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Review: Savannah Music Festival is overall educational and endearing

  • Danilo Brito and Mike Marshall at Savannah Music Festival (Photo by Frank Stewart/courtesy SMF)
  • Arias & Encores at Savannah Music Festival (Photo by Elizabeth Leitzell/courtesy SMF)
  • Daniel Hope and Friends at Savannah Music Festival (Photo by Frank Stewart/courtesy SMF)
 

Review: Savannah Music Festival is overall educational and endearing

10 Apr 2017

The 28th annual Savannah Music Festival was a global experience, an education with high production value and unique performances, all delivered by some of the most talented living musicians the world over.

After a blistering 17 days, patrons were treated to a trip around the world and through time in sound. Venturing from Brazil to Pakistan, Europe, Africa, India, the Caribbean and to our own American backyard, there was roots music and new music from every corner of humanity that stretched back in some cases hundreds of years, and in others only a few months.

Here’s a notebook of notables from the 20 or so shows, out of the 80-plus, I was able to catch.

Venues

Savannah has several great music venues, and the festival has tapped into that well rather perfectly. The Lucas Theatre played host to several great concerts this year, setting a brilliant stage for not only chamber ensembles but also Brazilian masters.

I’ve really come to love the North Garden at Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum. Savannah Stopover, A.U.R.A. Fest and Savannah Music Festival all have had great shows in that venue this year. There’s something about the covered pavilion that opens this venue up for an outdoor feel while still maintaining an intimate environment. Wandering through the middle garden from the entrance to the pavilion at night, with just the accent lights and music playing, is a pretty neat sensory experience as well.

Johnny Mercer Theatre at the Savannah Civic Center played host to several sold-out shows over the festival, most notably the Avett Brothers and Jason Isbell. This is a big concert hall, but still maintains on some level the feeling of being right up close with the artist.

Trinity United Methodist Church, like Ships of the Sea, has become another favorite venue in this city. The church’s push to become a regular host of live music has endeared it to the community. Well done, Jared Hall and Jon Waits. The chamber ensembles I saw here this year were some of the best in a dazzling array of great shows at Trinity in 2017.

The Charles H. Morris Center is yet another one of those intimate venues that still leaves room to breath, while putting you close enough to the artist to get easily captivated. I wish we had shows here year-round.

Production value

Savannah Music Festival spoils its patrons. Not only do they feature some of the world’s most talented musicians, they also present each show with the highest level of production value. From the sets, to the speakers, to the extremely helpful volunteers, every aspect is executed at the highest level of professionalism.

Crowds

Throughout the festival, there were numerous sold-out shows. The lowest attendance I caught was the “Into the Romantics” concert, but that is probably because it was at 11 a.m. on a Friday. You probably won’t catch many young people at a show at that hour, since Thursday night in Savannah is basically a regular Saturday night anywhere else.

It was pretty encouraging to see a variety of patrons at sold-out shows during this festival. Of course, often the audience was exactly what you’d expect for the given type of music. Orchestral music featured a lot of older people. Jazz concerts were peppered with mostly middle-aged people, and the rock shows drew a mostly younger crowd. But there were exceptions at all of them. I was a little surprised at all of the young faces at the “Masters of Brazilian Music” showcase, and taken a little aback with the all the white hairs at the Avett Brothers concert.

Mr. Daniel Hope

I ran into Daniel Hope outside of Trinity at some point during this last week. I introduced myself and then told him exactly what I had already told festival director Rob Gibson: I wish he’d play in every concert at the festival. He seemed flattered. I hope so.

Truthfully, though, not only is Hope a superbly talented violinist whose work is often awe-inspiring to witness, but his enthusiasm is also his strongest attribute, I think. To see a young violinist truly passionate about aged music is a fresh breath in the sometimes stale winds of classical music. On top of his performances, Hope also serves as associate artistic director of the festival.

Personally, I would enjoy seeing Savannah Philharmonic artistic director Peter Shannon conduct Hope. Those two have so much energy and joy in the music they share, it would be as high energy as a punk band in a house show on a Tuesday in Savannah — which is a lot of energy.

Education

Not only do the leaders of Savannah Music Festival seem to embrace the idea of education, but to my surprise, the artists throughout this festival also did a wonderful job of carrying on this notion.

I came away feeling empowered with knowledge on a several styles of music I had little to no understanding of prior to these concerts. Leyla McCalla took the time to share why the songs she was singing in Creole and French were so important to her and to the people who wrote them.

Sherrill Milnes gave delightful and informational introductions to all the pieces in “Arias & Encores. Danilo Brito charmingly talked through an interpreter extensively, sharing the ideas of choro music. Justin Townes Earle gave us all a lesson on American roots music and the connection between the Methodist church and the blues. The actors in Brahms Vs. Tchaikovsky laid out the stories of a composer competition mostly overlooked in classical music. And on and on it goes.

Just when I think I have a handle on music and its history, having studied rock ’n’ roll, jazz, classical music and folk for years, I am always intrigued by another story or piece of history I missed. I took jazz history and music history in college, which were some of my favorite courses. I even took a class on the Beatles. (That’s right! The University of Iowa offered an entire class on just the Beatles. Best ever.) Independently. I’ve read books, essays and long-form feature stories and watched documentaries on musicians for years. I am still confounded by how little I know about music.

For me personally, the educational aspect of this festival is its most endearing mark. I feel I just finished a master class in world music.

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