Four days into the 2016 Savannah Music Festival and there are so many great concerts to report on. It’s going to be tough to fit them all in, so let’s get right to it.
Saturday kicked off under partly sunny skies with bluegrass standout Blue Highway performing at the Ships of the Sea outdoor pavilion. In addition to smartly arranged standards and originals, the set included beautiful vocal harmonies and a couple of a cappella numbers inspired by the classic sound of southern gospel quartets. New recruit, 20-year-old Dobro player Gaven Largent, proved to be a worthy replacement for founding member Rob Ickes who left the band last year.
Later in the afternoon, French pianist Alexandre Tharaud made his SMF debut by playing the entire series of Goldberg Variations by J. S. Bach. In the intimate and acoustically splendid confines of St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church, Tharaud delivered an exercise in sustained gracefulness and controlled interpretation, which left most of the audience shaking their heads in awe and wonderment.
In one of the most anticipated concerts of this year’s festival (most assuredly, as far as this reporter was concerned), internationally acclaimed Malian singer-guitarist-songwriter Rokia Traore led her five-piece band through a stunning set at the Trustees Theater. In the tradition of an authentic royal griot, Traore mesmerized the audience with mellifluously seductive melodies and irresistible rhythmic magic while imparting poetic tales of emotional depth and lessons in moral courage. For the concert finale, Traore brought the audience to its dancing feet with an astonishingly dramatic recitation and call-and-response song built upon a single word: respect.
My mind still reeling from the Traore performance, I swung around the corner to the Lucas Theater for the return to Savannah of Pink Martini. The Portland-based 12-piece polyglot ensemble featuring vocalist China Forbes lived up to its reputation as the ultimate lounge act with a twist. With wit and reverence the band moved through a setlist that blended earthy Caribbean funk, sardonic Parisian sophistication and brash Broadway flair (interspersed with tributes to an obviously beloved tour manager, Howie Bierbaum, whose last engagement with the band was Saturday). Having NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro onstage for most of the evening lent additional cachet to the performance, which was enthusiastically appreciated by the sold out house.
Easter Sunday was beset by a tropical downpour of biblical proportions, which lasted almost the entire day. Miraculously (I am not making this up), the deluge abated somewhat in the late afternoon, just in time for the second chamber music concert of the SMF featuring Daniel Hope & Friends with French clarinetist Patrick Messina and pianist Alexandre Tharaud. Major works on the program included an Adagietta by Mahler-Tharaud, Dvorak’s powerful String Sextet in A Major, and Mozart’s marvelous Clarinet Quintet in A Major. The unexpected highlight of the concert was a performance by Hope, Messina and pianist Sebastian Knauer of Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat. Based on a Russian folk tale, which recounts a Faustian bargain between the Devil and a soldier returning from battle, Stravinsky’s suite was originally scored for septet with actors and dancers. With Hope providing the requisite narrative commentary between movements, the trio arrangement of Stravinsky’s work provided a delightfully engaging change of pace for the packed congregation at St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church.
Monday brought sunshine and blues skies along with a lighthearted journey through the jazzy old-time repertoire of guitarist-singer-songwriter Matt Munisteri at the Charles Morris Center. Accompanied by bassist Tal Ronen, Munisteri delivered an entertaining mix of blues, rags and humorous original self-help guides.
The afternoon’s chamber music concert featured the SMF debut of Brazilian pianist Arnaldo Cohen. Performing a program of works by Bach, Brahms and Chopin in the austere and acoustically splendid Trinity United Methodist Church, Cohen’s performance was a masterful display of virtuosic technique, astounding power and insightful interpretation. A series of four scherzos by Chopin, which ended the program, was especially evocative, roiling with deep dynamics and searing intensity, yet punctuated by nuanced, restful beauty. It’s hard to imagine the composer’s work being in better hands. Of course, you can’t please everybody all the time. As we were walking out of the hall, an elderly gentleman pulled over one of the SMF ushers and said, “He plays the violin better.”
Monday evening brought us to the Charles Morris Center for a double-bill featuring the swinging cabaret talents of Catherine Russell accompanied by Matt Munisteri, Tal Ronen and pianist Mark Shane, paired with Hot Sardines, the New York-based ensemble led by Evan Palazzo and vocalist Elizabeth Bougerol. Russell truly lived up to the family reputation (her father, Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong’s musical director while her mother was a renowned jazz bassist and vocalist) with a set of soulful tributes to Billie Holiday, Wynonie Harris and Bessie Smith. Drawing from a songbook of jazz and pop standards from the 1920s-’50s (think Benny Goodman and the Andrews Sisters) plus original material, and featuring a lineup that includes a tap dancing ukulele player, Hot Sardines was a resounding hit among the decidedly mature audience.
Coming up later this week: jazz pianist Aaron Diehl, the complete Beethoven Trios, Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs and indie-rock star Andrew Hill (the only performer’s name my pedicab drivers recognized).
About the Savannah Music Festival
Now through April 9, the historic district of downtown Savannah plays host to more than 100 performances during the annual Savannah Music Festival (SMF), which celebrates exceptional artistry in jazz, classical and a variety of American and international music traditions. A full schedule and tickets are available at savannahmusicfestival.org. Tickets can also be purchased by phone at 912-525-5050 or at 216 E. Broughton Street in Savannah.
To learn more about music festivals, attractions and landmarks throughout Georgia, visit ExploreGeorgia.org/Music.