Every spring, nearly 500 artists from around the world descend upon Savannah for a 17-day celebration of music.
Described by USA Today as "one of the top music festivals in the world," the Savannah Music Festival has earned praise as one of the most artistically diverse and rewarding annual events for music lovers. The Times of London called it "one of the world's top 10 festivals."
By any measure, the Savannah Music Festival makes a significant economic and cultural impact. Last year, the festival attracted more than 35,000 attendees and contributed nearly $1.4 million in local tax revenue. Each year, an additional 13,000 children throughout schools in the greater Savannah area enjoy innovative musical education programming and unparalleled exposure to world-class talent.
The Savannah Music Festival is celebrating its 25-year anniversary, toasting a quarter-century of creativity and community.
In honor of this silver anniversary, it seems only fitting to look back at the event's remarkable history and to look ahead to its bright future.
The early days
The Savannah Music Festival started out as a dream shared by a group of local community leaders. In the late 1980s, a group of citizens noted the success of Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., and expressed their belief that Savannah had the potential to host its own successful performing arts festival.
Local business leaders Lee Adler and Ben Oxnard joined forces with Savannah pastor Harcourt Waller to launch a music festival, originally known as Savannah Onstage, in Georgia's First City. Responding to a recommendation by author Robert Manson Myers, Waller contacted Stewart Gordon, who had previously created a successful piano festival and competition at the University of Maryland, and persuaded Gordon to visit Savannah to help them realize their dream.
"My husband, Ben, was asked to be the first president of Savannah Onstage, which is where the Savannah Music Festival started," recalls longtime festival supporter Elizabeth Oxnard. "He loved it from the first moment."
The challenge was to create a high-quality festival with a modest budget. Funding for the first season was raised from local individuals and businesses who believed in the project. The first annual budget was about $28,000, which included artists' fees, administrative costs, office expenses and marketing.
Gordon suggested a concert series comprised of music competition winners from around the world. Beginning in 1990, concerts featuring prize-winning pianists, violinists, cellists, clarinetists, guitarists, singers, string quartets and woodwind quintets were held each spring in some of Savannah's historic houses of worship.
Elizabeth Stewart, a vice president at the Savannah Chamber of Commerce, served on the board of directors from Savannah Onstage's inception and eventually became the nonprofit's executive director in 1992.
"It was great," she raves of the festival's early years. "I enjoyed the opportunity to bring world-class talent to Savannah. We knew we were part of something very special."
The event grew in prestige as the community began to regard it as an important contribution to the city's cultural life and to the growing tourism industry. However, Savannah Onstage continued to operate on a shoestring budget and struggled to make ends meet.
Robbie Harrison, who joined the board of directors of Savannah Onstage in 1992, remembers the festival's lean beginning.
"We struggled in those years, with little money and little interest from the community," he recalls. "We did not want to see Savannah Onstage fail."
In 1993, a downturn in the nation's economy resulted in a financial crisis for Savannah Onstage, and the dream for a world-class music festival almost came to an end. Stewart engineered the reorganization, infusing the board of directors with new leadership.
Supporters longed for a music competition. The challenge was to conceive a competition that was different from the many classical music competitions springing up in the United States and abroad. Festival organizers developed a competition for singers focusing on repertoire drawn from American music, including jazz, pop, blues, Broadway and gospel. The American Traditions Competition
officially debuted in 1994 and quickly began to attract talented aspiring singers as well as a devout audience.
Stewart Gordon, Savannah's Onstage's artistic director, recalls many thrilling moments in the festival's early days. He remembers Sweet Honey in the Rock's mesmerizing live performance at First African Baptist Church, young artists making their dreams come true in the American Traditions Competition and high-energy afterconcert jam sessions led by the late Savannah jazz icon Ben Tucker.
One of Gordon's all-time favorite Savannah Onstage performers was Marni Nixon, who sang Audrey Hepburn's vocal parts in the film "My Fair Lady."
"She made her entrance in her one-woman show singing 'I Could Have Danced All Night,'" he recalls. "Her voice was still as fresh and beautiful as it was decades ago."
For nearly a decade, both the American Traditions Competition and the festival continued to grow, presenting such diverse artists as jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, operatic soprano Deborah Voigt and the acclaimed California Guitar Trio. Eventually, the success of the ATC warranted it becoming an independently run nonprofit organization, which still hosts a popular vocal competition outside of the festival season.
New leadership, new direction
In 2002, producer, educator and Georgia native Rob Gibson joined the festival as executive and artistic director. After spending 12 years in New York City, where he served as the founding director and executive producer of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Gibson moved back to Georgia to take on this leadership role, working with Hart Williford as board chairman.
