By Paul Hyde
DATE BOOK – A hundred years ago, the famously grouchy H.L. Mencken gazed over the southern United States and beheld a barren artistic wasteland.
The South “is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert,” Mencken groused in his inflammatory essay “The Sahara of the Bozart.”
Well, what a difference a mere century makes. Today, the South is artistically robust and varied. Just take a look at the flourishing spring and summer classical-musical festivals that dot the southern landscape, bringing opera and concert music to tens of thousands of fans in beautiful, sunny settings — and providing a considerable economic boost to local economies.
Pessimists have suggested that classical music is dying in the U.S. Southern festivals put the lie to that notion.
“Our artists and performances are stellar,” said conductor Gerard Schwarz, speaking of the Eastern Music Festival, but he might have been talking about all of the larger festivals in the South.
Classical star power has undoubtedly played an important role in the success of these annual musical celebrations, with conductors such as Schwarz and Keith Lockhart burnishing the prestige of, respectively, the Eastern Music Festival and the Brevard Music Festival.
An easy prediction is that the South’s classical-music festivals will become increasingly eclectic to appeal to an increasingly diverse nation.
Here are five top southern festivals that are well worth inclusion on a classical-music fan’s bucket list, in the order in which they get under way this spring and summer:
Savannah Music Festival, March 28-April 13
The Savannah Music Festival is a cultural omnivore’s dream, with a range of music styles offered including classical, jazz, and American roots music and world music.
“Our 30th festival season builds upon decades of unique cross-genre programming,” said the festival’s artistic director, Ryan McMaken.
More than 100 events are featured this year in nine venues throughout Savannah’s lovely historic district. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra returns for the 14th consecutive season on March 30 under music director Robert Spano for a program that includes Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano — violinist Daniel Hope, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han as soloists — and Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, Spring. The Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra offers a jazz-meets-classical program of Borodin, Gershwin, Stravinsky, and Marcus Roberts’ Rhapsody in D on April 6.
The highly regarded Jerusalem Quartet returns for a program of Beethoven, Ravel, and Shostakovich (April 11). Norway’s all-female, 10-piece brass ensemble tenThing will give two performances of a program ranging from Lully and Handel to Copland and Piazzolla (April 11 and 12).
Jazz and American roots music are bountifully represented with mandolinist Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers (March 30), Pat Metheny (April 10), the John Pizzarelli Trio with Grammy Award-wining vocalist Catherine Russell (April 2 and 3), the indefatigable Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder (April 9), and joyful Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen (April 13).
For more information, visit savannahmusicfestival.org or call at (912) 525-5050.
Spoleto Festival USA, May 24-June 9
Of the five festivals profiled here, Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA is the biggest risk-taker, willing to put its clout and considerable funding behind edgy, challenging works for the concert hall and theater while never neglecting more traditional fare.
It is a magnificent festival located in a gem of a city. The 43rd arts celebration features more than 140 opera, theater, dance, and music performances from May 24-June 9.
“Since its establishment in 1977, the festival has been singular in its dedication to the old and the new,” said longtime general director Nigel Redden. “For the 43rd season, the programming continues to transcend time and place, with long-heralded masterworks alongside world premieres and re-imagined classics.”
Opera often occupies center stage at the festival. This year, there are several theater works on tap but only one opera: a new staging of Richard Strauss’ Salome set in the present day by directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. They debuted at the festival in 1987 with another staging of Salome, that one updated to 1930s Germany.
British composer Joby Talbot’s a cappella Path of Miracles, inspired by the pilgrims’ trail in Spain known as the Camino de Santiago, will be offered in a staging by director John La Bouchardiere. It spotlights the Westminster Choir, which has had a long association with Spoleto.
Anything the Westminster Choir does, by the way, is worth hearing. Known for its warm sound and superb musicality, the choir offers two concerts on June 1 and 7 and takes part in a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion on June 4. Joe Miller, director of the Westminster Choir, carries on the legacy of his illustrious predecessor, Joseph Flummerfelt, who died on March 1. Flummerfelt, a courtly presence, was a co-founder of Spoleto and led choral activities there for 37 years.
Not to be missed: the Bank of America Chamber Music Series, led for the 10th year by violinist Geoff Nuttall, who offers insightful and delightful commentary at each concert in the historic Dock Street Theatre. The complete chamber music program has not been announced, but it will include Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Schubert’s Octet, and the world premiere of composer-in-residence Paul Wiancko’s oboe quintet for James Austin Smith and Nuttall’s St. Lawrence String Quartet.
The music of Bach will accompany the three acrobats of Circa, always a Spoleto favorite. The Music in Time series, under the direction of John Kennedy, features contemporary concert music, including a May 31 performance of recent work by minimalist composer Steve Reich and Stay on it, an early classic by long-neglected pioneer Julius Eastman. Jazz is plentiful, too, with Esperanza Spalding, the Dafnis Prieto Big Band, Carla Bley, David Virelles, and others.
Spoleto’s theater offerings are particularly rich this year. The nimble players of Shakespeare’s Globe return to offer several performances of three plays: The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, and Pericles. At eight of those shows, the audience gets to choose which play they want to see.
