BY JOHN FLEMING • Times Performing Arts Critic
Music and performing arts festivals tend to be in great locations —
the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, Charleston's elegant old downtown, the high desert and mountains of New Mexico. There's no better way to recharge the batteries than immersing yourself in one of the scores of festivals across the United States and Canada during spring and summer.
Savannah Music Festival
Savannah, Ga., is a place that seems ideal for a music festival. With one of the country's largest historic districts, dotted by 22 town squares lush with Spanish oak and magnolia trees and fine old statues, it may be the most walkable city in the South.
"The idea of using a city as the backdrop for a festival had some appeal to me,'' says Rob Gibson, who moved to Savannah in 2002 to become executive and artistic director of the Savannah Music Festival.
The festival had been running since 1990, but it was small and undistinguished until Gibson arrived. A native of Atlanta, he had been executive director of the jazz program at Lincoln Center in New York for 10 years. He set out to model the Savannah festival on two others in the South with a strong sense of place, Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
"I think Savannah's a little bit of a mix of Charleston and New Orleans,'' Gibson says. "It can be elegant, but it can be very funky.''
Savannah was poised to become a cultural destination after years of neglect. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the 1994 bestseller by John Berendt, captured the Gothic atmosphere of the city for millions of readers. The Savannah College of Art and Design, with some 7,000 students, is one of the fastest-growing schools in the country. And the Landings, a gated community on nearby Skid-
away Island, comprises the second most affluent ZIP code in Georgia, after Sea Island.
Under Gibson the Savannah festival has grown from a budget of $600,000 to $3-million, and 40 percent of the audience last year came from more than 200 miles away. The average stay was four nights in Savannah.
This year's festival boasts a diverse mix of classical and jazz, blues, country and world music. Concerts range from commercial country acts such as a double bill of Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby to Spanish "flamenco soul'' singer Pitingo in his only U.S. performance, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with pianist Garrick Ohlsson to an evening of works by Police drummer-composer Stewart Copeland, Broadway diva Audra McDonald to the Emerson String Quartet.
"I don't see any other festival in the United States doing what we're doing,'' Gibson says. "We've got bluegrass, jazz and classical music all in the same night, let's say, or you can go to Indian dance and then hear Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart play country music. It's like going to a Japanese restaurant and eating sushi. You should try a little bit of this and try a little bit of that.''
Naturally, given Gibson's background with jazz at Lincoln Center, the festival has a good selection of jazz artists, such as the ageless pianist Hank Jones (turning 90 this year), the Marcus Roberts Trio, above, and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. The classical programming includes mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, pianists Yundi Li and Jonathan Biss and the Beaux Arts Trio on its final tour.
Gibson traces his eclectic tastes back to his days as program director of the University of Georgia student radio station in Athens in the late 1970s and early '80s. That was the golden age for the college town that spawned bands like the B-52's, Pylon and R.E.M.
"Our philosophy was the opposite of commercial radio,'' he says. "The philosophy of commercial radio is to reach some of the people all of the time. Our philosophy was predicated on getting all of the people some of the time. So we had reggae shows, we had African music shows, we had the Boston Camarata, we had the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, we had the Chicago Symphony, we had Elvis Costello, the Sex Pistols and Talking Heads, we had Emmylou Harris. That's what we were running on my college radio station 30 years ago. I just feel like now I'm doing the same kind of work except I'm doing it with live music instead of radio.''
Spoleto Festival USA
In many ways, the star of Spoleto Festival USA, below, is the city of Charleston, S.C., with its historic churches, residences and theaters serving as performance venues. Imaginative opera has been a hallmark of the 32-year-old festival, and this year's lineup provides dramatic contrast with a pair of new productions: Amistad, Anthony Davis' work about a slave ship that should resonate with Charleston's history as a slave market, and Rossini's comic La Cenerentola. The festival's dance series includes Boston Ballet, Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve from Switzerland and classical Indian dancer Shantala Shivalingappa. The main theatrical event is England's Nottingham Playhouse Theatre staging of Sophocles' Antigone in the outdoor Cistern. Spoleto is the first stop for productions to be seen at other festivals, such as Laurie Anderson's "concert-poem'' Homeland, which will also be performed at Toronto's Luminato festival.
Luminato, in its second season, is an excellent reason to spend time exploring the cultural hotbed of Toronto. Highlights include the Mark Morris Dance Group in Mozart Dances; the National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch, based on interviews with soldiers who served in Iraq; and Sanctuary Song, an opera-dance piece about an elephant poached from the Indonesian jungle. From Toronto, it's a two-hour drive or train ride to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in southwestern Ontario. Romeo and Juliet, directed by Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys), opens the festival, which also includes Brian Dennehy in the double bill of Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett and Hughie by Eugene O'Neill.
For arts lovers, all roads lead to the wooded hills of western Massachusetts in summer. At Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, concert performances of opera are highlights, with music director James Levine conducting Berlioz's Les Troyens over two days and Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (starring Renee Fleming as Tatiana). There will be all-Mozart and all-Beethoven weekends, an all-Brahms program with pianist Yefim Bronfman, plus tributes to Leonard Bernstein and Elliott Carter. Not far from Tanglewood is Jacob's Pillow, the leafy mecca of American dance. The festival opens with Garth Fagan's Griot New York to music of Wynton Marsalis and also features the U.S. debut of England's Hofesh Shechter Company and a two-week residency by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.
"Prokofiev and His World'' is the theme this year of the Bard Music Festival, the heart and soul of Bard Summerscape on the Hudson River Valley campus of Bard College. The Russian composer's ballet score to Romeo and Juliet will be choreographed by Mark Morris in its never-before-heard original form at the Richard Gehry-designed Fisher Center. George and Ira Gershwin's political satire Of Thee I Sing is the perfect musical for a presidential election year. One of the advantages of the Bard festival is its proximity to New York City, just a scenic train ride away. The festival offers bargain ($10) round-trip bus service from Columbus Circle for several performances.
Santa Fe Opera, above, has a spectacular sunset view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains through the open back of its Crosby Theater, where this season's schedule includes Verdi's Falstaff, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Kaija Saariaho's Adriana Mater (a U.S. premiere, directed by Peter Sellars), Britten's Billy Budd (led by new chief conductor Edo de Waart) and Handel's Radamisto. The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival will feature premieres by Saariaho and three other composers: Huang Ruo, Roberto Sierra and Joan Tower. Performers include the Orion String Quartet and Imani Wind Quintet, violinists Jennifer Frautschi and Pinchas Zukerman, cellist Gary Hoffman, mezzo-soprano Monica Groop, pianists Jeremy Denk and Jon Kimura Parker, flutist Tara Helen O'Connor and many more.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.