Team building quickly became a focus and has remained a running theme throughout Gibson's tenure. Gibson worked with Williford to assemble a strong board of directors, a professional staff and a broadly talented artistic team that could collaborate to grow the organization into a full-fledged institution.
Savannah Onstage was renamed the Savannah Music Festival, offering an even more ambitious line-up of event and memorable "one time-only" live performances in its 2003 season. Savannah residents and
visitors supported the event's expanded focus, purchasing tickets in record numbers, but finances remained a challenge.
Fortunately, three key donors - Bob Jepson, John Kane and Dick Eckburg - stepped forward with a challenge to eliminate the organizational deficit. Williford helped engineer this strategic agreement to ensure the solvency of the festival.
With more than 25 years of experience leading arts organizations and public radio stations, Gibson's passion for and appreciation of a wide variety of musical styles informed the conception of a new artistic vision.
"The board supported the creation of a world-class event that would bring innovative artists to town, create a significant economic impact and continue to build audiences through music education and performance," he says.
Gibson tapped British violinist Daniel Hope, whom he met backstage in New York after seeing him perform as a member of the esteemed Beaux Arts Trio, to create a dynamic chamber music series for the festival. Luckily for Savannah, Hope - the multi-talented protÃ©gÃ© of violinist and ethnomusicologist Yehudi Menuhin - agreed.
Having worked closely with jazz musician, educator and composer Marcus Roberts, Gibson was intent on continuing their creative collaboration. The associate artistic director of the festival's Swing Central Jazz program since its inception eight years ago, Roberts takes a holistic approach to jazz education, which has helped to build a distinctive mentorship program using a group approach to ensemble teaching for the jazz orchestra.
Mandolin virtuoso and educator Mike Marshall is the director of the festival's Acoustic Music Seminar, a workshop for young acoustic musicians (ages 15-22) which invites visiting artists, such as Chris Thile, David Finckel,Jerry Douglas, Julian Lage and Edgar Meyer, to participate in daily master classes during the final week of the festival. The program, established in 2012, culminates in a presentation of the young musicians' original work titled "Stringband Spectacular."
The Savannah Music Festival's dedication to music education and outreach has grown considerably over the past 12 years, bringing internationally acclaimed musicians into schools and inviting generations of students to historic Savannah venues to learn firsthand from master performers. Each year, the festival delivers musical programming to more than 13,000 local students in a six-county region.
Bob and Jean Faircloth remain the event's biggest financial supporters and believe in the festival's longtime commitment to education.
"The music education part of the festival has expanded significantly over the years, with programs in the schools and in the local theaters," Bob Faircloth says. "I've always viewed music as a positive force. It's wonderful to see the enthusiasm of young people and their thirst for knowledge."
A world-class celebration
Over the years, the Savannah Music Festival has earned accolades as a musician's festival, a place where artists can spread their wings and try new things.
Every spring, the festival effortlessly blends classical, jazz, folk and world music in one seamless celebration of creativity. In a memorable "East Meets West" performance, slide guitar legend Derek Trucks took the stage with a group of Indian musicians for a cross-cultural jam session. Numerous other cross-genre and cross-cultural collaborations have taken place over the years.
Acclaimed jazz musician Wynton Marsalis describes the Savannah Music Festival as "a series of concerts that brings the world to Savannah," adding that, "the world is much closer during the
Pianist Marcus Roberts says the festival has "a feeling of family to it" that makes it uniquely intimate and inviting.
"Rob has brought amazingly diverse musical groups to Savannah and, with increased support of the community, the budget has grown, and with it, a bigger staff, more music and a fun 17 days every spring," says longtime board member Robbie Harrison. "If the city of Charleston can continue to grow Spoleto, we can certainly grow the Savannah Music Festival into the future."
The festival has enjoyed nine straight years of modest budget surplus and 11 consecutive years of record ticket sales.
"Very few festivals in the world can deliver the diversity of music that we present in a city as beautiful as ours," says board chairman Harold Yellin.
Former board chairman Hart Williford agrees, adding that Savannah's community support has been key to the festival's long-term success.
"Savannah and the surrounding area is made up of a wonderful group of community leaders who care deeply about the success of their community," he says. "Over the past 25 years, hundreds of these individuals have come together to sustain the growth and success of the festival. This thread of caring, deeply committed leaders is what has insured that the Savannah Music Festival has always been better than the last year, but not as good as the next year."
With such a successful history of community support, it's no wonder the festival is in a position of strength to celebrate its silver anniversary. In fact, the only thing more sterling than the
Savannah Music Festival's past may be its future.
"We're going to keep the Savannah Music Festival alive and flourishing," Gibson promises. "Our mission remains the same: connecting artists and audiences, educating the next generation
of patrons and scholars and fostering economic growth. Our best work is still ahead of us."