There’ll be two takes on the traditional tales of One Thousand and One Nights: Target Margin Theater’s version, called Pay No Attention to the Girl, and the Beirut-based company Caracalla Dance Theatre’s adaptation. Among other dance offerings will be Spoleto favorite Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company.
For more information, visit spoletousa.org or call (843) 579-3100.
Sarasota Music Festival, June 1-22
Like the Brevard and Eastern music festivals, Sarasota is a concert series and music academy for talented young classical musicians.
Katherine Arndt (violin) and Cassia Drake (viola) join conductor Kahane and the Sarasota Music Festival Orchestra in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante on June 8. The program also includes Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with pianist Jon Kimura Parker.
The Pacifica Quartet, Musical America’s 2009 “Ensemble of the Year,” performs the last three of Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” Quartets on June 13 and follow that by joining pianist Kahane for Brahms’ monumental Piano Quintet in F Minor on June 14.
The festival closer on June 22 features Johann Strauss’ Overture to Die Fledermaus, Mozart’s Concerto No. 10 for Two Pianos (Kahane and Robert Levin, soloists), and Schubert’s Eighth Symphony, Unfinished.
A few dozen other programs are scheduled as well in Sarasota, home to excellent beaches, hotels, and restaurants. For more information, visit sarasotaorchestra.org/festival or call (941) 953-3434.
Brevard Music Festival, June 21-Aug. 4
Nestled in an idyllic location — the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina — the Brevard Music Center summer festival presents 80 performances encompassing opera, jazz, orchestral, and chamber music, with roughly half of those events free. Last season’s festival attracted 40,000 patrons and generated a record $1.1 million in ticket sales.
Brevard is both a concert series and a summer institute for 500 talented young classical musicians, who embrace everything they do with skill, style, and go-for-broke commitment.
“The Brevard Music Center is one of the country’s premier summer training programs and music festivals,” said Mark Weinstein, Brevard’s president and CEO. “Each season, the next generation of classical musicians continue to raise the bar.”
The leadership of high-profile Boston Pops conductor Lockhart has helped the festival garner visits in recent years by such soloists as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinists Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell, and pianists Andre Watts and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, among many others.
This year’s festival opens June 21 with an all-Tchaikovsky program led by JoAnn Falletta, Brevard’s principal guest conductor. Chee-Yun will be the soloist in the Violin Concerto, and the concert also features the Fifth Symphony.
Brevard has a vibrant opera program; this season’s features are Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, and Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. The young opera singers also will be spotlighted in two recitals.
Critic and musicologist Joseph Horowitz will return to Brevard to lecture and lead discussions at several programs celebrating Aaron Copland. Lockhart leads an all-Copland program on July 19, featuring the American composer’s Appalachian Spring, Clarinet Concerto (with Steven Cohen), and Third Symphony. Other programs focus on “Copland and Mexico” (July 13), “Copland and the Cold War” (July 17), and “Copland’s America” (July 21).
Among many other featured works are Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto (with Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen) and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 (Lockhart conducting, June 28); Elgar’s Cello Concerto (with Camille Thomas) and Vaughan-Williams’ Fifth Symphony (Lockhart conducting, June 29); Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (with Alexandre Tharaud) and Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande (Matthias Bamert conducting, July 5); and Vieuxtemps’ Violin Concerto No. 5 (with Ruben Rengel) and Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony (Ken Lam conducting, July 7).
The season concludes on Aug. 4 with Lockhart leading Mahler’s epic Second Symphony, Resurrection.
Throughout the summer, Brevard will often spotlight more popular entertainment as well, with saxophonist David Sanborn, stylish crooner Michael Feinstein, banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, Texas singer Lyle Lovett, The Temptations, and the Four Tops.
For more information, visit www.brevardmusic.org or call (828) 862-2100.
Eastern Music Festival, June 22-July 27
Conductor Gerard Schwarz, music director of the Eastern Music Festival since 2007, has expanded the festival’s audience to the largest in its history. This summer, the festival features violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and pianists Horacio Gutierrez and Awadagin Pratt, among other luminaries.
The schedule was still being finalized at press time, but highlights include Salerno-Sonnenberg leading the Eastern Music Festival Chamber Orchestra in works by Glass, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and Shostakovich on June 27. Schwarz conducts an all-Brahms program on June 28 with violinist Nigel Armstrong and cellist Julian Schwarz featured in the Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra. The Pacifica Quartet is spotlighted in a program on June 30 performing works by Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, and Beethoven.
The festival and summer educational program, based in the heart of North Carolina, runs June 22 through July 27 — its 58th season. The 2019 lineup includes more than 65 performances by three orchestras, multiple chamber ensembles, and signature guest-artist performances at its home at Guilford College and other locations around Greensboro and Boone, NC. For more information, visit easternmusicfestival.org or call (336) 333-7450.
Paul Hyde is a longtime arts writer, now working at a southern university. He writes about the arts regularly for the Greenville (SC) Journal and Anderson (SC) Observer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.