Oaklander Leads Stern Grove Festival

Bob Fiedler lends his passion to keeping the Bay Area’s outdoor music festival shining bright.


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Bob Fiedler joined as executive director of Stern Grove Festival last year.

Lance Yamamoto

Bob Fiedler seems to be having a moment of serendipity. Having spent much of his career serving as a director for music and arts education and social service nonprofits in Chicago, the recent transplant to Oakland finds himself at the helm of the Stern Grove Festival Association, dedicated to, in his words, “giving away free music.”

“I’m not about running just another music organization or venue or festival that sells tickets. For me, this is really about using music for social change and social justice. The fact that Stern Grove Festival has as its mission to make music accessible to anyone, whether you can afford to buy a ticket or not, is very appealing to me.”

Fiedler’s passion for music and his excitement at landing the opportunity to oversee the venerable outdoor performing arts festival are palpable and seem to warm the space around him when he talks. He joined as executive director in May 2017, just as the 2017 summer season was kicking off. This year, he’s thrilled to be all in.

“I truly think Stern Grove is one of the finest places in the world to see music. I don’t know why it’s not more well known as an epic concert venue. The first time I walked in and saw the redwoods, smelled the eucalyptus, heard the birds singing, I just couldn’t believe it. It really is like a natural cathedral.”

This season’s 10-concert series launched June 17 with soulful R&B from Jeffrey Osborn and Peabo Bryson, but the summer lineup is a diverse one, from alt rock singer-songwriter M. Ward (July 1) to polished arrangements from the San Francisco Symphony (July 22) and the Afrobeat world music of Nigerian legend Femi Kuti and the Positive Force (Aug. 5).

Much like the towering trees that envelop visitors of the hallowed site, the roots of Stern Grove’s free music offerings go deep, back to 1931 when Rosalie M. Stern gifted the family’s 33-acre swathe of towering redwood, eucalyptus, and fir trees, sand dunes, and marshes to the city of San Francisco in honor of her late husband Sigmund Stern, a well-known philanthropist and civic leader.

Today, Stern Grove Festival not only serves as a paid performance opportunity for dancers and musicians from around the world, it also offers education and outreach programs — summer camps, workshops, demonstrations — dedicated to exposing Bay Area youth to the commonality shared through music.

“For me, music is sacred. Every human that’s ever been on earth has enjoyed and used music for spiritual and soothing practices. In my own life, I use it medicinally on a daily basis. I almost think of it as a basic human necessity.”

When pressed about his own personal musical leanings, Fiedler politely demurs. He does not choose favorites. But he does believe in the power of live performance.

“There isn’t a style of music that I don’t resonate with or like. But I am particularly fond of the marriage of electronic and acoustic live performance. In my mind, if Beethoven were alive today, he’d probably be a DJ combining live music and technology. Combining styles and genres and art forms is where the innovation takes place.”

Seeing Stern Grove Festival through Fiedler’s eyes, you can’t help but sense that there is something magical about this outdoor music experience converging with the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of the Bay Area. Even as one might tire of the traffic jams, the hustle and bustle of activity, and the seemingly endless stream of human activity all around, Fiedler thinks it’s just that confluence of energy that makes this place special.

“Life can be stressful. But seeing live music is just good for our well-being. It’s like a religious experience. If you come into this venue and step out of your troubles for a while and build community with others, you see life a little differently.”

 

The 2018 Stern Grove Festival runs June 17-Aug. 19 with free concerts on Sundays at 2 p.m. Visit www.SternGrove.org to learn more and view the full lineup of performers.

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