Live Performances Are Back with a Concert Series at Frost Amphitheater
By Lou Fancher
Kronos Quartet and Meklit perform a live version of the Stanford Live short film Kronos Quartet: Testimony as part of Stanford Live's six-week concert series at Frost Amphitheater presented in partnership with SFJAZZ, the San Francisco Symphony, and other community organizations. Photo by Harrison Truong
If there is one silver lining to the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the performing arts industry, it is the emergence of synergistic, creative energy. Virtual homemade presentations, shared online performance platforms, and socially distanced video and film projects from individual artists, ensembles, presenters, academic institutions, and arts organizations were first steps during 2020. With the advent of in-person events in 2021, a new concert series at Frost Amphitheater offers something akin to the jubilant arrival of summer after a surreal, dreary, and frigid winter.
During the month of July and into early August, Stanford Live will host weekly programs with partner organizations and musicians including the San Francisco Symphony, SFJAZZ, and more. The programs opening the series on the first weekend of July include Stanford Jazz Workshop with tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman and tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain and a live, onstage version of Stanford Live’s short film, Kronos Quartet: Testimony.
Executive Director Chris Lorway says the relaunch of live performances is framed by an ambition to fully utilize the outdoor facility and by ongoing aspirations to serve partner organizations and broader audiences. “We thought, ‘let’s think not only about serving our usual audiences, but about what we can offer to the broader community.’ The San Francisco Symphony has been a good partner with us over the years, so we went to them first. The second call was to Randall Kline at SFJAZZ in that same spirit of being good partners and community members.”
Lorway recalls a conversation recently held with a colleague about last year. “We agreed that we went into the pandemic and tried at first to think of solutions that were like Band-Aids. Now, we’re doing things to build capacity that will jump-start what we had planned to do live originally or had been doing already online.”
The July concert series kicks off with a co-presentation by Stanford Live and Stanford Jazz Workshop featuring Joshua Redman and Zakir Hussain with Joel Ross on vibraphone and Zach Moses Ostroff on bass. Photo by Heidi Zeiger
That means Jim Nadal, the longtime founder of the Stanford Jazz Workshop, was invited to select the artists he most wanted to bring to the space, like Redman. Designed for young vocalists and instrumentalists age 12 to 18 who have one year of training but not necessarily jazz experience, his program provides an opportunity to learn about jazz from professional musicians and music educators.
Stanford Live’s short film series introduced in fall of 2020 sought a similar level of commitment to artists, bringing local artists who had originally been a part of our 2020–21 season to Bing Concert Hall’s stage for filmed performances and interviews. One of these short films, Kronos Quartet: Testimony, will be performed live on stage at Frost in a reunion of Kronos Quartet, Meklit Hadero, and young Bay Area spoken word poets (Anouk Yeh, Cecelia "Cece" Jordan, Jarvis Subia, Zouhair Mussa, and Darnell "DeeSoul" Carson).
“[Kronos Quartet: Testimony] was one of the most meaningful things we did around the social justice issues that were happening,” says Lorway. The film includes a performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner," Rhiannon Giddens’ "At the Purchaser’s Option," "God Bless America," and "The President Sang Amazing Grace."
“People needed a response in that moment after feeling traumatized by the year. The country had the pandemic, the political divide, and what was happening to Black bodies in our society. The film spoke to all of those pieces. The film took these young lives and current times, history and art, and put them together and created a special moment.”
Lorway says that cinematic example and the determination that has resulted in Stanford Live partnering with the SF Symphony, SFJAZZ, individual artists, and arts organizations speaks to the larger issue of what he calls previous “mine, mine, mine” practices and culture. “The Bay Area for a long time has had exclusivity agreements and archaic structures that position arts organizations in opposition to each other,” he says. “That’s changing, and I’m hoping it will continue to change in this new time we’re entering.”
SFJAZZ Founder and Executive Artistic Director Kline similarly expressed his boundless enthusiasm: “To have an outdoor venue where we can be with human beings and have music…will be more than uplifting. It’s something we’re so excited and grateful to share.”
To curate the series of Thursday performances at Frost, Kline and others working with him strove for balance. With a hectic, intense timeline for programming in addition to Santa Clara County and State of California safety protocols in constant flux, it was crucial to think of the audience and ask themselves who lived in the Bay Area or in Northern California.
