The Savannah Music Festival opened its 29th, and perhaps most ambitious, year with a number of wonderful concerts this past week.

Throughout the five concerts I was able to attend, I was constantly reminded of the festival’s strongest attribute: program diversity. Classical suites set against masters of jazz guitar, singer/songwriters, banjo kings and drumming gods, all painted a colorful palette of live music. Savannah, sometimes, has an embarrassment of riches, and it’s wonderful to partake.

Here are some highlights:

 

 

Zurich Chamber Orchestra, Program I

We are fortunate to have an orchestra of this caliber in Savannah. We are, perhaps, more fortunate that their visit came at the end of a U.S. tour. The Zurich Chamber Orchestra, with Artistic Director and Savannah Music Festival Associate Music Director Daniel Hope leading, is a well-oiled machine.

Hope is the first instrumentalist to lead the ensemble in lieu of a conductor, and it’s somewhat remarkable to watch him work. Standing in the center of the orchestra, Hope practically danced around, gesturing and conducting with his entire body during their performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” on March 29, the festival’s opening night.

One of the most striking characteristics of the ensemble is the size. At just over 20 members, it’s small enough to still deliver an intimate, chamber orchestra feel, but hearty enough to inflict bombastic moments when the music demanded. When the full ensemble roared to life, it was a palpable and visceral experience.

 

 

Benedetto Guitars 50th Anniversary

Robert Benedetto made a special trip from his retirement home in Florida for a 50th anniversary celebration of his legacy, also on opening night of the festival.

The Lucas Theatre seemed too large for such an intimate showcase of master guitarists, but in actuality it worked really well. Howard Alden, dressed in sparkling attire reminiscent of Vegas Elvis, opened the night with a number of tunes. Alden performing a Johnny Mercer song, “I Thought About You,” on his gorgeous Benedetto guitar was peak Savannah.

 

When two of the world’s greatest Brazilian jazz guitarists, Romero Lubambo and Chico Pinheiro, perform together, it’s hard not to have fun. They seemed to have a blast playing together, which they rarely do. Pinheiro was the highlight of the night for me. He’s an astonishing guitarist whose technical skill and emotive feel for the instrument was above par for anything guitar-related I’ve experienced of late.

“King” Solomon Hicks was a second favorite. I imagine the clinical setting was not something he’s used to, as he looked slightly uncomfortable, but the young bluesman tore down the house with some of the night’s best riffs. Not to mention Pat Martino’s drummer, Carmen Intorre, who played with Hicks as well, and was absolutely fantastic.

 

 

Margaret Glaspy/Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief & Mayhem

Speaking of drummers, on March 30, I accompanied a friend to a concert I had not planned on attending, but was certainly glad I did.

Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief & Mayhem drummer Jim Black arrived that day from Berlin at 6:15 p.m., and was banging away by 9:30 at Ships of the Sea Museum. Thankfully for all of us in attendance, Black’s wild and unorthodox approach to drumming was as interesting as it was entertaining.

 

Margaret Glaspy and Julian Lage opened the night’s double bill. Glaspy’s intimate and beautiful folk-rock songs were highlighted by Lage’s astounding guitar accompaniment. His seemingly endless range of tones was drawn out of every fret on his custom Nachocaster. I rather accidentally found a new favorite band, I think.

 

 

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

Bela Fleck is a master banjo player. He has 16 Grammy Awards to prove it. Along with his wife Abigail Washburn, the duo explored the reaches of the instrument with both claw-hammer picking style and three-finger “Scruggs style.” Interestingly enough, one of the banjos Fleck used for the performance was purchased from Scruggs’ estate. He was kind enough to show the audience the inscription of Scruggs’ signature on the back. It was a marvelous instrument and Fleck made it sing.

Once through some instrumentals, Fleck and Washburn ventured into their own original tunes. It’s remarkable to watch a master work, but at the same time, it’s not very daring. After a few songs, it became somewhat redundant. Fortunately, members of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra rescued the party, joining Fleck and Washburn for a stark and poised performance of a Celtic tune, which showcased the remarkable range of Washburn’s vocals.

 

 

'Birdman Live' with Antonio Sanchez

Now to something that was daring — even overwhelming. “Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” is an incredible, groundbreaking film. It swept the Academy Awards in 2014 and established director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu as a master filmmaker.

This was a unique opportunity to see the film’s music composer, drummer Antonio Sanchez, at work. Sanchez recreated his instrumental drumming to the film live. To witness a live rendering of the soundtrack further augmented the brilliant and revolutionary process both Sanchez and Inarritu used to produce the film. It was a visceral experience that seemed to take the two-dimensional story on screen into a three-dimensional space.

It is rare for a drummer to not only play alone, but tour alone. Sanchez realizes this and takes full advantage. In a finale during and long after the credits, Sanchez tested the limits of the instrument as well as the audience’s patience. After sitting for two hours through the movie, some patrons, perhaps eager for a bathroom break, began clapping through Sanchez’s extended solo. But then everyone chilled out and it was cool.

Sanchez, who is Pat Matheny’s longtime drummer, seemed impervious and played for a solid 20 minutes after the credits finished. He is a phenomenal musician and it was a unique chance to see his range.

However, I am, as always, eternally grateful for the guitar.

 

Joshua Peacock is a writer and musician based in Savannah. He studied music theory, jazz and playwriting at the University of Iowa. Empire of Sound has won two Georgia Press Awards in the past two years. Email joshua.rpeacock@gmail.com.