Eclecticism of Savannah’s music fest took in Bach, bluegrass and beyond

Eclecticism of Savannah’s music fest took in Bach, bluegrass and beyond

April 16, 2019 Off By admin

Question: What do Mauritania, Cuba. Argentina, Sweden, Inner Mongolia, Hungary, Finland, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Mali, Ireland, and Benin have in common? Answer: They were all represented at this year’s Savannah Music Festival.

Yes, for the past two and a half weeks a veritable United Nations of performing artists has assembled on the banks of the Savannah River to produce one of the continent’s most comprehensive celebrations of the art of music.

The Stockholm-based Anderson Dance company collaborate on stage with Scottish Ensemble on the Goldberg Variations at the Savannah Music Festival.
The Stockholm-based Anderson Dance company collaborate on stage with Scottish Ensemble on the Goldberg Variations at the Savannah Music Festival.  (frank stewart)

During a brief four-day visit — which included a pilgrimage to the Mercer-Williams House, site of the homicide central to John Berendt’s bestselling novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil — I managed to dine on a musical banquet difficult to imagine even in a city several times Savannah’s modest (metropolitan population around 350,000) size.

From morning till evening, moving among nine different venues (all within walking distance), beneath the moss-draped live oak trees of the city’s centuries-old squares, a visitor found himself surrounded by history.

For Savannah is one of the lucky communities to survive General Sherman’s scorched-earth march through Georgia during the Civil War (or the War Between the States, as southerners prefer to call it), its canny mayor having surrendered without firing a single shot. The house on one of those squares in which the general was hospitably accommodated can still be visited.

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Not that music-minded visitors have much time to play history tourist, beyond occasionally standing line for a cone at Leopold’s legendary ice-cream emporium.

This visitor began with a walk to the elegant Regency-style Lucas Theatre for an unlikely performance of the Goldberg Variations, with Bach’s keyboard music simultaneously played by the strings or the Glasgow-based Scottish Ensemble and danced by the Stockholm-based Anderson Dance. In some of the 30 variations (the aria was omitted) the musicians even joined in the dancing while continuing to play. I kid you not, as television’s Jack Parr used to say.

Only in Savannah could I imagine walking out of a danced Bach concert and around the corner into another theatre to hear a virtuoso bluegrass concert by the Earls of Leicester — an ear-opening juxtaposition if ever there was one.

To hear the Earls (six middle-aged country folk in cowboy hats) pluck and saw their way through the likes of “My mother prays so loud in her sleep” was to be taken back to the bluegrass heyday of Flatt and Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys. It was almost enough to make this venerable city boy weep.

But that’s the Savannah Music Festival and why it has become a magnet for those of us who like to have our listening borders stretched.

One morning I walked over to the intimate Unitarian Universalist Church (whose late 19th-century director of music wrote “Jingle Bells”) to hear two of the world’s foremost mandolin players, Mike Marshall and his spouse Caterina Lichtenberg, travel musically “from Bach to Brazil,” continued my day with a noon-hour concert at the Charles H. Morris Centre by the Seattle-based Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, melding jazz, soul and rock ‘n’ roll, before climaxing it with a late-afternoon Trinity United Methodist Church concert by Daniel Hope and Friends.

Well-remembered by Koerner Hall patrons in Toronto, Hope was concluding his 16 years as the festival’s associate director for chamber music, a period notable for innovative programming.

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As an example, this concert paired the “Sextet” from Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio with two pieces not only new to the festival but new to its players: Vincent d’Indy’s Sextet in B-flat Major and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Quintet in A Major, the latter a real, joyously melodic discovery.

Hope is not alone in leaving the festival. Rob Gibson, its visionary overall director since 2002 has been succeeded by his longtime associate Ryan McMaken as artistic director and Australia’s David Pratt as administrative director.

Not that McMaken envisions a radical departure from the programming pattern of recent years. In a city of Savannah’s modest size, a something-for-everyone approach makes sense. What helps distinguish the festival is the quality of its offerings.

I admit that, with memories of less-than-distinguished community orchestras in the back of my head, I was apprehensive about the quality of the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra. Of course it is not an ensemble comparable with the festival’s annual orchestral visitor, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, but with guest pianist Marcus Roberts at the keyboard and Japanese guest conductor Keitaro Harada conducting, the 10-year-old orchestra put in a creditable performance.

As usual, Savannah turned out to be full of surprises.

William Littler is a Toronto-based music writer and a freelance contributor for the Star.