With disposable income scarce, the springtime performing arts festivals around the United States, not to mention Europe, may be beyond the means of many Floridians this year.
But the Southeast has a trio of excellent festivals within driving distance. For a high-level performing arts fix, look no farther than Daytona Beach, Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.
"We're marketing to cities from where people can drive in four or five hours because gasoline is cheap now,'' said Rob Gibson, director of the Savannah Music Festival. "It seems to be working, because we're ahead of last year in ticket sales.''
London in Daytona
The big change in the festival scene this year is that the biennial Daytona Beach International Festival — formerly called the Florida International Festival — has moved from the summer to April and May. Its main draw is the London Symphony Orchestra, which for 40 years has been coming to the town famous for NASCAR, Bike Week and driving on the beach.
"It was hot. It was muggy. It was hurricane season,'' said John Talbott, president of the festival (and former head of the Mahaffey Theater Foundation in St. Petersburg), explaining the change in dates. But the weather wasn't the main reason. Instead, Daytona Beach hotels need the business that the festival brings more in spring than in summer.
It costs the festival just under $2 million to import the orchestra to Florida, and the Londoners have been happy to accommodate the change, said Manuel Bornia, the festival's executive vice president.
Ticket sales have held up, too. "So far, so good,'' Bornia said. "We haven't had any negative response to the change. We haven't had a drop in ticket sales. In fact, we're ahead of the curve from previous years, which is insane, considering the economic downturn.''
The Daytona Beach festival has kept ticket prices reasonable, ranging from $25 to $72 for an LSO concert in 2,500-seat Peabody Auditorium. The programming is heavy on standards such as Carmina Burana and the Grieg Piano Concerto, with soloist Simon Trpceski.
The LSO will play five classical programs, with conductor-in-residence Daniel Harding on the podium for three of them. He'll lead Brahms' Second Symphony, Mahler's First Symphony and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. Hollywood composer Lalo Schifrin's program of pops and light classics is sure to include his theme music from Mission: Impossible.
The festival is getting into jazz, with concerts by trumpeters Chris Botti and Chuck Mangione, the Yellowjackets and the Chuchito Valdes Trio. Ralph Stanley and the Lovell Sisters top the bluegrass bill.
A slimmer Spoleto
In Charleston, Spoleto USA has reduced its budget by more than $2 million. "I'm hoping the various nips and tucks and tweaks we've implemented are not going to be all that obvious,'' said artistic director Nigel Redden.
The festival will be presenting just one opera instead of the usual two, but it's a big one that is rarely performed in the United States: Gustave Charpentier's Louise, directed by Sam Helfrich.
Spoleto has developed a reputation for avant-garde programming during its 33-year history, and 2009 is no exception, with Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre's 20th Century, a "punk cabaret operetta'' by New York punk band World/Inferno Friendship Society. Puppeteer Basil Twist's Dogugaeshi is about the ancient Japanese art form of painted screens.
Along with Louise, musical events include Sarah Chang in the Brahms Violin Concerto, blues musician Beverly "Guitar'' Watkins and the Westminster Choir in Mozart's Requiem and Poulenc's Gloria. Spoleto's dance series is impressive, with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Spain's Noche Flamenca.
This will be the last season that Charles Wadsworth, 80, will preside over the chamber music series. The concerts will feature many musicians who have become festival favorites, including cellist Alisa Weilerstein and the St. Lawrence String Quartet. (For more on Charleston as a destination, please turn to Page 4E.)
Savannah's native son
This year is the centennial of the birth of songwriter and Savannah native Johnny Mercer (Moon River), and artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Dianne Reeves and Andrea Marcovicci will feature his music.
"A lot of the performers coming here will do just one or two Mercer songs in their programs,'' Gibson said. "So people won't get burned out on it, but they'll also get to hear some of the great artists in the world performing Johnny Mercer's music.''
Jazz players include Chick Corea and John McLaughlin's Five Peace Band, pianist Eddie Palmieri, the Ellis Marsalis Quartet and pianist Marcus Roberts as the soloist in Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. There'll be classical recitals by pianists Garrick Ohlsson and Marc-Andre Hamelin, guitarist Manuel Barrueco and tenor Ian Bostridge.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.