The Savannah Music Festival has firmly established itself as one of the city’s finest cultural institutions through an expansive annual program celebrating the global language of music.
Into its 30th season, Savannah’s premier music festival will debut 33 new artists at over 80 concerts spanning just over a fortnight from March 28 through April 13. They will celebrate music from 19 countries and five continents in nine venues throughout the Historic District.
Set for new heights
The festival’s growth over the last decade into its current incarnation, a showcase for Americana, jazz, classical and world music, was built on the vision of its former executive and artistic director Rob Gibson. After 16 years at the helm, Gibson shaped the the festival into one of the southeast’s strongest nationally recognized music festivals.
Gibson announced his resignation in June, but his legacy continues into the 30th year, as new artistic director and former marketing director Ryan McMaken and new executive director David Pratt build on the foundation he laid.
Pratt and McMaken are essentially splitting the job Gibson once did mostly on his own. McMaken was heavily involved in a number of the festival’s aspects outside of marketing, as were the other associate artistic directors Daniel Hope, Mike Marshall, and Marcus Roberts. He and Gibson helped shaped a lot of the Americana and roots programming of the past, and worked on the production side. As he shifts into his new role in charge of the festival’s content, he’s ready to take the festival to new heights.
“The artistic vision that Rob built this festival on, that it is now how we know it,” McMaken said. “The whole goal is to push it forward and extend and elaborate on that model of jazz, classical, Americana and world music. The content is what drives this place. It’s getting back to that artistic vision and kind of maintaining and elaborating on it.”
"You have a phenomenal foundation to work with,” Pratt added. “The reputation of this festival, not just locally and state, but nationally, is fantastic. People know about this festival. I think there are many great opportunities moving forward. I am looking forward as well. I am excited to be part of it.”
Last year’s special finale, a massive all-day outdoor concert featuring Jason Isbell and Tedeschi Trucks Band, was a hit. Typically, the festival largely attracts an older crowd to its programming, but has worked over the years to cater to a new, younger generation of music fans, booking acts like The Avett Brothers. Looking to the future, the festival hopes to build out its programming in that direction.
“We did find a very different demographic coming to the finale,” McMaken said. “Not totally different, but somewhat largely because of the programming, but also because of the format being casual. We’re looking into a couple of different ways to build out what we already do. Maybe do some late-night programs in the metal building down at Trustees Garden. Looking forward, just based on the finale, instead of building that on to the festival, we’re going to look to develop a fall festival for next October and do a two-day Trustees Garden event. That’s the current plan.”
Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame will help draw that demographic as he makes his Savannah Music Festival debut this year. McMaken also noted the fest is looking at future collaborations with Savannah Stopover, the annual indie music festival that mostly features up-and-coming rock and pop acts.
Although the loss of Gibson ostensibly put the festival at a major disadvantage, Pratt’s ascension into the role of executive director poses the festival for a future of financial and stable success.
'This is extraordinary'
“This is a phenomenal institution,” Pratt said. “It really is. To be here, to celebrate its 30th anniversary is very special thing to me.”
Pratt, who oversaw the Savannah Philharmonic from 2010-15, returns to Savannah after a two-year stint as the chief executive of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. The native Australian was already considering a move back to Georgia when the executive director position at the festival opened up.
“I’ve always loved the music festival,” Pratt said. “When I was here with the Phil, I just loved coming to the performances. Anyone who works in music, you have such a love of it. My love of music extends well beyond classical music, although that’s what I’ve been working in for a number of years. I remember when I first came to Savannah and the first couple of festivals, I couldn’t believe I was seeing performances of things I used to see at the Hollywood Ball in Los Angeles in Savannah. This is extraordinary!”
Pratt’s tenure at the Savannah Philharmonic helped set up the symphony for major success. Now in its 10th year, the Philharmonic has been on a steady path of growth, and artistic director and conductor Peter Shannon cites Pratt’s time as a major milestone.
“Our first massive success was taking in David Pratt,” Shannon said. “He was an incredible director for the Savannah Philharmonic. Very outgoing, lovable guy, knows his stuff, very organized, very together. That was the next mammoth jump after my arrival.”
“A really good thing that happened was David Pratt,” violinist Ricardo Ochoa said. “I was sad to see him go and now he’s back! It’s a terrific thing. David Pratt being here is going to effect everyone for the better, in general. That guy is terrific. He’s single-handedly responsible for putting that orchestra in the right place, financially. I think it’s going to get better and better.”
Music thrives here
For the first time, the Savannah Music Festival and the Savannah Philharmonic will premiere a special collaboration concert this year, a perfect coincidence with Pratt’s return. On April 6, the Savannah Philharmonic and the Marcus Roberts Trio will present “Rhapsody in Blue and the Firebird Suite,” a jazz-influenced orchestral work composed by George Gershwin and Roberts.
“Such a great surprise,” Pratt said. “I went to the [10th season opening] concert on Saturday night. It was great to sit in the Lucas and see that phenomenal concert. It was extraordinary. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was talking to some major donors who have been an important part of that organization. I sat there through Beethoven's Fifth and could not stop smiling. Because they played so well.
“There are lot of people who contributed to their success, like every festival. It does take a village. When you’re part of something successful, it is very satisfying. You hope just to make a difference and make a contribution. More than anything, it’s great to see music thriving in this community. A whole range of music thriving in this community. It’s important.”