Savannah Music Festival Ends 27th Season on Many High Notes

Doug DeLoach wraps up his second year of SMF concert reviews

Red Baraat performs at the closing concert for the 2016 season of Savannah Music Festival. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

Red Baraat performs at the closing concert for the 2016 season of Savannah Music Festival. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

Another year, another wondrously entertaining Savannah Music Festival is in the books. After more than 100 events spanning 17 days and featuring artists from America, Spain, Mali, Indonesia, Trinidad, Brazil, Taiwan, Sweden and other countries, Georgia’s most diverse musical celebration appropriately concluded last Saturday with two brass bands: Fanfare Ciocărlia from Romania and Red Baraat from New York. Along the way, a number of extraordinary concerts (in addition to the ones previously reviewed) stood out:

(Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

L-R: Jason Marsalis, Marcus Roberts and Rodney Jordan perform during The Art of the Piano Trio program. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

The Art of the Piano Trio: What a rousing success this fascinating project, conceived a decade ago by SMF Director Rob Gibson, proved to be. Take one world-class jazz piano trio (Marcus Roberts, keys; Jason Marsalis, drums; Rodney Jordan, bass) and one world-class classical piano trio (Daniel Hope, violin; Keith Robinson, cello; Simon Crawford-Phillips, keys), put them onstage together side by side, and let them take turns performing selections from their respective repertoires. Simply summarized, the jazz trio’s performance, which included interpretations of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” and Roberts’ “The Spanish Tinge“ illuminated the swinging aspects of the classical trio’s selections, which covered Beethoven’s Trio No. 2 in E Flat major, Mendelssohn’s Trio No. 1 in D minor, and Ravel’s Trio in A minor. Concurrently, the complex structural and subtle improvisational aspects of the playing by Hope and friends’ provided insight into the extraordinarily inventive and sophisticated components of the music rendered by Roberts & Co. No member of the audience at the Lucas Theatre left the concert without some measure of new appreciation for both sides of the triangular coin.

(Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Elizabeth Leitzell)

Vocalist Kassé Mady Diabaté performs at the Charles Morris Center. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Elizabeth Leitzell)

Transpiring later Saturday evening was one of those “only-at-the-SMF” opportunities  beginning with “Mozart in Prague: An Operatic Journey” at Trinity United Methodist Church followed by a concert at the Charles Morris Center featuring a Malian quartet led by vocalist Kassé Mady Diabaté and a world music project titled “Night Songs” conducted by composer-arranger Robert Sadin. One of two co-productions between SMF and Savannah VOICE Festival, “Mozart in Prague” made up for the imposition of decidedly modest staging parameters with glorious singing by Micaëla Oeste, Amy Shoremount-Obra, Chad Johnson, Marco Nisticò and others. With Met opera star Sherrill Milnes‘ narration lending historical and anecdotal insight to the program, the cast and crew successfully provided  a lively Cliff notes version of Don Giovanni and the Marriage of Figaro.  Diabaté lived up to his advance billing as one of West Africa’s master vocalists in collaboration with Ballaké Sissoko (kora), Badjé Tounkara (ngoni), and Lansiné Kouyaté (balaphon). This show was one of the most beautiful and moving performances of the SMF. Among the highlights of the set was a wildly virtuosic blues-inflected solo by Tounkara on the ngoni, a centuries-old ancestor of the banjo. Opening the double-bill with his trademark wry anecdotal commentary and  reminiscences, Sadin led his troupe, which included trumpeter Etienne Charles, violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander, and clarinetist Patrick Messina, through a fascinating set that carried the audience to jazzy nightclubs, Brazilian folk circles and Bulgarian weddings, among other places.

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David “Dawg” Grisman and Del McCrory share the stage at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

Del McCoury and David Grisman (billed as “Del & Dawg”) put on a toe-tapping humdinger of a show Sunday afternoon at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts. The pairing of McCoury’s back country-honed voice and trad-bluegrass chops with Grisman’s progressive-minded approach made for nonstop slack-jawed entertainment.

