As in years past, the 2019 Savannah Music Festival (SMF) will once more feature a couple of concerts designed in cooperation with the Savannah VOICE Festival (SVF).
That organization, and the annual, three-week-long event it presents every August, is rooted in “the principles of a golden age of opera,” and, under the direction of its founder Sherrill Milnes, reliably offers up world-class recitals by some of the most acclaimed, classically trained vocalists of their generation.
In anticipation of these two joint productions, Do spoke with key members of each recital, and what follows are highlights of our conversations.
The first co-production between the SMF and the SVF takes place on Sunday, April 7 at 5 p.m. in the sanctuary of downtown’s Trinity United Methodist Church. It features Tenor vocalist Santiago Ballerini, a native of Buenos Aires, Argentina who actually began his career several years ago right here in Savannah under the tutelage of Milnes and has since become a major name in the Bel Canto world. He now performs regularly with the Atlanta Opera. This is his Savannah Music Festival debut.
He will be accompanied on piano by Howard Watkins, who’s both an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and also regarded as one of the finest concert pianists working today. He’s taught at the Tanglewood Music Center and the Aspen Music Festival as well as traveled the world playing concerts and accompanying stellar vocalists.
Do: How did you become involved with this collaboration between the SMF and the SVF?
Watkins: “I’ve had a longtime relationship with Maria Zouves and Sherrill Milnes through their work at various VoiceExperience programs in Orlando and Tampa, Florida, and now with the Savannah Voice Festival. I think I first worked with them over 15 years ago! I have been coming to Savannah for the last few years in August, so it's a natural situation for me to play the recital there.
Do: What can audience members expect from this show?
Watkins: “In this recital, the two of us hope to transport the audience to different worlds… Mostly (sung in) Italian, but also some French... Without the benefit of sets or lights or costumes. We are just making music and communicating directly with the audience. Our hope is to move people, inspire them, make them laugh and cry and to forget the troubles of everyday life.”
Do: Can you speak a bit about Santiago Ballerini ? Have you two collaborated previously?
Watkins: “Santiago and I have worked together a few times, usually on operas or in a few pieces at a gala. We know each other well and enjoy working together, but while I've done many other recitals with other people, this will be the first time he and I have played an entire recital. Santiago is a born performer and a great communicator. He's really making his name in the singing world and has a special gift that I think everyone will immediately appreciate. I especially appreciate his warm, relaxed demeanor both on stage and in the working process as we’ve been preparing things. I don't think Santiago knows the meaning of the word stressful! (Laughs)”
Do: Is there anything particular you’re looking forward to doing while you’re here?
Watkins: “Since this will be a relatively short trip for me, I don't imagine I'll really have time to do anything except rest and get ready for the recital. On prior trips, I have appreciated so much the beauty and the great history there in Savannah. Walking around in those incredible squares and eating at the terrific restaurants are favorite pastimes of mine when I visit in the summer. There are specific types of cuisine available there which I don't get to enjoy at other times during the year, so I really look forward to that. You can tell I really like food! (Laughs)”
Mezzo-soprano Jessica Ann Best, a Rochester, N.Y. native will take part with other top-rated singers in “Modern Broadway,” a 75-minute revue of some of the best-known and best-loved Broadway showtunes of the past 40 years, all set to cabaret-style arrangements of piano, bass and drums. This program is directed by the VOICE Festival co-founder Maria Zouves, and takes place for two shows only: on Saturday, April 13 at both 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. in the intimate environs of the Charles H. Morris Center.
Do: Please tell me a bit about your past experiences performing at the SMF. Is there anything about this particular festival you feel sets it apart from other concert series you’ve taken part in?
Best: “I believe this is my fifth year performing in the Savannah Music Festival. We have done many Classical and Broadway themed concerts, and a full production of Puccini's great operas, Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica. I'm so thankful to return each year and to be connected to so many world-class musicians of every genre. It’s a great honor. I loved performing with Velvet Caravan last year at the new Trustees' Garden, where I was able to connect with so many musicians I would never have dreamed of. The Savannah Music Fest is unique because it so expansive in celebrating cross disciplinary musical styles. I think everyone can find at least one concert or unique musical experience to attend; and, if curious, take a risk to enjoy another. You won't be disappointed!”
