‘Tis the season, according to the calendar, if not the weather. Time for the azaleas to bloom in resplendent harmony among the town squares and the clarion call to resound with resonant fanfare, heralding the 28th annual Savannah Music Festival, which runs from March 23 through April 8.
It’s time for your faithful correspondent to join the throngs heading to Georgia’s coastal capital for one of the most uniquely diverse musical gatherings on the planet. Thank Apollo, for his blessings. My ears can certainly use the respite.
Once again, I will be posting reviews of the musical happenings at the SMF at GeorgiaMusic.org, so every couple of days or so, check back here for a recounting of sounds, sights and whatnot taking place during the largest musical arts event in Georgia.
The lineup for the 2017 SMF encompasses more than 300 individual performers, bands and multi-disciplinary aggregations hailing from all points of the compass. Most of the major genres are covered from bluegrass and country to jazz, zydeco and the blues, from orchestral and chamber music to dance, world music and Americana. There are artists with recognizable names, such as Jason Isbell, William (“Born Under a Bad Sign”) Bell and the Avett Brothers. But most of the performers are not widely known, except by devotees, outside of their respective community, region or country.
Not incidentally, that known-unknown business is a feature, not a bug. The element of surprise and the promise of an exploratory journey are qualities that distinguish the SMF from other festivals.
Among the highlights on this year’s calendar are a Beethoven “Sonatathon” during which piano phenom Stewart Goodyear will perform all 32 of the legendary composer’s sonatas in one day. Jerry Douglas and the Earls of Leicester, who delighted the SMF crowd two years ago, return with their homage to the immortal bluegrass duo Flatt & Scruggs. Edgar Myer and Mike Marshall will apply their virtuosic talent on double bass and mandolin to a cross-genre program. A double-bill featuring alt-folk-rock superstar Richard Thompson and estimable young comet and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz holds the promise of an impromptu duet of interstellar proportions. A centenary celebration of the music of Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie will gauge the historical legacy of two of jazz’s greatest figures. Then there’s Zydeco master Geno Delafose, Pakistani vocalist Sanam Marvi and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performing an all-Rachmaninov program with British pianist Stephen Gough at the piano. Just to name a few.
Something else attendees have come to expect from the SMF is creative programming. Every year, artistic director Rob Gibson, working in collaboration with associate directors, Daniel Hope, Marcus Roberts and Mike Marshall, present concert programs that engage an audience on multiple levels. By establishing a conversation between musical types or combining media technology and performance elements into an intriguing package, the goal is to expand audiences across genres and attract new listeners from different demographic categories.
Last year, for example, “The Art of the Piano Trio” featured a classical trio and a jazz three-piece performing onstage together in a “battle of the bands” format. Each group offered alternating selections from their respective repertoires (Beethoven vs. Fats Waller, Ravel vs. Gershwin). The result proved to be as informative and entertaining for the players as it was for the audience.
This year, the main card features “Brahms vs. Tchaikovsky.” Based on a script by Daniel Hope, the combination narrative-cum-musical-recital incorporates multimedia elements as a backdrop for the story of the rivalry between Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Tchaikovsky who each famously and publicly expressed disdain for the other composer’s music. Actor Paul Pretit plays Tchaikovsky to Mervon Mehta’s Brahms in this presentation, which also features a world-class chamber group led by Hope. Introducing the program will be Fred Child, host of American Public Media’s “Performance Today.”
“This is the kind of program I hope will attract people who are not already into classical music,” Gibson said. “In addition to actors and musicians, we’ll have a half-dozen GoPro cameras positioned across the stage, which will deliver a fascinating multi-media experience in the [Lucas Theatre for the Arts].”
Another multi-media experience slated for this year’s SMF features DakhaBrakha, the world music quartet from Ukraine whose closing night concert in Savannah two years ago lifted the bandstand onto a decidedly other-worldly plane. This time the group will be performing an original score composed for Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s silent epic Earth (1930). A cultural landmark from the Soviet era, Earth offers both a passionately crafted cinematic evocation of the Ukrainian people and their land and an insightful rumination on human volition and natural forces, which contributed to the process of collectivization.
Yes, it’s that time again, fellow travelers. Time to revel in the richness of our collective imaginations while sipping an adult beverage under Spanish moss at a café table on the sidewalk in one of America’s most beautiful cities. Time to contemplate a realm beyond the routine by listening to what the rest of the world is singing about at the Savannah Music Festival.