For the past three years, journalist Doug DeLoach has attended the Savannah Music Festival and shared his experiences with Georgia Music. To paraphrase the Staple Singers, “he takes us there.”
Thursday, March 23
One of the most common questions fielded by Savannah Music Festival director Rob Gibson is, “Who is the biggest name in the lineup this year?” His most common reply: “Ludwig von Beethoven”—pause for dramatic effect—”He was the biggest name last year and we’ll be bringing him back next year when he will be the biggest name again.”
There are kernels of truth and humor in Gibson’s half-joke. It’s certainly the case that the 2017 edition of the SMF kicked off for your correspondent with a program entitled “Beethoven and Beyond” at Trinity United Methodist Church, one of the perennial festival venues for chamber music performances and solo recitals.
In his opening remarks, Gibson alluded to the construction of a new cultural arts center, plans for which have been floating around the city for a few years. The Center would serve as the designated home for concerts like the one Gibson was introducing. Should the project become a reality, the community will undoubtedly benefit, but the very special pleasure derived from enjoying great classical music played by masterful artists in an acoustically-friendly sacred space will be missed.
As for the music, SMF Associate Artistic Director and violinist Daniel Hope and his seasoned chamber ensemble delivered brilliant renditions of two Beethoven works, the String trio in A Major Opus 9, No. 2 and the Twelve Variations on “Ein Mädchen Oder Weibchen,” an aria from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.
As sparkling as those performances were — and I would be remiss by not also mentioning a splendid rendition of Carl Maria von Weber’s Piano Quartet in B-flat Major, J76 — Hope and Eric Kim’s transcendent rendering of Ervin Schulhoff’s Duo for Violin & Cello transported the audience into another dimension not just “beyond Beethoven,” but beyond almost any string music your correspondent has ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
Born in Prague in 1894, Shulhoff studied with Claude Debussy. In the 1930s, reacting to the rising tide of Nazism, he joined the Communist Party and attained Soviet citizenship. Working incognito in Czechoslovakia, he was eventually arrested and sent to the Wurzburg concentration camp in Bavaria where he died from tuberculosis in 1942.
Composed in 1925, the Duo for Violin and Cello is not the most technically demanding duet nor is it the most thrilling or unusual; it’s simply one of the most delicately wrought, deeply introspective and heartbreakingly beautiful entries in the chamber ensemble repertoire. Laced with poignant melodic charm, punctuated by rhythmic elements of Roma or gypsy origin and sparked by an occasional dissonant nod to the avant-garde, the four movements create a dramatically beguiling environment. Hope’s mastery at sustaining the highest register notes, with perfectly balanced pitch and duration, was especially astonishing to watch as Kim maintained the foundational elements and both musicians ran through the pizzicato passages with searing precision and sympatico bravura.
Later in the evening, we sailed over to the Ships of the Sea pavilion, where Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out sawed, picked, fiddled, bowed and clawhammered their way through a foot-stomping set of traditional bluegrass. Highlights included a turbocharged mandolin solo by Wayne Benson on “Spindale,” named for the North Carolina home of WNCW, a stalwart supporter of the bluegrass community, followed by a hilarious rendering of Keith Whitley’s excruciatingly politically incorrect “I Think I Want My Rib Back.”
Friday, March 24
From the 12:30 concert by T’Monde (featuring young standouts Kelli Jones, Megan Brown and Drew Simon) at the Charles Morris Center to the Late Night Layfayette Cajun jam session at B. Matthews restaurant (featuring all of the above joined by embers of the Pine Leaf Boys and Feufollet), Friday was a nearly non-stop two-stepping bayou boogaloo. The only interruption to the traditional Louisiana ramble was one of the festival’s most creatively ambitious undertakings.
Billed simply as “Brahms versus Tchaikovsky,” this special production conceived by Daniel Hope brought together two infamously adversarial figures in Western classical music for a no-holds-barred, chamber ensemble cage match at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts. With actors Mervon Mehta and Paul Petit assuming the roles of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, respectively, the (mostly) historically accurate script took the audience through a series of exchanges between the two composers. Among other things, we learned that, eventually, Brahms and Tchaikovsky resolved (sort of) their differences after getting drunk together at a party one night, and managed to sustain a tolerable relationship unto their respective deaths. In between snide verbal salvos by the protagonists, Hope & Friends performed individual movements from two of the composers’ most accomplished works, Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” Sextet and Brahms’ Quintet Opus 111. The highly informative presentation benefited from the use of small GoPro cameras mounted onstage (on a music stand, for example), which allowed the audience to view the physical movements of the musicians projected onto a large screen in the background. What might have seemed like a gimmick ended up offering an insightful perspective on the proceedings, which I would love to see used in other productions.
It should be noted here that The Avett Brothers sold out two shows at the Johnny Mercer Theater, which is no mean feat. I caught the second (Friday) installment, which was attended by a wildly enthusiastic audience representing a slightly older demographic than I had anticipated (median age 35ish). The crowd stood up the entire time, whooping and hollering and singing every song. There was an abundance of high-fives and secret handshakes, except during the slow-dance tunes, when everybody hugged each other and spun their ball caps around backwards, even the girls, in unison (true story). Performing in front of a huge neon backdrop that read “True Sadness,” The Avetts gave their fans their money’s worth. Fortunately, I had a media pass.
Saturday, March 24
At the Saturday noontime concert, hubby Joel Savoy and wife Kelli Jones (from T’Monde) kept the Cajun theme alive with a setlist of traditional Cajun folk and Zydeco-inspired tunes along with covers of classic country songs. Among the highlights was a kickass version of Zydeco master John Delafose’s sublimely primitive blues lament, “Brokenhearted.”