Do: How did you first become involved with these events?
Best: “I was on what you might call the opera "grass roots" team... before we even became (known as) the Savannah VOICE Festival. Soon after that we partnered with The Savannah Music Festival, and we are so thankful to be working together. I’ve been blessed to see the growth over all of the years -- and we now have quite a flourishing festival through the city and throughout the year. These are some of the finest singers in the world today.”
Do: What do you enjoy most about being in and performing in Savannah?
Best: “Savannah is really a second home to me. The city of Savannah calls to artists. I think Savannah knows that. Its natural and architectural beauty speak to artists of all kinds. It inspires us. History happened here, (but) the city is full of life! Mostly, the people of the city are its true gems. I have never seen such adoration of the artist as we see here. We feel loved and we love Savannah.”
Do: You have performed in various countries around the world. How taxing is the life of a professionally trained vocalist, with all the traveling and rehearsals?
Best: “The life of a traveling artist is a unique one! These amazing peoples and cultures make the world a smaller place. I have always said that home is truly on the stage. All of my experiences come with me there; in my music. Home can't always be a place; but it is there, in my heart. There are certainly moments of exhaustion on the gig. There are times when you have no social life because you must learn music and stay inside to take care of yourself. But, what a treasure it is to sing some of the most beautiful music in the world. To define history and connect with mankind through your art? That makes the 3 a.m. wake-up call for the airplane easier.”
Do: I realize you cannot divulge the exact tunes which will be showcased, but did you have any input into the chosen selections?
Best: “The selection of repertoire for our concert programming is often collaborative. We are given the theme and we discuss what we know, what we'd like to learn, and what else might be interesting. Our audience is always the most important to consider. We always want to bring a show that grows us as artists and that the audience will enjoy. Maria Zouves and Sherrill Milnes team with us to create this program and work their magic to make a beautiful artistic piece! I did get to suggest a few pieces that made it into the program, so I'm living some dreams in this one. (Laughs)”
Do: This is a vocal concert as opposed to a dramatic performance, but would I be incorrect in assuming that in a show of this sort conveying dramatic emotion to the crowd is as much a part of your craft as hitting the right notes?
Best: “You can be sure that we will be connected to everything we sing. I do not know how to do one without the other. We must always be storytellers. We have words! The Savannah Voice Festival is big on “telling the story.” We are singing actors. (Sometimes we even dance!) We must be married to our text. It's all about interpretation, and this concert will be staged and expressive.”
Do: Can you speak a bit about your personal history and working relationships with any other performers on this bill, and how that might inform your own performance?
Best: “Yes, I have many friends within the production, and that certainly affects our working relationships. We trust each other. We've been singing and making music together for years. Each of us has worked together for at least one production. In this business; you quickly become family. You have to. That's what makes great music. I also have a very longstanding history with Sherrill Milnes and Maria Zouves. Sherrill was one of my vocal coaches while I was doing my Master’s degree at Northwestern University. That was back in 2007. So, we have many, many years together. A lot of vocal mileage and a lot of growth!”
Do: What is the single biggest misconception people have about classically-trained vocalists?
Best: “That's a big question. Perhaps that we aren't able to connect to other music. We can! We certainly don't always wear horns, listen solely to classical composition, or only sing in other languages. We wear jeans, we listen to other genres, we know how to act and we love being real.”
Do: What is the one thing you would say to someone who might otherwise never consider attending a concert of this sort in hopes of convincing them to give this particular show a try?
Best: “You'll know the music. Trust me! This concert has pieces you and your family have grown up with. You'll not only hear great singing; but you will find it to be a very imaginative experience. Like the song from Pippin says, "We've got magic to do! Just for you!" Join us.”