Arts & Theater

Stanley Lunetta was legendary Sacramento percussionist

Percussionist Stan Lunetta at the Music Circus.
Percussionist Stan Lunetta at the Music Circus. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

Percussionist, composer, sculptor and much-loved icon of the local music community Stanley Lunetta relentlessly explored avant garde music while maintaining a legendary career. He died March 3 from brain cancer in Sacramento.

Lunetta played drums for Music Circus, missing only two weeks of performances until his retirement in 2008 after 54 years. He also served as the music contractor who assembled orchestras for Music Circus from 1973 until his retirement. He also was the principal timpanist for the Sacramento Symphony Orchestra, Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra, Sacramento Opera and Sacramento Choral Society and was an instructor of timpani and percussion at UC Davis and Chico State.

Lunetta’s musical versatility allowed him to once back Elvis Presley in concert at Lake Tahoe, drive to Valencia and play at Cal Arts and then return to Tahoe for another Presley performance.

“The first thing to come to mind for me is not his abilities and talents as a percussionist but his character and his upbeat nature,” bassist Jon Maloney, who sat next to Lunetta in the Music Circus pit, wrote in an email to The Bee. “I never heard him say an unkind thing to or about anybody – ever. (That doesn’t mean we didn’t critique a conductor or two now and again!).”

Lunetta, a 1955 Sacramento High School graduate, was born in Sacramento on June 5, 1937. He earned his BA in Music from Sacramento State University in 1959, and a Master of Arts from UC Davis in 1967. He studied music composition under John Cage, Jerome Rosen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Larry Austin, Richard Swift and David Tudor.

Nobody else really plays things the way I do

Stanley Lunetta

For three years while in high school Lunetta sold ice cream at the old Music Circus tent. When an argument with conductor Gershon Kingsley resulted in the dismissal of the drummer, Lunetta was called as the replacement. The first show he played was “South Pacific.”

The only two weeks the perscussionist missed at Music Circus was when AMRA/ARMA, an avant garde theatrical electronic percussion group he’d founded, was invited to perform at the International Carnival of Experimental Sound in London.

“All of the stuff that I do, especially at Music Circus, is a one-of-a-kind thing. Nobody else really plays things the way I do, “ Lunetta told the Bee in 2008. His distinctive timpani set-up included five Günter Ringer Berliner style Dresden timpani and seven Baroque-style kettles. Lunetta crafted his own timpani mallets from Chinese bamboo and German felt.

“Stan was a wonderful, wonderful man,” said Richard Lewis, President and Chief Executive officer of California Musical Theatre, who began working in earnest with Lunetta in 1973 when Lewis was then the assistant stage manager. “an incredibly talented musician and unbelievably dedicated not only to his art but to making what we did onstage the best that it could possibly be.”

Lewis said Lunetta was an invaluable resource during the design of the Wells Fargo Pavilion. “The orchestra pit is what it is today in large part because of Stan’s influence and advice.”

In a brief emailed statement the Lunetta family wrote, “Stanley’s creative mind was never at rest. ... He looked at everything he did through the lens of whimsy.”

Stanley Lunetta founded AMRA/ARMA, an avant garde percussion ensemble.

A man of many parts, Lunetta was an early adopter of digital electronics in music, created electronic sound sculptures, founded, published and edited a magazine for avant garde misoc and composed several works for the Sacramento Symphony. He loved science fiction and comic books, particularly Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian series.

That author’s ideas influenced AMRA/ARMA, according to longtime friend and percussionist Ken Horton, who explained the group “was based on the idea of combining Primitive Rhythms and Digital Electronics in performances that included rituals, dance, primal rhythms, mysticism, and explosions.”

Horton said he and Lunetta would write and record a song each year around Christmas for their so-called “Klangrite Festival,” The last of which was in 2014. Members of AMRA/ARMA performed “A Mentor’s Hand.” According to Horton, “without Stan knowing it, the piece was written about him and the positive impact that he has had on all of our lives.”

Stanley Lunetta is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Sharon, daughter Laura Lunetta and sons Lawrence and Leigh Lunetta, and five grandchildren. He was preceeded in death by a son, Lenn.

No services will be held. In lieu of flowers the family asks for donations to a favorite animal or arts charity.

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder