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New At Stern Grove: A 20-Piece Mambo Ode to the Woods

Grammy winners Pacific Mambo Orchestra usher in the festival's original music ticket.

Pacific Mambo Orchestra outnumbered the audience at their first concert. They may have set themselves up for that one.


In case there's anyone who wasn't completely satisfied with the annual good times fest at Stern Grove, the 78-year-old concert series offers something new this year: A series of original pieces from local artists commissioned exclusively for the festival called “Interplay: Artists in Concert with Nature.” The new project kicks off Sunday with local underdogs turned surprise stars Pacific Mambo Orchestra.

For Steffen Kuehn (PMO leader and trumpeter) and his roughly 20 bandmates it’s a chance to keep the momentum going after 2014 put them on the map. Their Kickstarter-funded first album won a surprise Grammy and they just finished a 13 city tour. But with fame comes the pressure of high expectations. “It makes us better performers. We have no excuses,” says Kuehn, who's found that success comes with a lot of paperwork in his new role as the band's CEO, something they never needed in the past. “My hours of composing in the morning have turned into a desk job  so I took on Stern Grove as a writing assignment for myself.”

Kuehn has been glued to the trumpet since his childhood in southern Germany. Live jazz was scarce, but he learned at the feet of Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong via LP. He made the big move to the Bay Area in the '90, and in 2010 PMO played its first show inat a now-shuttered Dogpatch salsa club. “There were 20 people on stage, and just three people in the audience.” Stern Grove can seat 20,000 on a good Sunday, so they've come quite a ways. PMO is a bit of a throwback—think Tito Puente, or Buena Vista Social Club with bigger horns—but most of their piece are new, original compositions.

Festival executive director Steven Haines says the decision to commission local acts reflects the festival's big picture goals: accessibility, diversity, and community. “There are so few things that come free in the city these days,” Haines says. “It’s a gift to the community, from the community.” Plus, new music gives the band a chance to write something “In concert with nature,” like the festival’s longtime tagline says. “We’ve got eucalyptus and redwoods out here, not walls. Let’s explore our relationship with the place.”

Catch Pacific Mambo at Stern Grove, 2 PM on Sunday. The band also has a fan talkback session at noon.

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