For 17 days this spring, Savannah’s Historic District will act as a backdrop for an ambitious 29th annual Savannah Music Festival.
Backed by the festival’s largest budget to date, this year will see an expansion in classical programming to open, and a monster of a finale to close. Sandwiched between are over 70 unique concerts, some commissioned just for the festival, highlighting everything from jazz and rock to classical and folk music.
Associate artistic director Daniel Hope is bringing the Zurich Chamber Orchestra to Savannah for the first time for three unique programs to open the festival, which you can read about elsewhere on DoSavannah.com.
On April 14, the festival will throw one of the bigger outdoor concerts the city has seen in recent time at Trustees Garden. The all-day event will take place on three stages at the historic landmark, with local vendors, big outdoor screens, local and regional food and alcohol.
The finale will feature Grammy Award-winning acts Jason Isbell and the 400 unit, Tedeschi Trucks Band and Gillian Welch, as well as Marc Broussard, Brent Cobb, Brett Dennen, Septeto Santiageuro, Mipso, Sammy Miller & The Congregation, Betsayda Machado Y Parranda El Calvo, Savannah’s Velvet Caravan with Jessica Ann Best and the hugely popular String Band Spectacular concert.
“It’s a large outdoor event, the likes of which Savannah has never seen,” said Savannah Music Festival executive and artistic director Rob Gibson. “There have been plenty of outdoor events over the years, but I don’t think there’s been anything like what we’re about to stage with the breadth of artistic talent: Cuban bands, Venezuelan groups, rock bands, jam bands, folk musicians.
“It’s an ambitious day,” Gibson continued. “We’re hoping to get 5,000 people. Trustees Garden is one of the most unique concert spaces this city will have ever seen. Charles Morris carved that hill out and shaped it like an outdoor amphitheater. We have a stage at the bottom of the hill and another by the building. I think it’s going to be Charles’ legacy for Savannah. This place that is so important in the history of our city. What is now there, almost 300 years later, is a great gift from Charles. I am hopeful that it’s going to be a great concert space.
“Daniel’s program is very ambitious,” Gibson said. “The end of the festival is very ambitious. So by growing our classical music programming and a big outdoor component, we’re hopeful that they both work ... This is a real step up for Savannah.”
Gibson and company take years to plot out the festival’s schedule. Classical music, unlike modern rock or pop concerts, is scheduled years in advance. Gibson has almost finished the classical music schedule for the 2019 festival. When approaching what to schedule and where, the festival takes great care in cultivating a lineup that is appropriate for the audience in both venue and time.
Classical music is on the schedule almost every day during this year’s festival, and is typically scheduled earlier in the day. Jazz and blues are rarely scheduled against one another, due to sharing a lot of the same audience.
“I am not the only one going to five concerts,” Gibson said. “There are people going to three or four. This is why I always use the analogy of the sushi bar. You don’t just go to the sushi bar to order salmon. You go to a sushi bar to order three or four different types of fish. That’s what I always want people to do at the music festival; come sample two or three different styles of music over the course of a day.”
One of the festival’s three educational components received a substantial financial boost this year. Musical Explorers is a year-round outreach program for K-2 students in the area that connects more than 10,000 children and 300 teachers at more than 50 schools to the musical community around them.
The tuition-free program, which was developed in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, received a $75,000 grant from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation this year.
“It’s a big gift from a national organization,” Gibson said. “William Randolph Hurst was a very wealthy man and left a billion dollars for different organizations. One was education and culture. He has some very smart people working at the foundation. They are highly selective ... These are our future listeners, future donors, future patrons, future players, and future writers.”