S.F. Symphony Prepares for a Funky Stern Grove Performance

Edwin Outwater conducting the S.F. Symphony (Photo by S.F. Symphony/Scott Wall)

Sure, Patti Smith, the Flaming Lips, Buddy Guy and more make up one of the most dynamic lineups in recent memory for the Stern Grove Festival, but only one act can say they have played every festival since the tradition officially began in 1938.

And that “act” would of course be the San Francisco Symphony, whose popular annual concerts in the eucalyptus-lined grove attract new fans to classical music and show off the versatility of the symphony musicians.

“We love playing for people. And to see 5,000 people out there, especially many of whom are discovering the symphony for the first time, is pretty amazing,” says conductor Edwin Outwater, who has worked with the organization since 2001 and is responsible for everything from collaborations with bands like Metallica to the world premiere of the Judy Garland Centennial concert Get Happy! “We know we’re reaching all these people and really connecting with our community. It’s just so important.”

Outwater says that the event is a real highlight for the 80 to 100 musicians who play it. “Stern Grove is a unique venue, it’s a real magical place, I love it,” he says, adding that the stage is beautiful and the acoustics, while definitely different than in the concert hall, are actually pretty good. “It’s a wonderful perspective, looking out from the stage and seeing all these people up on the hill and just all over the place having the best time.”

The fact that this event does happen outside of the concert hall is an important feature, Outwater says. “I especially love watching the kids out there because you can see them dancing around and moving to the music in a way you might not see in the concert hall,” he says. “The cheering from the audience is really something; even the people way up on the hill, you can really feel it from them — it’s a big party and having a symphony be a part of that is just wonderful.”

As for the program, Outwater says it is going to be really fun. He’ll conduct the first half, which will feature well-known scores from films like Jaws, Psycho, Vertigo, Ben-Hur, The Magnificent Seven and others. The second half, conducted by Christopher Dragon, will include the funk band Lettuce.

“What’s wonderful about the film scores is that they include some of the most important music of our time and to see an orchestra playing them live and hearing how intricate and wonderful they are is pretty exciting for people,” Outwater says, adding that the second half will show a side of symphony musicians, especially the horn section, many people don’t often see. “The great thing about the San Francisco Symphony is it can play the most sublime classical music, but it can also lay down jazz and funk riffs with the best of them.”

But Outwater says the grove’s proximity to the ocean does bring up one challenge musicians don’t face in the concert hall. “Sometimes it can get a little cold and foggy,” he says with a laugh. “I have seen musicians break out the fingerless gloves.”


The Summer Series

July 2: Santigold, Ogi

July 9: Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, Andrew St. James

July 16: Angelique Kidjo, Jupiter & Okwess

July 23: S.F. Symphony with special guest Lettuce

July 30: Bob Moses, Neil Frances

August 6: Buddy Guy Damn Right Farewell Tour, Eric Gales

August 13: Patti Smith, Bob Mould

August 20: The Big Picnic Featuring the Flaming Lips, Alan Palomo (Neon Indian DJ Set)


Edwin Outwater conducts the symphony
Edwin Outwater (Photo by S.F. Symphony/Scott Wall)