A view of the newly renovated Frost Amphitheater taken in late March while construction crews were still working on the venue. (Photo by Adam Pardee)

Newly-renovated Frost Amphitheater partners with Coachella promoter to bring big shows to the Peninsula

Stanford’s historic outdoor amphitheater is comfortably remodeled and ready to host marquee musical acts

by Yoshi Kato

Tucked away in the northeast end of the Stanford University campus and sequestered behind construction fencing for the past several years, the 82-year-old Frost Amphitheater is reopening on May 18 with the 2019 Frost Music & Arts Festival.

Co-headlined by Colombian American singer/songwriter Kali Uchis and the British troubadour Jorja Smith, the amphitheater’s namesake festival will offer patrons the first opportunity to experience the outdoor space since its renovation.

As viewed during a hard-hat tour in early spring, the modernized Frost Amphitheater includes amenities for both performers and patrons. While the tree-lined aesthetic remains the same, there’s now an actual bandstand with dressing and green rooms, an equipment-loading bay and elevator and full audio and lighting capability. Ample modern restrooms, refreshment and merchandise spaces and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance make it a comfortable site that still looks like it somehow sprouted up amidst its surroundings. (A pair of campus jackrabbits were hopping around during the late-morning tour.)

In the past, the space has been host to everything from concerts by jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong to performances by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Past performers at Frost include an assortment of jazz legends including (clockwise from top left) Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. (Images via Stanford Arts website)

Stanford Live has partnered with both concert producer Goldenvoice (the company behind the Coachella Festival) and the San Francisco Symphony for a series of shows that continues that broad exploration of genres. In a nod to Frost’s history with the Grateful Dead (the seminal rock band performed there many times between 1982 and 1989), Goldenvoice and Stanford Live will co-present Joe Russo’s Almost Dead on Saturday, Aug. 17. Other concerts include singer/multi-instrumentalist FKJ on Aug. 6; pop icon Lionel Richie on Aug. 24; and indie rock institution The National on September 1.

San Francisco Symphony’s history with Frost extends back to 1941, when it performed as part of the University’s 50th anniversary festivities. From 1968 to 1980, it often put on Children’s Health Benefit Concerts featuring guest soloists such as vocalist Ella Fitzgerald and clarinetist/ bandleader Benny Goodman.

Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct an all-Tchaikovsky program featuring violinist Gil Shaham on July 10. Following that performance, Gemma New will lead two performances of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony: an evening concert on July 13 and a late afternoon one the following day.

The Grateful Dead played multiple shows at Frost during the 1980s, including this one in 1987. (Image via Stanford Arts website)

“It has a different ambiance than other places in the Bay Area,” according to Daniel Cohen, a Palo Alto resident and Frost concert veteran who saw the Grateful Dead there several times.

“You’re on lawn, but it’s flat,” Sylvia Brainin concurred, “so it’s easy to dance because of the way it’s terraced.” A longtime Menlo Park resident, Brainin has seen both the Grateful Dead and vocalist Bobby McFerrin at Frost and remarked on its tiered upper rows, which are 6 feet long and a combination of concrete and grass.

“People spread out in rows, which makes it easy for you to go back and forth, to the side, to walk through a crowd without necessarily tripping over them,” she said. “And you’re surrounded by greenery. I just love how enclosed in nature you feel there, even though you know there’s a whole campus around you.”

The Six Fifty spoke with Stanford Live Executive Director Chris Lorway at Bing Concert Hall ahead of the Frost Amphitheater re-launch this month.

An undated photo of Frost Amphitheater (possibly 1937) marked “Preparation for commencement.” (Image via the Stanford Photo Archive)

Remodeling Frost gave you the opportunity to customize it for a 21st-century audience. What goals did you have in mind?

A lot of it is about comfort … We’ve all been to those venues where even the artist spaces are in some dark basement…pretty sketchy and scary. People sort of rave about our dressing rooms here at Bing and about how they feel very comfortable here. So we wanted to provide that same level of comfort over at Frost. The comfort level on the artist side is really important, because you want their experience to be great. On the public side, restrooms, restrooms, restrooms. Also, people want nice and clean, too, which is what we’ve been trying to focus on.

And how about on the refreshments side?

Santa Clara County is a bit tough in terms of food and beverage and just the health department stuff. We originally started off with this sort of dream idea of all sorts of different types of hot food. But that’s very difficult to execute. So we’re looking at things that are going to be more like the Hollywood Bowl, actually, where there’s almost like a little supermarket where you can get carry-out stuff.

