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Arts + CultureCultureStern Grove Festival changes family hands—but not its free...

Stern Grove Festival changes family hands—but not its free music mission

Fifth-generation Goldman brothers take over SF tradition: "We're here experiencing music in nature, not through AirPods."

When Dr. Douglas Goldman went to the Stern Grove Festival as a child, he remembers cherry trees in the concert meadow with tables arranged in the shade under them, and women wearing hats and white gloves. When his great-grandmother started the free music festival, it featured only classical music. One thing Goldman doesn’t remember is San Francisco’s notorious chilly summer weather. 

“It was more formal and more staid,” Goldman said about the concerts. “The interesting thing is I remember sunshine, not fog. Maybe we were going to the first concerts in June and probably got the pre-fog pre-summer weather.”

Goldman’s great-grandmother, Rosalie Meyer Stern, bought the land in 1931, and had an acoustics expert from University of California, Berkeley, come and test it, pronouncing the acoustics spectacular. In 1938, to honor her late husband Sigmund Stern, she created the Stern Grove Festival, which offers free concerts on Sunday afternoons in summer.

“The country was still in the throes of the Depression at that time and classical musicians did not have year round contracts,” Goldman said. “So it was summer employment for musicians. And for an audience who couldn’t afford to go see music, they were able to go because it’s free.”

Goldman, who worked as an emergency room physician at Mount Zion before he founded the software firm Certain Inc., is the fourth generation of his family to be involved with the Stern Grove Festival Association. For the last 23 years, he has stewarded the festival, diversifying the offerings with performers like Janelle Monáe, Fantastic Negrito, Smokey Robinson, and Rufus Wainwright, along with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Ballet performing. 

Goldman has made other changes to the festival, including a significant renovation of the concert meadow with the late landscape architect Larry Halprin.

This summer, with concerts including Toots and the Maytals, Digable Planets, The Isley Brothers’ “Big Picnic,” and Los Van Van, will be Goldman’s last spearheading the festival. Next February, his twin sons, Jason and Matthew Goldman, will take over, becoming the first ones under 40 to lead the festival. 

Douglas Goldman.

The family has a deep commitment to philanthropy beyond the festival, with Goldman running the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, which supports democracy, civil liberties, education, literacy, and the environment. Goldman is also president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, which awards the $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activism every year.  

Growing up, Goldman remembers his parents talking about the nonprofits they were involved with over dinner. His great-grandmother had a deep commitment to her community, he says, and that has been passed down through the generations. Some of it he attributes to Jewish values, and he says the family feels proud to be able to do it. 

Beloved Cuban musicians Los Van Van play the Stern Grove Festival June 23.

“I like to think I’ve improved it in some ways,” Goldman said about the festival. “Now my sons can impart their version of it and find ways they can improve and expand and make it more relevant. 

Jason, who, like his brother, has a Bachelor of Arts from UC Berkeley in Interdisciplinary Studies with an emphasis on Nonprofit Management and Philanthropy, says they have learned from their father’s example of the time, effort and passion he put into running the festival. They won’t be making any huge changes right away, he says. 

“We’re not going to come in and rip the whole thing out,” he said. “We might possibly look at updating or modernizing, but we’re very much tied to what’s already worked well.”

Stern Grove

At Berkeley, the brothers started a course where the students gave away money, Matthew says. They’ve also done consulting for nonprofits, so they had more than theoretical experience into how philanthropy works.  

They’re excited to bring their experience to the festival, which after eight decades still provides something important, Jason says. 

“Not a lot of things in life are free, especially experiences, and people are really into experiencing things,” he said. “Music is universal, and here we’re experiencing it in nature with others rather than listening to it on AirPods.”

His father agrees that listening to music outside in a grove as deep as a 14-story building is high, surrounded by eucalyptus and redwood trees, is exceptional.

“You’re hearing beautiful sounds in a gorgeous natural setting,” Goldman said. “You’re in the middle of an urban setting, not off in some wilderness. It’s a unique and special experience, as if you removed yourself from the hustle and bustle of the city.”

STERN GROVE FESTIVAL
Sundays, June 16-August 18, 2pm, free
19th Avenue and Sloat, SF. 
More info here.

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