For its 30th season, the Savannah Music Festival has new leadership, but the nonprofit’s successful formula of scheduling world-class performers in great venues remains.


Rob Gibson, the former executive and artistic director who turned the event into a powerhouse, left the SMF earlier this year. Ryan McMaken, who has been with the festival for many years, has taken over as artistic director, and David Pratt, formerly with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the Savannah Philharmonic, is the new executive director.

My colleague Joshua Peacock recently interviewed both Pratt and McMaken for a great piece on the leadership transition and the festival’s future (see that story at

Given Pratt’s return to Savannah, it seems especially fitting that the SMF is collaborating with the Savannah Philharmonic on a major production April 6 at the Johnny Mercer Theatre. Pianist Marcus Roberts, associate artistic director of the SMF, will perform on a program that includes George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” and Roberts’ own “Rhapsody in D.”

I can’t possibly share all of my thoughts about the 2019 lineup, but I do want to emphasize a few acts that might not yet be on your radar.

Angélique Kidjo from Benin will return to the SMF for the first time in a decade for a show billed as a “track-by-track reimagining” of the Talking Heads album “Remain in Light.” That show on April 6 at the Lucas Theatre should be one of the festival highlights.

The fantastic Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara returns to the SMF for the first time since 2014. She will be on a double bill with Noura Mint Seymali from Mauritania on March 28 in the North Garden of Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum.


The young Cuban singer Daymé Arocena will bring her powerful brand of soul on March 29 to the Charles H. Morris Center.

I am also thrilled that the SMF is featuring ambitious dance programs in 2019.

Stockholm’s Andersson Dance and the Scottish Ensemble string orchestra from Glasgow will present their collaboration based on Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” on April 4 at the Lucas. “Sin Salida” on April 11 at the Lucas is a collaborative project by Esteban Moreno of the tango troupe Union Tanguera and Kate Weare, a New York-based choreographer.

The SMF has a long history of programming world music and occasionally ventures into dance, but I hope we will see more of both in the future.

I should also note that “Stringband Spectacular,” the wonderful annual finale of the Acoustic Music Seminar, will be held this year on April 12 at our new but as yet unnamed Cultural Arts Center. That will probably be the first show in the new venue for many attendees.

The 2019 SMF is not repeating the ambitious finale of 2018, but McMaken and Pratt are planning a two-day outdoor event in the fall. That seems like a good decision for a variety of reasons.

I am excited to see what other changes are in store for us in the coming months and years.

Bill Dawers writes City Talk in Savannah Morning News and blogs at Savannah Unplugged ( and hissing lawns ( Email