We’re hoping to do some craft cocktails on tap and some local wines, as well. And while you can’t bring your own alcohol into the space, we are allowing because of tradition for people to bring picnics in. We’ll have a clear bag policy, similar to the stadium.

Stanford Live Executive Director Chris Lorway (Photo by Adam Pardee)

Partnering with both Goldenvoice and the San Francisco Symphony ties Frost into the worlds of both pop and classical music. How did those relationships come about?

We’ve been talking to the symphony for years. And even when we were looking at the Bing (Concert Hall and Studio) project it was something that the symphony wanted to be involved in. But because of the hall size, 842 seats, it’s difficult to make the economics work on those types of shows. So I think we had to table some of those discussions. They’ve been very active on campus, and there are a lot of partnerships around teaching and working with students.

Once the Frost discussions started to happen … it just seemed to be a great idea for them. A lot of their donor base and patrons live in the South Bay. So it’s a great way to maintain that connection as traffic up to the city gets more and more challenging on weeknights.

The Goldenvoice partnership came out of an RFP (request for proposal) process. We knew that in order to secure the sort of artists we wanted in that space we needed to work with a major promoter. They had a history of working with the students on Frost Fest, too. They helped book those shows with students, so we knew that they had an idea of what the campus was and had worked in the venue before.

The Symphony having an outdoor summer home has drawn comparisons to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the aforementioned Bowl. Will it be a similar relationship?

First and foremost the way the university views this is that it’s a university asset. It’s going to be a place where inaugurations can happen and certain school graduations will happen. And when we’ve had people like Obama, Clinton, Oprah come to campus as speakers the biggest space they’ve had is Memorial Auditorium. And that caps out at 1,700, so they’ve had to do so much overflow and audio in other rooms. There’s lots of potential there.

In year one we’re focusing on the strengthening of those two relationships—the symphony and Goldenvoice. And I think as different users come in and they see the space they’ll hopefully fall in love with it. We hope that bodes well for future bookings. But I think it will ultimately be artists having great experiences that will bring them back.

The other big thing is that we’re focused right now at Stanford Live at getting this place operational. So we’re not programming it yet. But our hope is that we’ll be doing our own shows there in the future or potentially working with organizations like the Stanford Jazz Workshop and doing an outdoor jazz festival on a smaller scale, [as well as ]community-focused stuff that is not in any way competing with the major partners but figuring out ways to supplement and do interesting things.

The San Francisco Symphony at Frost Amphitheater on June 20, 1941. (Image via the Stanford Photo Archive)

In addition to larger orchestral performance, the bigger capacity allows you to bring in more popular artists who may appeal to the Stanford student body as witnessed by the success of Frost Fests. How does that fit in with Stanford Live’s mission?

One of the things that I’ve been focused on since I got here (in 2016) was trying to figure out relationships between different student organizations and how do we get students engaged. One of my first questions was, “Who are the people who are already doing this on campus as students?” There’s a group called the Stanford Concert Network. And they do Frost Fest, but they also promote lots of other shows, whether it’s in dorms or other spaces. We immediately started a mentor program with them, and we have five to six shows that happen in the Bing Studio space each year that are student-curated as a way of helping to cultivate that relationship.

Do you have a sense yet of the different audiences for Frost shows?

We’re intentionally looking at programming that brings many different audiences in. What I always talk about is that we have so many people who made capital contributions for this space and did it because of the amazing memories they had of experiencing Frost when they were here as students. So we want to tip our hat to that and bring in some artists that they’ll love and want to see. But at the same time, we want the current generation of students to have the types of memories that hopefully in 30 years will be similar to the ones that these people had. And another thing I’m hoping to do, as well: When we did Los Tigres del Norte here (in 2016) we saw a huge appetite for Latinx programming. So there are great opportunities to engage with some of those promoters in that community to do those types of shows here eventually, too.

The view from the stage at Frost. (Image by Adam Pardee)

(Editor’s note: This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.)

Freelance writer Yoshi Kato can be emailed at [email protected].

What: 2019 Frost Music & Arts Festival featuring Kali Uchis & Jorja Smith with Mia Carucci.

Where: Frost Amphitheater, Lasuen St. & Roth Way, Stanford.

When: Saturday, May 18, at 6 p.m.

Cost: $25 (students), $35 (Stanford faculty/staff), $49.50 (general public).

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