“That’s how we started. Within that [region], there’s a galaxy of choice,” Kline says. “It gets whittled down by who is close, who is vaccinated. The happy thing is we ended with five phenomenal shows.”
Even with geographic and vaccine-status filters, Kline emphasizes the values central to SFJAZZ that remained in the forefront. “We’ve presented equity and diversity from the beginning. Our first mission statements reflected where jazz comes from: Afro Caribbean experiences. Our arc is such that in 2013 we opened the SFJAZZ Center. That was a pivotal moment about how jazz…is an art form where Black representation must be on stage, in the audience, right in the center of it all. It’s appropriate that this music that is truly American music is being viewed and consumed and recognized for its importance in our culture.”
At Frost, the leaderless, all-star jazz ensemble SFJAZZ Collective revisists two essential albums about a turbulent era in American history—Sly and the Family Stone's Stand! and Miles Davis' In a Silent Way. Photo courtesy of SFJAZZ
The SFJAZZ repertoire at Frost includes one program built upon albums from Sly and the Family Stone (Stand!) and Miles Davis (In a Silent Way). “They were seminal records that represented Black art and what was happening culturally at the time. It was a time of great optimism.” Kline highlights lyrics on the Sly album: “Stand for the things you believe in” and “We can all work together.”
“Fifty years later, we all wish we were farther forward on this spectrum,” he says. To achieve that end at SFJAZZ, Kline suggests, means that the organization must continue to challenge itself on all levels—in programming, commissions, partnerships, and the diversity of its staff, board, artists, and audiences.
In programming the Frost shows, SF Symphony Director of Artistic Planning Phillippa Cole said that the organization had to be nimble, quickly selecting conductors, composers, and repertoire that includes new pieces and longtime favorites, as well as works that provide the symphony’s principal wind and brass players an opportunity to perform after a year apart.
After more than a year without live performances, SF Symphony’s musicians reunited in May at Davies Symphony Hall for 8 weeks of live concerts, each between 75-85 minutes in length with no intermission. Cole says the musicians are excited about their return to Frost and the new pieces included in the programs that the orchestra has never before performed.
Like Lorway and Kline, Cole values the way Bay Area organizations are developing partnered productions on an increased basis as live performances resume. “That has meant we’ve had more collaborations with people like [Oakland Symphony Music Director] Michael Morgan. He was to have conducted the orchestra just before the pandemic began, and we wanted the opportunity to work with him.” Morgan will lead the SF Symphony on July 24 in a concert that features Gioachino Rossini, Louise Farrenc, and James P. Johnson.
The Symphony’s series of concerts at Frost, which begins with two Saturday performances July 10 and 17 under the baton of SF Symphony music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, welcomes conductors from beyond the Bay Area as well.
Born and raised in Colombia and currently serving as the Conducting Fellow of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony, Lina González-Granados is the guest conductor at Frost on July 31. Cellist Pablo Ferrández will join her in a program featuring work by Kodály, Schumann, and Manuel De Falla. “We saw her conducting and thought she was special,” says Cole. “It will be her debut with the orchestra.”
Lina González-Granados debuts with the San Francisco Symphony as a guest conductor on July 31. Photo by Leona Campbell
Xian Zhang, who serves as music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, has worked with the SF Symphony in the past. In addition to conducting a performance at Frost on August 7, she will return for the Symphony’s regular subscription season in spring 2022.
The Symphony selected guest conductors for the Frost performances who were flexible about the number of musicians, whether or not they could have the brass section, lived in the U.S. or had visas, and with whom they have or are embarking on longer relationships. “We knew they could be creative with things shifting all the time,” Cole says.
All three presenters are confident that safety measures—masking, social distancing, vaccine guidelines, gradual easing of capacity limits, improved ventilation systems—and programs that speak to contemporary local, national, and international issues like climate change and social justice will bring audiences back to live performances. Lorway suggests that people look to Stanford Live for the continuation of the popular film series, more emerging-level artists offering rich digital or live content, and monthlong artist-in-residence projects that cultivate deeper relationships and integrate broader communities in the experiences.
Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by San Francisco Classical Voice, WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, East Bay Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others. She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.
Live Concerts at Frost Amphitheater
Beginning July 1
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