Acouple of hours down the road is Charleston's sister city, Savannah, another center of Southern history and culture. In 1990, civic leaders decided to capitalize on that reputation by starting the OnStage International Arts Festival.

If you go

WHAT: Savannah Music Festival

WHEN: March 20-April 5

WHERE: 10 venues, downtown Savannah

COST: $20-$75

MORE INFO: savannah; (912) 525-5050

Twelve years later, Rob Gibson, the man who started Jazz at Lincoln Center and ran it for a dozen years, was named executive director, and the event was renamed the Savannah Music Festival.

Gibson hit the ground running. He hired classical violinist Daniel Hope in 2003 and jazz pianist Marcus Roberts in 2005, naming both associate artistic directors. He organized special concerts, expanded programming and community outreach and increased ticket sales and donations.

In 2012, he started the Acoustic Music Seminar, an intensive workshop for young string players, and engaged

mandolinist Mike Marshall as associate director.

Today, the festival celebrates its 25th year with robust classical chamber music, jazz, Americana and international music offerings, and a remarkable lineup of musicians from around the world.

Its education and outreach initiatives, which include residencies, in-school programs, a high school band competition and an acoustic music seminar, are more vibrant than ever.

The 17-day festival begins Thursday with classical, jazz, flamenco and folk; it ends April 5 with Branford Marsalis, a string band showcase and a dance party.

The music extravaganza precedes and complements the larger, multifaceted Spoleto Festival USA, Gibson said. Both events take full advantage of the cities in which they are embedded, presenting concerts in venues throughout the historic downtown districts.

"We'd love for more people to come here," Gibson said. "What we're doing is different enough from Spoleto; it's musically more diverse."

Among the many world-class musicians and ensembles scheduled to appear are:

Flamenco guitarist Dani de Moron and jazz pianist Aaron Diehl

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Flamenco singer Estrella Morente

The Avett Brothers and Punch Brothers

Sufi soul singer Asif Ali Khan

Christian McBride Trio and singer Cecile McLorin Salvant

Vince Gill

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn

Bluegrass veteran Ricky Skaggs and Bluegrass newcomer Sierra Hull

Robert Cray Band

Malian singer-guitarist Fatoumata Diawara and Tuareg guitarist Bombino

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

The Jerusalem and Dover quartets

Classical mandolinist Avi Avital

Members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra


Gibson said the programming is always a balancing act, and increasingly ambitious.

"There are two kinds of music, the kind you like and the kind you don't like," he said. "I program the kind I like."

The annual operating budget has grown from $700,000 in 2002 to $3.4 million this year, he said. About 40 percent of the budget is earned income (ticket sales mostly); 60 percent is raised from sponsors and donors.

"Trying to sell concerts is a little difficult for this size market," Gibson said, referring to Savannah's relatively modest population size. Around 40 percent of the festival's patrons were tourists last year, traveling at least 90 miles to get to the city, he said. The average stay in Savannah was 4.4 days.

Gibson adores flamenco music and often programs it, hoping that regional audiences will discover its expressive thrills.

"People don't understand that flamenco is a vibrant tradition, probably more alive in 2014 than it's ever been," he said.

He's so passionate about it that he's pursuing a new venture with Miguel Marin, director of the Flamenco Festival, a mash-up of flamenco and jazz that will be presented at the festival and in venues outside of Savannah. (De Moron and Diehl are inaugurating the venture.)


The spring musical offerings in downtown Savannah are perhaps the most pronounced aspect of the festival, but over the years, staff members have developed significant education and outreach programs: artist residencies and teacher training at public schools in the five counties surrounding Savannah, including Jasper and Beaufort counties in South Carolina; Swing Central Jazz, a three-day immersion workshop and competition for high schoolers that delves into the swing and big band repertoire; and the Acoustic Music Seminar, intensive master classes offered to 16 young string players from all over the world.

For the in-school projects, artists spend five days at a time with students, presenting study guides and directing classroom work, according to Ryan McMaken, the festival's marketing and managing director. The purpose is to use music as a vehicle for learning important subjects such as math or ecology.

Participatory songwriting is used to illustrate aspects of science, for example. Teachers are taught to integrate music into their lessons to facilitate understanding of essential principles and processes.

The festival also works with Joseph Conyers, principal bass player of the Philadelphia Orchestra and a Savannah resident who co-founded Project 440, an organization that exposes school children to live music performances and fosters community engagement among players.

But educational efforts are not limited to kids in the Savannah area. The Swing Central Jazz program run by Marcus Roberts, now in its 10th year, assigns professional musicians and educators to selected high school bands who travel to Savannah for intensive workshops and performances.

About 60 applications are received each year, reviewed blindly then whittled down to 12 groups, McMaken said.

"They raise money with concerts and car washes to get here," McMaken said. And they get to work with the likes of Roberts, drummer Jason Marsalis, trombone player Wycliffe Gordon and bassist Christian McBride.

"It's kind of an immersive approach to the music - education, workshop, performance experience - plus kids go see shows," McMaken said.

The Acoustic Music Seminar is now in its third year. It functions like Swing Central Jazz, inviting selected young string players to Savannah to work with clinicians such as Julian Lage, Bela Fleck, Avi Avital, Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott, Mike Marshall and others.

The weeklong program during the festival consists of daily master classes, ensemble playing and writing and collaborations with established musicians.

"These kids are the future of acoustic music in America," Marshall wrote in an email. "Many of them are quietly living in some small town and have not many chances to meet others like them. This week gives them that chance, as well as a chance to meet and play with people who are their mentors and heroes."

The students bring their own compositions and work as leaders and sidemen and -women in prearranged groupings, Marshall wrote.

"By the end the week, an incredible bond has been established among the group's members, as well as an amazing feeling of clarity about where they would like to go musically in the future and what the next steps towards that goal will be."

Marshall, an accomplished mandolin player with plenty of touring and recording under his belt, is particularly enthusiastic about the festival seminar.

"Nothing has given me as much joy and satisfaction as working with these young people and seeing the future of American music laid out before me," he wrote.


Gibson said he is always looking for opportunities to start something new. The flamenco project is a recent example. Last year, the festival presented Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in "Play and Play: An Evening of Movement and Music," which paired Jones' innovative choreography with familiar works from the classical music repertoire, performed live.

Live performance is key: No festival production will ever use recorded music, he said.

The innovation adds an extra degree of excitement to the festival, and a few projects that originate in Savannah have staying power.

"If you have success with a project, sometimes it has life after that," Gibson said.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at