Savannah, Georgia has been a crossroads of travel, trade, and ideas since it was founded in 1733. It is also a natural crossroads for musicians, the ideas they share, and the differing ways they express those ideas. One of the ways Savannah celebrates this — and invites the world to join in — is through the Savannah Music Festival.
The main festival takes place each year across nearly three weeks in late March and early April. In 2018 it is 29 March through 14 April. The Savannah Music Festival has an active program and presence through the year, too, celebrating the diverse music present in Georgia and beyond, and building audiences for music, too.
With the Musical Explorers program, the Savannah Music Festival brings elementary school students and teachers in the region in contact with artists from a range of musical traditions, getting them right into making music themselves as well as learning about different sort of musical styles, and meeting artists who create them and learning about their lives. Then, students and teachers are able to come to concerts where their new friends perform.
Here’s short (3 minute) film about what Musical Explorers is like:
Each year before the festival, high school jazz bands are invited to send in recordings of their work to compete for a place in a week long mentoring scheme from top jazz musicians. These bands also play free concerts on Savannah’s Riverfront, and the very top choices at the end of the week get to share the professional stage with jazz greats at a festival concert.
In a separate program, student and early career string instrument musicians apply to take part in a week long series of workshops with musicians drawn from top festival performers who are also top notch instructors. The students work in composing and get to support each other in a public concert during the festival. Swing Central Jazz and Acoustic Music Seminar concerts are always among the most anticipated by longtime festival attendees.
These are not the only chances you’ll have to catch a rising star at the Savannah Music Festival. Festival Executive and Artistic Director Rob Gibson and Associate Music Directors Daniel Hope, Marcus Roberts, and Mike Marshall work each season to bring emerging professional musicians to perform, as well as to book a full slate of top class solo artists, groups, and collaborations from across the spectrum of classical, jazz, blues, Broadway, Americana, and many flavors world music.
The first day of the festival in 2018 will see jazz from the Pat Martino Quartet, and a celebration of Savannah’s own Benedetto Guitars 50th anniversary featuring jazz and blues artists. You could also choose to hear Daniel Hope with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra in a program of Vivaldi and Schubert works. On the same evening, bluegrass award winners Claire Lynch and Rhonda Vincent will share a bill at the historic Ships of the Sea Museum.
This wide range of programming continues through the festival. There’s a strand called Daniel Hope and Friends, an always popular classical series that offers new collaborations each year. In the jazz, swing, and blues strand Trinidadian trumpet player Etienne Charles premiers a work commissioned for the festival called Gullah Roots in which he explores Afro-Caribbean connections to the Gullah music of the low country. This is co-bllled with Charleston based group Ranky Tanky, who focus on the Gullah culture.
Another meeting of cultures occurs as Lunasa, from Ireland, share an evening with bluegrass and country singer songwriter Tim O’Brien, who often explores the Celtic roots of Appalachian music in his work.
New Orleans native Sullivan Fortner, whose instrument is the piano, is a rising star in jazz. He will appear several times in his debut year at the festival. Chris Pattishall. also a rising star in jazz piano, young soulful singer Brianna Thomas, Grammy nominated trumpet player Alphonso Horne, and fellow trumpeter Terrell Stafford will offer an evening of music in tribute to Louis Armstrong and Lee Morgan.
Celebrated flamenco singer Diego El Cigala will appear, as will Antonio Zambujo, award winning guitarist and fado singer from Portugal. The ensemble Stile Antico takes Iberian music in another direction, offering a cappella Renaissance works from Spain.
Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives bring the present day and history of country music into the festival mix, as do acclaimed singer songwriter Rosanne Cash and her musical partner and husband, always creative guitarist John Leventhal.
Another creative guitar player on the festival schedule is Derek Gripper. He’s from South Africa and is equally respected by classical guitar lovers and fans of the music of Mali, as what he does is render music of the Mailan kora on acoustic guitar. He will appear in a solo show and share an evening with Trio Da Kali, who draw on Mail’s griot tradition.
Mike Block and Sandeep Das might almost be said to be creating a tradition of their own, as they play, respectively, cello and tabla — and not necessarily in ways you’ve heard either instrument before. They share an evening with Kittel and Co. whose leader Jeremy Kittel is equally adept at crossing genre barriers on his fiddle.
Speaking of crossing barriers, have you heard Moira Smiley? You may have come across her work in the context of Celtic, Balkan, Appalachian, and several other sorts of music. She’s a gifted singer and composer who will be making her festival debut headlining a concert as well as appearing with Jayme Stone’s Folklife, a group whose repertoire could be seen as a mini festival of American roots music on its own.
There’s more. Pinchas Zukerman Trio, Hawktail, Rhiannon Giddens, Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, The Atlanta Symphony and many others… films, talks, theatrical presentations too.
For the final day, the Savannah Music Festival is offering a new twist year. Rather than individual concerts on this day there will be a day long outdoor festival in the Trustees’ Garden just east of Savannah’s historic district. Among the artists featured will be Gillian Welch, Marc Broussard, Jason Isbell, and Septeto Santiaguero. “We are elated to use one of Georgia’s most historic outdoor sites at Trustees’ Garden, ” says festival Executive and Artistic Director Rob Gibson. The Yamacraw Center for the Performing Arts is a new addition to festival venues in 2018 as well. The festival has been known across its 29 year history for making creative us of the city’s contemporary and historic venues. “These new spaces offer a unique opportunity to build on our mission of creating high-quality exchange between artists and audiences in Savannah,” Gibson points out.
For more information about the festival, and to hear recordings of past events, the Savannah Music Festival website is the place to visit. While you are at the website, you may also listen to episodes of the weekly radio program Savannah Music Festival LIVE, which is written and hosted by Gibson, who is marking his 17th year as the festival’s Executive and Artistic Director. If it’s not in the cards for you to visit this season, consider making plans for a future year. The range and quality of music are always top notch.
Photograph of Claire Lynch by Stacie Huckeba
Photograph of Tim O’Brien courtesy of the artist
Photograph of Stile Antico by Marco Borggreve
Photograph of Mike Block by Maria Camillo
Photograph of Jayme Stone’s Folklife by Alexandra DeFurio
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