Lorenza Borrani (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

Lorenza Borrani (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

Making their SMF debut, Cologne-based l’arte del mondo collaborated with Daniel Hope & Friends to present an adventurous program of “Great Concertos”  from the Baroque era featuring works by Bach (Brandenberg No. 3 and Concerto for Oboe, Violin and String Orchestra in C minor), Vivaldi (“Winter” and “Summer” from The Four Seasons and Concerto for Two Mandolins in G major) and Josef Haydn (Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major). After the ensemble’s lustrous rendition of the Brandenberg, guest violinist Lorenza Borrani joined the fray and proceeded to blow minds with a fiercely executed accompaniment to the two Vivaldi “Seasons.” Following Boranni’s performance, SMF Artistic Director Hope stepped onto the stage, shaking his head in bemused amazement, to state the obvious: “That’s a tough act to follow.” Prior to performing the Vivaldi concerto for two mandolins, Mike Marshall, the other SMF Artistic Director at the Trinity United Methodist Church, noted that, while his wife, Caterina Lichtenberg, would be playing a six-string fretless gourd mandolin with a wooden pick for extra authenticity, he was sticking with a relatively modern instrument because “Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, played one like this.”  One could imagine Back smiling in approval.

Sharon Jones electrifies the audience at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

Sharon Jones electrifies the audience at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

In one of the most emotionally moving moments during this year’s SMF, contemporary soul vocalist Sharon Jones, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013, fronted the Dap-Kings at the Lucas Theatre. Between songs, Jones talked freely about her grave condition, explaining to the audience how, since her last public concert, she had stopped chemo sessions and was trying a new type of irradiation pill (V90) treatment.  In what has become a signature feature of Jones’ live shows, at one point dozens of audience members joined the singer and band onstage to dance and sing. The ovation for “In Every Beat of My Heart” not only brought Jones back for an encore, it also inspired her to greet the audience and sign autographs in the lobby after the show.

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Passion in Practice present Pericles: Recomposed. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Frank Stewart)

A pronounced twist on the English-speaking world’s most famous wordsmith is one way to describe the staging of Pericles: Recomposed, by Passion in Practice, the British Shakespeare ensemble founded by linguist Ben Crystal, which traveled to the U.S. Exclusively for this performance. Musical accompaniment was provided by Daniel Hope leading l’arte del mondo in a performance of Max Richter’s wonderful makeover of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. This unusual presentation of Shakespeare’s tragic play, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, was distinguished by the manner in which the company of actors spoke (a dialect known as Original Pronunciation), the troupe’s fine acting and creative manipulation of props, and the magical melding of all the staged elements into a gob-smacking success.

For acoustic American music fans, it couldn’t get much better than the concert by the Dave Rawlings Machine with Gillian Welch (vocals, guitar), Willie Watson (Old Crow Medicine Show) on vocals and guitar, Brittany Haas (Crooked Still, Haas-Kowert-Tice) on fiddle and Paul Kowert (Punch Brothers, Haas-Kowert-Tice) on bass. A setlist that spanned selections from the band’s new album, Nashville Obsolete, along with familiar fare including a goose-bump inducing version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” mashed up with Rawlings’ “I Hear them All,” plus a nostalgia-infused cover of “The Weight” as a finale, Rawlings & Co. left the near capacity crowd at the Trustees Theatre whooping for more.

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Hungarian group Söndörgö makes it first appearance at SMF. (Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival/Elizabeth Leitzell)

The rest of the best at the 2016 Savannah Music Festival included the traditional southern Hungarian sounds of Söndörgö; the authentic American roots stylings of The Time Jumpers featuring Vince Gill, Kenny Sears and Ranger Doug Green (the band’s heartfelt version of Buck Owens’ “Together Again” in tribute to Merle Haggard was alone worth the price of admission); a searing set by Julian Loge wielding his seldom-heard electric guitar with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Nate Smith; the always amazing “Stringband Spectacular,” which showcases young participants in the Acoustic Music Seminar who this year benefited from coaching by Julian Loge, Darrell Scott, Bryan Sutton and David Grisman; and a massively entertaining Friday night double-bill at the Ships of the Sea outdoor pavilion featuring Zimbabwe’s Afro-funk superstars Makoomba followed by Rhiannon Giddens whose skills as vocalist, instrumentalist, composer, and interpreter represented, perhaps better than any other single performer, the inclusive spirit and superior artistry that distinguish this annual event.

Until we meet again at the 2017 Savannah Music Festival, happy listening, y’all.

About the Savannah Music Festival

The Savannah Music Festival (SMF), which celebrates exceptional artistry in jazz, classical and a variety of American and international music traditions, will be back March 23 – April 8, 2017. We hope Doug DeLoach will once again bring us daily dispatches and concert reviews from Georgia’s First City.

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To learn more about music festivals, attractions and landmarks throughout Georgia, visit ExploreGeorgia.org/Music.

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