Two hours down the road is a lovely Southern city that drips Spanish moss and oozes history. In 1988, Savannah’s Chamber of Commerce introduced a music festival to celebrate the charms of the place and satisfy the tourists.
Eleven years ago, Rob Gibson took over and started to ramp things up. He had taught the history of American music at Juilliard for a decade; he had started Jazz at Lincoln Center in collaboration with Wynton Marsalis. He knew people, especially in the jazz and folk music world.
Gibson got his friend, the British violinist and musical activist Daniel Hope, to help with the classical music programming. The festival grew in scope and stature.
This week, the Savannah Music Festival marks its 24th year and the lineup is impressive. It showcases many genres and a healthy dose of Southern Americana.
Jazz offerings include performances by Ahmad Jamal, Charles McPherson and Rene Marie (Marie’s drummer is Charleston musician Quentin Baxter).
Folk musicians include dobro master Jerry Douglas, the David Grisman Folk-Jazz Trio, Sarah Jarosz, Steep Canyon Rangers, Mike Marshall and Darol Anger and a double bill featuring Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell with British guitar legend Richard Thompson.
Classical music concerts slated for the festival present such notable stars as David Finckel and Wu Han, Anne Sofie von Otter, Richard Goode and Jeremy Denk. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by Robert Spano, will premiere a new piano concerto by Marcus Roberts. And two other new works will receive their U.S. premieres.
Gibson calls it a “boutique festival” that combines high-end chamber music, jazz and world music, and at the same time shows off music of the American South.
“What we want to do is stage a lot of original, one-time-only productions, commissions (and) double bills,” he says.
He can do more of that these days. The annual budget is $3.1 million (about half that of the Spoleto Festival USA), an increase of $2.4 million since Gibson first arrived in Savannah from New York City.
One musical form that’s not produced at the festival is opera, which is cost prohibitive, he said, adding that he admired the Spoleto Festival for managing it year after year.
But anything else is fair game.
Want to hear Mali’s kora master Ballake Sissoko together on stage with French crossover cellist Vincent Segal? No problem.
Want to check out the all-male bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers performing together with the all-female bluegrass band Della Mae? Go for it.
Want a mix of vocal jazz and cabaret? Try the Jane Monheit/Jennifer Sheehan double bill.
Or what about the sax-centric show featuring the Charles McPherson Quartet and Walter Blanding Septet?
“Those types of double bills, to me, it’s just modern chamber music,” Gibson said.
Hope said he’s thrilled to be part of an eclectic festival that brings so many musicians together from around the world. But the festival’s American roots must be constantly watered, he said.
“The American element is important, but we also wanted to bring European and American artists together. ... (The) Savannah (festival) is the ideal way to get my friends to America, and to give American musicians a view of what’s going on across the pond.”
This year, the classical music offerings will include two premieres by two female composers, he said. New York-based Alexandra DuBois is providing a piano quintet that Hope describes as neo-Romantic, “ethereal, with beautiful melodies.”
“She writes music which really touches in a very modest way,” he said.
The British composer Charlotte Bray will introduce her new string quintet, scored for two violas, “a challenging virtuoso piece.”
Hope called it fierce.
“She’s a young lady who speaks her mind musically,” he said. “She doesn’t really give much heed to the technical challenges of the instrument. It’s going to be quite a ride.”
Appearing again this year will be Hope’s friends, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, artistic directors of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, intrepid performer-educators and partners in marriage.
The acclaimed Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter makes her Savannah debut. Italian violinist Lorenza Borrani will return to the festival to offer a recital. And the esteemed Richard Goode will delve into the classical repertoire, playing piano works by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
All in all, there are nearly 20 classical music concerts during the 2013 festival, Hope said.
Gibson said the festival is much more than a 17-day celebration of music. It continues around the calendar with education programming that reaches about 20,000 students each year.
The “Music for Our Schools” program exposes children to live theater. The “Swing Central Jazz” initiative is a workshop and national competition for high school students led by the festival’s associate artistic director Marcus Roberts.
And the Acoustic Music Seminar, led by mandolinist Mike Marshall, provides mentorship opportunities to up-and-coming local players, 14-20 years old. Teachers have included such famed folk musicians as Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile. This year, the wunderkind string player Sarah Jarosz will lend a hand, Gibson said.
“The goal is to get kids more engaged with the conception of not only composition but playing,” Gibson said. “It’s confidence-building.”
On Wednesday, the 24th Savannah Music Festival kicks off. Once again, musical diversity is the theme. Once again, the lineup includes a mix of superstars and emerging talent. Once again, Charleston’s sister city to the south will drip and ooze with culture. More history is sure to be made.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparker writer.