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San Francisco’s Musical Sweet Spot: The Admission-Free Stern Grove Festival Unites Art, Nature, and Bay-Area Music Lovers for Over 70 Years
A soul diva tosses aside her mic and lets her passionate voice roll over the audience as a hawk looks on. A stray sunbeam breaks through looming clouds and dashes across a renowned Indian master’s tablas as he strikes up the beat. A jubilant crowd of thousands dances to electronica-laced tango, swaying as one and leaping joyfully on stage. Butterflies and dragonflies flit past acclaimed symphonies, opera companies, and ballet dancers.Sloat Blvd., San Francisco; www.sterngrove.org).
Magical moments happen regularly at Stern Grove Festival, San Francisco’s premier admission-free outdoor performing arts festival, a gem at the city’s heart. The 73rd Stern Grove Festival takes place Sundays at 2:00 p.m., June 20-August 22, 2010 (Sigmund Stern Grove, 19th Ave. &
I loved playing Stern Grove. It’s a beautiful wooded enclave in the middle of a big city, with a great laid-back atmosphere. — Aimee Mann
Majestic yet intimate, Stern Grove Festival’s eclectic renowned performers are encircled by its unmatched outdoor venue: a resonant natural amphitheater among century-old redwoods and eucalyptus. Here, urban and pastoral, cosmopolitan and communal, nature and art, mingle.
I looked out there at those trees…you almost think you’re in heaven. It’s like hugging me, this venue is hugging me. I’ve never seen a place like this and I’ve been singing for a long time. — Mavis Staples
Though minutes away from central San Francisco sights, Stern Grove feels like a world apart and attracts world-class artists and hosts annual performances by the acclaimed San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Symphony, and San Francisco Ballet. Its verdant performance meadow, surrounded by towering trees, may sound like other major outdoor concert venues, but don’t be fooled. Stern Grove revels in the openness of the great outdoors while retaining a singular sense of intimacy.
Part of Stern Grove’s secret lies in its acoustics, as Rosalie Stern, founder and first benefactor of the Festival and its striking site, discovered in the 1930s. Mrs. Stern placed the stage with help from opera tenor Lawrence Strauss: The two wandered around the Grove arm in arm, in search of a sweet spot. They found it, as any Stern Grove Festival regulars can tell you (and decades later, laser acoustic analysis confirmed it).
Some places you just feel good. This is one of those places. — Femi Kuti
Regulars abound, from all generations and backgrounds, and they know just how to enjoy Stern Grove Festival. “People often come first thing in the morning and stake out their favorite spot. They’ll hang out all day until the show is done, with picnics and their families,” smiles Director of Marketing Monica Ware, who first experienced the festival as a young child accompanying grandma and grandpa to the Symphony. ”You meet people sitting next to you, and you get to know them. You share food and talk and dance together and experience these incredible performances.”
Performances by artists ranging from Los Lobos, Lucinda Williams and Arrested Development to Diana Krall, Carlos Santana, and Hugh Masekela to Isaac Stern, Denyce Graves, and Joan Baez in years past, and this year, from They Might Be Giants to the San Francisco Symphony, from Afro-pop chanteuse Angélique Kidjo to folk-rock icon Rickie Lee Jones.
The vibe is incredible. And I can’t believe we’re in the middle of the city. — Bela Fleck
“We often think in terms of accessibility. The Festival is admission-free and outdoors, so it breaks down many barriers,” Executive Director Steven Haines notes. “Stern Grove Festival, because it is so accessible, can offer world-class performances but still be a tastemaker, introducing people to music and dance they haven’t experienced before.”
This mixture of family-friendly yet adventurous, of high-quality yet open to all, reflects the special spirit of San Francisco itself, a city known for embracing diversity, eccentricity, and creativity. “Stern Grove Festival concerts cut across a wide variety of genres. That resonates with people in the Bay Area,” explains Judy Tsang, Stern Grove’s Director of Programming. “Our audiences are open-minded and trust us to put on a great show at Stern Grove Festival.”
San Francisco is a cosmopolitan place, but it also has the great natural beauty of Northern California and you get to experience that here in a setting that’s in the city, but like in a rainforest. It’s a magical place. — Michael Franti
Visitors can dive into this San Francisco experience and get a chance to unwind, party, and savor the arts the way locals do. “Stern Grove Festival audience members intermingle, and it creates a virtual kind of community in that moment,” Ware reflects. “You don’t normally get that shared experience at most venues, when you just show up, watch a concert, and leave. It’s really unusual in that regard.”
Planning a Perfect Stern Grove Day
Most important is to get there early; the park opens at sunrise and occasionally, a few hearty souls are already there with sleeping bags and thermoses of coffee, staking out their favorite spots.
Bring plenty of provisions–your favorite picnic fare, water, sunscreen, board games, books, and blankets. Regulars try to outdo each other with everything from linen napkins, flowers and wine glasses to platters of the Bay Area’s finest culinary treats; goat cheese from Cowgirl Creamery, sourdough from Acme Bakery, and cupcakes from Miette. And don’t forget a Napa Valley Chardonnay to round out the afternoon. There is also a food vendor on-site, but alcohol is not sold at the Festival.
Wear layers–Unpredictable is the best way to describe the micro-climate of Stern Grove. It can be cool in the morning and blazing hot by show time.
Take public transportation. There is no parking at Stern Grove, so do yourself and the environment a favor and don’t drive to the Festival!
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