Stanford Live integrates world-class artists into campus life

In its first five seasons, Stanford Live has made top performers part of university life. Under director Chris Lorway, the organization plans to expand its theme-based programming and “spill outside” of its home base, Bing Concert Hall.

When the Danish String Quartet visited campus this past October, the members didn’t simply drop in for a public performance of Wallin, Janáček and Beethoven at Bing Concert Hall and head home. They also joined in a chamber music reading session with students and the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Stanford’s ensemble-in-residence.

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Kurt Hickman

Stanford Live situates many of the programs it presents within broader academic interests and cultural narratives.

“They all read together in the hall and had a pizza party and got to know these young incredible string artists,” said Anna Wittstruck, an acting assistant professor of music. “Our string-playing students got to play chamber music all evening with these world-renowned string players.”

Engagement of visiting artists with the campus and local communities is paramount, said Chris Lorway, the executive director of Stanford Live, which hosted the Danish String Quartet as part of its busy 2016-2017 season. Now in its fifth year, the multidisciplinary program presents some of the world’s leading artists through public performances at Stanford and connects them to campus life.

“As we grow and flourish at Stanford Live, I’d love to see artists spend more time here,” Lorway said. “We also have opportunities to partner with our other colleagues in the arts and really magnify the idea that Stanford is not only a science and engineering campus but an arts campus.”

Performance with context

Stanford Live’s first five seasons follow more than four decades of its predecessor, Stanford Lively Arts, in presenting artists, commissioning artwork, hosting artist residencies and facilitating collaborations among faculty, students and visitors.

Cardinal Calypso

Student steelpan ensemble Cardinal Calypso performs at Bing Inside/Out: Arts Open House. (Image credit: Harrison Truong)

“The arts are a core part of the Stanford experience,” said Lorway, who also directs Bing Concert Hall. Taking a theme-based curatorial approach, Stanford Live situates many of the programs it presents within broader academic interests and cultural narratives. For instance, through a program called Live Context: Art + Ideas, Lorway aims to not only bring artists to campus to perform, but also to “immerse those performers in the life of the campus, and take some of the ideas that they’re exploring through their art and have a dialogue.”

During the fall, a Live Context series called Islamic Voices considered the diversity of contemporary Muslim music through performances and related events. Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi talked with students and faculty about how her songs became revolutionary anthems during the Arab Spring and shared insights from her career as a Muslim woman and musician. Hip-hop artists and scholars converged to discuss forms of cultural expression that subvert dominant ideas about Muslim identity. Writer and cultural commentator Reza Aslan held a public talk with Umbreen Bhatti, an affiliate of Stanford’s Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, on current American relations with the wider Muslim world and opportunities for the arts to bridge perspectives.

In the Live Context series Icons of Sound, faculty from Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) and the Department of Art and Art History collaborated with the choir Cappella Romana to digitally imprint historical Hagia Sophia’s acoustics inside Bing Concert Hall. Visual designs complemented the choir’s Byzantine chant to create an immersive audience experience. An all-day symposium invited international scholars for conversations on technology and sensory experience in art.

Looking ahead, Lorway plans to expand Stanford Live’s integration of thematic programming into campus conversations – to “put context first” while continuing to present leading artists of many genres.

Opportunities for students

Francesca Dawis and Ted Sperling

Undergraduate student Francesca Dawis participates in a master class with Broadway music director Ted Sperling. (Image credit: Joel Simon)

Francesca Dawis, a senior majoring in psychology and minoring in music, studies voice and violin and participates in theater productions. During the spring of 2015, she had the chance to sing in a vocal master class of Stephen Sondheim songs taught by Ted Sperling, a Broadway music director who worked closely with the composer for 20 years and was visiting campus to direct an evening of Sondheim songs as part of Stanford Live’s season. “Getting to perform for him and hearing his comments and his encouragement was a really incredible opportunity that Stanford Live provided,” she said.

Dawis also works on marketing initiatives as a Stanford Live intern and is a member of SLAM, the Stanford Live Ambassadors, a student group that provides liaison between the organization and the student community. With interests in arts education and administration, Dawis has explored potential career paths through her engagement with Stanford Live. As a sophomore, she organized a roundtable discussion on race and representation in the Stanford theater productions including Hairspray and Evita.

“Stanford Live helps students like me in our pursuit of a professional career in the arts,” Dawis said. “It offers opportunities to interact with artists who do what we want to do out in the real world.”

A segment of tickets for all productions is reserved for students at a deeply discounted rate – typically starting at $15. “Stanford Live keeps increasing the outreach to students, whether that’s through singer-songwriter workshops with guests, or master classes with visiting guest artists,” said Steve Sano, the Professor Harold C. Schmidt Director in Choral Studies and professor (teaching) of music.

A university partner

In many ways, Bing Concert Hall provided the foundation for Stanford Live to thrive when it opened in 2013, said Matthew Tiews, associate vice president for the arts. In addition to adding a high-tech venue that could draw world-class artists to campus, Bing also changed the game for Stanford student performers. “They are able to bring their level of professionalism and expertise to a completely different place because of the amazing resources of this hall,” Tiews said.

H. Samy Alim and Su'ad Abdul-Khabeer

H. Samy Alim, professor of education, speaks with artist Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer at “Hip Hop, Street Art, and Muslim Cool,” part of Stanford Live’s Islamic Voices series. (Image credit: Joel Simon)

Stanford Live is equal parts academic partner and performance partner with the Department of Music, Sano said. Department of Music ensembles rehearse regularly in Bing Concert Hall, which provides an acoustic experience Sano likens to a scientific lab. “It’s a space where the students can learn certain skills, certain procedures that are unique and can only be studied in that environment.”

Inside Bing, students can hear fellow ensemble members in a choir or orchestra and respond to sounds at a level that wasn’t possible in other teaching and performance spaces on campus. “How softly you can play in that hall is astounding,” said Wittstruck, who conducts the Stanford Symphony Orchestra and Stanford Philharmonia. “In such a clear sonic space, there’s nowhere to hide. But it prompts students and inspires them to be their best selves as performers.”

Going forward, Stanford Live will continue growing into Bing’s secondary spaces to expand its programming of late-night cabaret performances downstairs and weekend family activities that make use of indoor and outdoor spaces in the lobby and atrium of Bing Concert Hall. “The idea is to spill outside of the Bing,” Lorway said, “and take a broader approach to how the arts are integrated on campus.” Next month, Stanford Live will announce its sixth season lineup, which will focus on the theme of national identities.

“We are very excited about the leadership and the future of Stanford Live,” said Harry Elam, vice president for the arts and senior vice provost for education. “By constructing a unique and captivating blend of performances, Stanford Live will continue to attract the greater Stanford community, helping to make Stanford a vital destination for the arts.”