2017 Director’s Choice

Rob Gibson, SMF Executive & Artistic Director

“… it’s almost personal for me since I really don’t want people to miss experiencing these original programs.”

In reviewing the ticket sales for each individual concert just ahead of the festival itself, I always find myself amazed by the results. While I am never surprised that some of the more popular artists (The Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell) are selling extremely well, I am always a bit bewildered that many of the most extraordinary events we’ve programmed have plenty of seats remaining.

Because connecting artists and audiences is the heart of Savannah Music Festival’s (SMF) mission, I travel extensively to attend musical concerts and events around the world so that we can deliver some of the most remarkable artists to Savannah. So, it’s almost personal for me since I really don’t want people to miss experiencing these original programs.

Below is a collection of these concerts, each of which has never ever taken place or been produced in Savannah, thus making it your only chance to ever witness it here. The additional bonus is that not only are good seats still available, many of them are actually general admission, which means you can show up early and still get the best seats in the house!

While my interest in music is rarely steered by style or genre, I have grouped these concerts into five different categories to make them easier to navigate: “multi-disciplinary” (music + another art form); “world music,” “classical” (recitals, vocal, chamber and symphonic music); “jazz” and “modern Americana.”


I love it when live music is set to either film, dance and/or theatrical productions, and this year we have four such events.

Arguably the finest ballet company in the world is New York City Ballet (NYCB), and seven dancers from that company under the direction of NYCB soloist/choreographer Troy Schumacher will make their southeastern debut at SMF. This company is called BalletCollective, and they will be performing live to an eight-piece musical ensemble called Hotel Elephant. I have seen their wholly original performances in New York City and they are breathtaking.

Some of you may have attended the performance by the astonishing Ukrainian group, DakhaBrakha, that closed out SMF 2015. In this return appearance, they will perform their original score to the 1930 Soviet silent film by Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko called Earth, generally considered to be his masterpiece, live in the historic Lucas Theatre. It will never happen here again.

The US premiere (and only the 2nd performance ever) of an original program conceived by Daniel Hope called Brahms vs. Tchaikovsky, this theatrical performance showcases two actors—Brahms and Tchaikovsky—and a large screen with projections set to two chamber music masterworks performed by Daniel and Friends. For anyone who thinks they might not enjoy “chamber music,” this concert will make the music completely accessible and thoroughly modern.

If you’ve seen The Clayton Brothers at SMF, then you know that pianist and composer Gerald Clayton is a phenomenon. We helped commission his latest project, Gerald Clayton’s Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation featuring René Marie. It is a live concert presentation featuring Clayton’s Piedmont blues-inspired compositions written for The Assembly, a top-tier nine-piece jazz ensemble featuring the Grammy-nominated singer, Piedmont native and SMF favorite René Marie. Entwined with the music is an assemblage of projected film, new and archival photography, and Southern folklore underscoring the verdant cultural landscape of the Piedmont region. This is another one-time only in Savannah event.


Many people recognize that this term denotes only a 50-year period of music in history, yet far too many assume that it’s a stodgy, elitist style that is not for them. I continue to meet so many incredible teenagers and 20-somethings who not only adore it, but play the style exceedingly well.

In classical music circles, many people consider Lawrence Power to be the finest violist of our time. With an unmistakable tone, approach and lots of soul, he’s making his Savannah debut at SMF 2017, one of his only two US recitals this year.

It’s been six years since the Ebène Quartet made their only SMF appearance, which a good buddy of mine called “maybe the best SMF string quartet concert ever.” Their 2017 US tour is all-Beethoven except for their SMF appearance, which is an all-Beethoven first half followed by the epic Chausson Sextet performed with their close friend Daniel Hope, and pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips.

“Mozart is a garden, Schubert is a forest in light and shade, but Beethoven is a mountain range,” said the great Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel. And the terrain doesn’t come any more mountainous than Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, which are still played every single day the world over. Rarely does one hear more than two or three on a single program, but the prodigious Stewart Goodyear will play all 32 of them in one day. It is hard to believe, but he’s doing it across three concerts in a program that he calls Sonatathon. It will never happen again in Savannah.

Sherrill Milnes and Maria Zouves have their finger on the pulse of the finest emerging singers the world over. This marks our 3rd consecutive year collaborating with the Savannah VOICE Festival and they have lined up another stellar cast of vocalists for Arias and Encores, which will be performed on opening night and repeated on Sunday.

We couldn’t have a finer closing night program than the 12th annual appearance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, an all-Rachmaninoff affair featuring the incomparable pianist Stephen Hough playing Rach 1 under the direction of maestro Robert Spano.

World Music

Traveling the globe to hear music always brings a realization about how many unique musical expressions exist on our planet, and this year’s festival offers several extremely rare opportunities to witness international artists who you’ll likely never see again.

