assembly Hall. Led by conductor Pierre Monteux, it first performed at Frost Amphitheater in 1941 at Stanford’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, and went on to become a regular presence at the gorgeous bowl. Between 1968 and 1980, an array of excellent conductors led the Orchestra at the amphitheater: Leon Fleisher, George Cleve, Erich Kunzel, Alexander Schneider, Calvin Simmons, Mitch Miller. Most notably, Arthur Fiedler, of Boston Pops fame, often led the Orchestra’s annual benefit concerts for the Palo Alto-based Children’s Health Council. Two programs (in 1974 and 1976) featured Benny Goodman as soloist, while others (in 1975 and 1978) featured Ella Fitzgerald.

In recent decades, performances at Frost grew intermittent. Built in 1937, the amphitheater’s backstage and load-in facilities were outdated, making it costly and cumbersome for acts to perform. That should change at the renovated amphitheater which now boasts a state-of the art stage, new dressing rooms and load-in facilities, as well as improvements for the audience: new paths, restrooms, and a mixture of lawn and fixed seating.

Michael Tilson Thomas—who conducted the Symphony at the Grand Opening concert of Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall in 2013—said that the Orchestra is “thrilled to strengthen our relationship with Stanford University” by returning to Frost. He called it a place for “building community” through music, which “has a unique and powerful way of connecting us.”

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Richard Scheinin is staff writer at SFJAZZ and formerly was classical music critic for the San Jose Mercury News. Based in Santa Fe, NM, he writes about the arts for various publications.