Next, for something completely different, Germán López, who hails from the Canary Islands, performed a magnificent set with Spanish guitar master Antonio Toledo. Lopez plays the timple (pronounced tim-play), a 5-string member of the ukulele family related to the cavaquinho, cuatro, and charango. With prodigious skill and keen sensitivity, the two men astounded the Charles Morris Center audience with a resplendent blend of folk music of the Canary Islands influenced by flamenco and other Spanish, African, Southern and Latin American styles.
At 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon, a nearly packed house at the Lucas Theatre sat down in their seats as the lights went out and DakhaBrakha, the Ukrainian world music quartet, took the stage. Behind the band, the first frames of Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s epic 1930 silent film Earth flickered across the screen. The setting was a gorgeous sunny day. An old man lay dying, lying comfortably on the ground, surrounded by his family. Panning from face to face, the camera stopped on each one and lingered, allowing the viewer’s gaze to take in details and imagine the life behind the countenance. Wide shots of vast wheat fields rippling and warping in the wind were matched with closeups of children standing under huge sunflowers. All the while, a low droning strain of a cello and the whirring of some sort of wind-sound maker enveloped the audience within an ethereal soundscape. The effect was simultaneously otherworldly and deeply evocative of the natural elements. Playing accordion, electric keyboard, percussion instruments and singing in that gloriously multiphonic, minor modal style characteristic of the Eastern European region, DakhaBrakha not only supported the gripping drama of Dovzhenko’s narrative, they created a temporary, alternate dimension in which the film could be interpreted by a 21st century audience. At the film’s conclusion, many attendees walked away seemingly bewildered by what they had witnessed. Others carried off the memory of a surreal, almost supernatural cinematic experience as strange and wondrous as a profoundly moving dream.
What could be more fun than hearing two fantastically talented purveyors of traditional Quebecois dancehall music, Le Vent du Nord and De Temps Antan, in the Charles Morris Center? Hearing them together, meaning all seven musicians performing onstage for the entire set. The music’s signature foot-stamping backbeat propelled everything with formidable energy while the old sea shanties, waltzes and Francophonic folk songs once again proved their mettle as vehicles for bawdy humor, emotional drama and expressing the French-Canadian blues.
I am pleased to report that the venerable soul revue is alive and spectacularly well in the form of Stax recording veteran William Bell and his finely honed touring band. Saturday, on the pavilion stage at Ships of the Sea, Bell commandeered a performance worthy of a legacy that stretches back through the history of American soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues. He sang all of his hits from “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Until Your Well runs Dry)” to “Born Under A Bad Sign,” as well as material from his latest album, This is Where I Live. More sublimely, he recreated the atmosphere, energy and joy, which the audience might have experienced at a concert by James Brown, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin or the Supremes back in the early and mid-Sixties. There was a four-piece horn section, two keyboardists, an electric bass and guitarist, plus one male and one female backup vocalist. The band’s attire was casually elegant. The musicians swayed in unison and played with devilish intent, bending every blue note, laying down a groove that twists your hips and makes your head swoon. At one poignant moment, Bell motioned to bring the music down low, then lower still, to a whisper now…a whisper that continued swinging, grooving, swaying and twisting. His hand went up and — WHAM! — the horns blasted a fanfare that lifted us off our feet, shouting exultations. The drums kicked, the bass and guitar hit the afterburners and the original “soul man” took us home. His home — where he lives and we got to visit for a few precious minutes.
Sunday, March 26
Not being a ballet or modern dance aficionado, I attended the southern debut of New York-based BalletCollective with wide open eyes and ears. Atlanta native Tony Schumacher of the New York City Ballet choreographed the program, which featured specially composed music by architects James Ramsey and Carlos Arnaiz and indie-classical composers Ellis Ludwig Leone and Judd Greenstein. The music was performed by Hotel Elefant, a new music ensemble founded by composers Leaha Maria Villareal and Mary Kouyoumdjian. To your correspondent’s untrained eye, the highly interpretive dancing, which combined classical technique and contemporary movements, was superbly realized and beautifully aligned with the musical scores. The first two-part presentation was inspired by Ramsey’s development of the Lowline — the world’s first underground park slated to open in New York’s Lower East Side in 2020 — and Arnaiz’s architectural analysis of a shot by former NBA basketball star Allen Iverson. The second work, Invisible Divide, featured electronica singer Vanessa Upson of Violetness, whose high-pitched childlike voice lent a cool, glimmering pop-artness to the performance.
Later Sunday evening, to close out the first week of the 2017 SMF, Daniel Hope and Simon Crawford-Phillips joined forces with the Ebene Quartet to perform a program that included two Beethoven string quartets along with Ernest Chausson’s masterwork, the Concert in D Major for Violin, Piano and String Quartet. Scored for chamber ensemble, Chasson’s highly inventive composition combines rich thematic colors and solo excursions demanding the utmost power and dexterity. From the stage Hope explained that performing the work with the Ebene Quartet, whose youthful exuberance and technical facility seemed perfectly suited to the challenge, had been a longstanding dream project. At the conclusion of the performance, the audience could barely contain its enthusiasm, leaping to its feet, clapping and roaring with approval, while the six musicians slapped and hugged each other like they had just won a championship game (check out the video clip on the Savannah Music Festival Facebook page here).
That wraps up the first amazing week of the 2017 Savannah Music Festival. Watch this space for a review of week two.
With gratitude to the Savannah Music Festival and Elizabeth Leitzell, Frank Stewart and Sarah Escarraz for the wonderful photographs.