At the World Music Expo (WOMEX) in Budapest 18 months ago, I first heard the traditional Haitian roots music band called Chouk Bwa Libète, whose music blends the original rhythm and dance elements of Haitian Vodou. They were so remarkable that we are bringing them all the way from Haiti just to play SMF, which meant obtaining their visas, getting their plane tickets, etc. Plus we’ve paired them with the wonderful Haitian American artist Leyla McCalla and her trio. A not-to-be missed event.

Sixteen months ago, I was part of a small delegation called Center Stage that introduces Americans to artists of high artistic quality from nations and cultures we too seldom have access to, and we traveled to Pakistan. SMF is presenting both groups that we selected from that trip including the remarkable young singer Sanam Marvi, who is a rising star in the world’s 6th most populated nation. The other standout band from Pakistan, Sounds of Kolachi, blends sitar, sarod and astonishing singing with folk and rock elements to create a sound like none I’ve heard before. They’re sharing a bill with Hiss Golden Messenger, which is gifted singer/composer M.C. Taylor’s original North Carolina band that also blends folk and rock elements in wholly original ways.

Nearly everyone in Brazil knows about the 80-year old Brazilian composer and multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal, a beloved figure known for his abilities at orchestration and improvisation, who is finally making his Savannah debut on a double bill with another amazing Brazilian artist, Danilo Brito (who is half a century younger). One of the most virtuosic mandolin players on the planet, his quintet is possibly the finest choro ensemble in existence. This double bill is only happening here.

Last but certainly not least is music from the modern cosmopolitan society that has produced all types of music in the Canadian province of Québec. The vibrant blend of traditional songs, Celtic music, jazz, classical music and a love of foreign rhythms have spawned two of the finest Québecois groups performing today: Le Vent du Nord and De Temps Antan. Though each band has their own following, they are combining musically for a one-time only tour which will finally bring the power and elegance of Québecois music to our city.


Longtime patrons of SMF know that our Piano Showdown concerts are always original productions, and this year’s event promises to be one of the finest yet. The astonishing and internationally acclaimed Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés will finally play Savannah along with the great Panamian pianist Danilo Perez (20-year member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet) and SMF’s own Marcus Roberts in a program exploring the roots of jazz and what Jelly Roll Morton called the “Spanish tinge.” Morton understood the tresillo and habanera rhythms of the Cuban contradanza, and he categorized his own compositions in three groups: blues, stomps and Spanish tinge, for those with habanera rhythms. Expect a concert with virtuosity, soul and plenty of fireworks as these three master pianists play solos and duets in this only-in-Savannah event.

The Hammond organ was invented in the mid 1930s, and within two decades such jazz masters as Jimmy Smith, Larry Young, Jimmy McGriff, Lonnie Smith and Charles Earland made it a major jazz instrument. Two more master performers from different generations, Joey DeFrancesco and Ike Stubblefield, will bring their soulful grooves to the stage on this double bill, and “Joey D” will also showcase his talents as a multi-instrumentalist and one of the premier jazz musicians in our time.

Modern Americana

There are many bassists in the world, but there’s only one Edgar Meyer. His writing, playing and creative projects are completely original and his duo with SMF favorite Mike Marshall returns five years after their sold-out performance here blew everyone away. With new material and a guest appearance by Edgar’s son, George, expect nothing less than the highest level of instrumental virtuosity and bucket loads of soul.

Banjoist Noam Pikelny has made numerous SMF appearances as a member of the Punch Brothers and leading his own band, but this is his solo debut. He’ll be performing original music, playing banjo and flat top guitar, and has a striking baritone that conveys humor and melancholy in equal measure. The second half of the bill features acoustic supergroup Sutton, Holt & Coleman, the combination of Grammy winners Bryan Sutton, David Holt and T. Michael Coleman. Their focus is the musical legacy of Doc Watson and the musical scene of Western North Carolina, whose history is rich, vibrant and continues strong today. This is heartfelt stuff.

Those of us who followed the Grateful Dead many years ago enjoyed their original body of work, which has been very cleverly and creatively reprised in a new collaboration with The Travelin’ McCourys (basically the Del McCoury band minus Del) and Jeff Austin called The Grateful Ball. I didn’t believe it would be so good until I heard it, so if you like the Dead, you’re going to love this concert.

It’s hard to believe Julian Lage still hasn’t turned 30, particularly since his annual appearances here for the past seven years have created so many fans. His acoustic duo with Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge has gone to another level. This night of intrepid songwriting and acoustic innovation begins with Aoife O’Donovan (Goat Rodeo, Crooked Still) at center stage with just her acoustic guitar and voice. Julian and Chris follow with their extravagant and astounding playing, before the evening concludes with all three on stage together in an aural hootenanny.

I mentioned M.C. Taylor earlier because of the double bill with Sounds of Kolachi, but Hiss Golden Messenger is quintessential modern Americana with a North Carolina bent that is universal in its appeal for lovers of independent music and original thinking.