Savannah Music Festival. March 18-April 3. Some events are already sold out. www.savannahmusicfestival.org.
By Pierre Ruhe
Eight years ago, after he’d served as founding director of New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, Rob Gibson had experienced a rift with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the organization’s imposing main attraction.
What Wynton wants, Wynton gets.
So Gibson, a Georgia native, migrated south to the Savannah Music Festival, which was then small in budget and staff, with a nagging debt and happily narrow ambitions.
But a springtime music jamboree in the impossibly lovely port city on Georgia’s coast? A festival aimed at an eclectic, upscale audience and backed by the local chamber of commerce and tourism? It seemed like an untapped gold mine. As promised when he took the job, Gibson has used his music-business connections and diverse musical tastes to elevate the festival to international recognition.
The 2010 edition of the festival opens March 18, the morning after Savannah sanitation workers hose down the sidewalks from the St. Patrick’s Day revelry.
Not one to hold a grudge, Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will be among the many headliners for this year’s 17-day festival — musically eclectic in the extreme with almost 100 events crammed into theaters, clubs, churches and vacant warehouse spaces around Savannah.
Marsalis and his band are scheduled to perform “Portrait in Seven Shades,” a technology-rich, mixed-media show with a new composition by Ted Nash, an alto sax player in the group, and seven images from New York’s Museum of Modern Art that inspired the music.
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang will take their show to Savannah. So will country divas Patty Lovelace and Kathy Mattea, roots-Americana acts like Wilco and pop duos like She and Him.
There will be Zydeco (Jeffery Broussard and the Creole Cowboys) and Gypsy bands (the Assad Brothers with the Roby Lakatos Ensemble), mandolin virtuosos (Mike Marshall’s Big Trio) and opera stars (soprano Nicole Cabell), jazz pianists and combos (led by Gerald Clayton, Dick Hyman, Marcus Roberts and others) and five programs of classical chamber music, led by esteemed British violinist Daniel Hope. (The complete calendar is online at www.savannahmusicfestival.org.)
Festival organizers say the annual event is a draw for affluent “cultural tourists” who tend to stay at pricier hotels as well as shop, eat and buy more tickets than the locals.
And despite the economic recession, the festival’s ticket sales are on a record pace for 2010. The festival took a hit last year in box office: It sold 29,025 tickets in 2009, down from 31,786 the year before.
But other key statistics buoy the picture. The number of out-of-town cultural tourists continues to grow, accounting now for nearly 50 percent of all ticket sales. And of that crowd, almost 37 percent took an airplane to get to the festival. It suggests an increasingly significant number of people are planning their vacations around the festival — with all the accompanying spending patterns — beyond the folks who drive in for a show or two.
They’re coming to hear what Gibson calls “one-time-only events.”
Unlike the other cultural tourist mecca up the coast, the much larger and wealthier Spoleto Festival USA (which runs late May and early June), Savannah’s festival does not present many original productions.
Indeed, many of the performers for the 2010 festival are on the summer touring circuit nationally and can be heard elsewhere. Pianist Yefim Bronfman, for example, a beefy romantic born in the what was then the Soviet Union, plays in Savannah a program he’ll repeat a few weeks later at Carnegie Hall.
And some of the festival’s performers will make an Atlanta stop before or after they head for the coast, albeit in a different guise. Soprano Cabell, in town rehearsing for the Atlanta Opera’s “The Magic Flute,” will take a quick jaunt to Savannah to sing a recital.
But Gibson is quick to point out the “one-time” festival atmosphere — where in a single evening you can catch wildly different styles of music and over a couple of nights experience a head-spinning variety of sounds.
“You’d expect the largest arts festival in Georgia to be in Atlanta,” Gibson said, with a devilish laugh. “You’d be wrong.”
Pierre Ruhe is classical music critic of www.artscriticatl.com.