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Suzanne Ennis | Photo: Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service | May 31, 2019
Fresh from a two-year renovation, Stanford’s Frost Amphitheater is heating up the Peninsula’s summer music scene.
On a 75-degree day this spring, anticipation of summer filled the Stanford campus. In the Oval, students shed their jackets and lounged on the lawn, soaking in the rays. Meanwhile, nearby, one of the university’s most storied sites prepared to peel off its outer layer; one comprising construction fencing and “do not enter” signs. After two years of renovations, Frost Amphitheater is welcoming a new season of music—and making its own big debut.
For more than 80 years, the amphitheater has been Stanford’s sylvan musical oasis. Gifted by the parents of John Laurence Frost (class of ’35), who died of polio shortly after graduation, the 20-acre site was designed by landscape architect Leslie Kiler (’24) to resemble the California foothills, with a thicket of trees surrounding a terraced bowl. From its opening in 1937 through 1983, the alfresco venue hosted commencement exercises, university gatherings, speeches from visiting dignitaries, and classical music performances. Famously, it also drew some of the biggest names in jazz, folk and rock, including Ella Fitzgerald; Miles Davis; Jefferson Airplane; Eric Clapton; Carlos Santana; and The Grateful Dead, who played Frost more than a dozen times.
By the dawn of the ’90s, beset by poor infrastructure, rising costs and other challenges, the amphitheater was no longer a musical mecca. Still, nostalgia for its heyday persisted. “People who went to Stanford from the late ’60s through the mid-’80s have such incredible memories of things that they saw and did at Frost that they’ve become almost lore,” says Chris Lorway, executive director since 2016 of Stanford Live (the university’s primary performing arts organization) and Bing Concert Hall. In 2012, hoping to reclaim the venue’s former glory, students and administrators joined forces to create the first Frost Revival Music and Arts Festival, headlined by Modest Mouse. Nearly 5,000 people attended—a crowd size not seen by Frost in three decades.
Now an annual May event organized by the student-run Stanford Concert Network, the fest demonstrates the will to mount a full-scale revival of Frost. Still, the way was daunting: The amphitheater, which has a capacity of 8,000, offered little more than a concrete platform for a stage and a handful of restrooms. So, in summer 2017, with Palo Alto-based CAW Architects at the helm, renovations began to bring the iconic venue into the 21st century, funded with help from private donors. (The university declined to release figures on the total renovation cost).
The results? Frost has a state-of-the-art stage and a directional speaker system to prevent sound from spilling over into surrounding neighborhoods. A tunnel and series of ramps improve accessibility and flow, and some 70 restrooms replace the original eight (music to anyone’s ears). Also new is an event space that can accommodate up to 300 people on the roof of the stage house. “We imagine [it] will be quite popular for cocktail parties when there are not concerts going on,” says Lorway. “It allows you into the Frost without being in the audience.” On event days, a “parklet” between Bing and Frost transforms into a grove for picnicking and concessions, and Bing’s lobbies become a VIP lounge offering more food and drink. Per the wishes of Peter Bing, one of the project’s lead donors, the grounds retain their original contemplative character thanks to careful landscaping, according to Lorway.
It’s not just Frost’s physical space that’s entering a new era: Stanford Live has two new musical partners at the venue. One is the San Francisco Symphony, with an all-Tchaikovsky concert led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas July 10, and a program of Beethoven led by Gemma New July 13 to 14. And with Goldenvoice, creator of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Stanford Live will co-present an annual concert series through Sept. 1 with performances by Grateful Dead tribute act Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Lionel Richie and The National. Various university events, such as school graduations, fill out the May to October season.
Driving the programming choices, says Lorway, is one fundamental question: “How do we make sure that this current group of students who are at Stanford, and the broader community, get to create their own moments that they’ll be nostalgic about in 20 or 30 years?” Whatever the future may hold, it’s exciting to think that Frost is just warming up.
Originally published in the June issue of Silicon Valley