2018 Director’s Choice

Rob Gibson, SMF Executive & Artistic Director  •  March 22, 2018

With just a week to go before our 29th edition of the Savannah Music Festival (SMF), I talk with people every day who tell me they haven’t yet purchased tickets, wanting to know which concerts to attend. While several events are sold out, the great news is that some of my very favorite artists are playing programs with seats available, most of which are general admission seating. In no particular order, here are some under-the-radar knockout events that make our festival unlike any other.    


If you like soul singers or rhythm and blues, the double bill of Lee Fields & The Expressions with The James Hunter Six will be a major festival highlight. While each group has wowed SMF audiences on separate occasions in the past, this pairing is guaranteed to be a downhome, funky and soulful gathering. I can’t think of a better way to spend a spring afternoon or evening outdoors in the beautiful North Garden Assembly Room at Ships of the Sea Museum!


Those who favor gorgeous melodies and old-time sounds will love one of my very favorite singers, Moira Smiley, who has a voice like an angel. She premieres an original program that incorporates American, Irish, Russian and ancient musical traditions with frequent collaborators and special guests, all of which displays the incredible breadth of her original skills and compositions. Moira shares the bill with breathtaking duo, Anna & Elizabeth, who combine raw materials mined from traditional American music and culture to create something visceral, surprising and heartfelt.



I’ve been trying to get Stile Antico, a dozen soaring and glorious voices that blew people away in St. John’s Cathedral at SMF 2011, for a return appearance, and our schedules finally synced up. They’ll give a rare performance of one of the late Renaissance masterpieces, The Tenebrae Responsories by Tomás Luis de Victoria, the most famous composer in 16th-century Spain and one of the most important composers of the Counter-Reformation. This work is a real gem!



For fans of brass music, it doesn’t get any better than the American Brass Quintet (ABQ) who’ll play two different programs in the intimate confines of the Morris Center.  Internationally recognized as one of the premier chamber music ensembles of our time and the 2013 recipient of Chamber Music America’s highest honor, the ABQ’s rich history includes performances in Asia, Australia, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East and all fifty of the United States; a discography of nearly sixty recordings; and the premieres of over 150 contemporary brass works. Finally, their Savannah debut.



Virtuosity has always been a manifestation of artistic achievement and A World of Strings features amazing virtuosos, all performing on different stringed instruments. One half of the double bill features SMF Associate Artistic Director and mandolin master Mike Marshall with Brazilian pianist Jovino Santos Neto performing classic Brazilian and original songs. Simon Shaheen dazzles listeners as he deftly leaps from traditional Arabic sounds to jazz and Western classical styles. His soaring technique, melodic ingenuity and unparalleled grace have earned him international acclaim as a virtuoso on the oud and violin. He’ll be joined by the talented young Israeli kanun player, Firas Zreik, making the event a true “World of Strings.”



If you missed the 2014 film “Birdman,” you might not know it won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography. While this stunningly original movie stars Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts, the film’s original music segments are a drum score consisting entirely of solo jazz percussion performances by Antonio Sánchez. SMF is bringing Antonio to perform live to the film on the giant screen at the Lucas Theatre in what promises to be an electric event!




One of the world’s leading Mozart experts, keyboard wizard Kristian Bezuidenhout returns to SMF for the first time in six years! Now the Artistic Director of the Freiburger Barockorchester (Freiburg Baroque Orchestra) and Principal Guest Director with the English Consort, Kristian’s award-winning discography on Harmonia Mundi includes the complete keyboard music of Mozart and the Mendelssohn and Mozart Piano Concertos with the Freiburger Barockorchester. This all-Mozart program features three of his great sonatas.  



This extraordinary evening brings together musicians from Mali, South Africa, the Congo and Uganda and showcases the important lineage and traditions that continue to be refined there. I first heard Trio Da Kali in Budapest on a double bill with the amazing South African guitarist Derek Gripper, who has transcribed many of kora master Toumani Diabaté’s compositions for his own instrument. Last year, I witnessed the magic between Derek and Trio Da Kali performing together along with Ugandan multi-instrumentalist Kinobe. Both Derek and Trio Da Kali also perform separate lunchtime concerts at the festival, each of which will knock you out.



This festival marks the 15th consecutive year for Daniel Hope, our Curtis & Elizabeth Anderson Associate Artistic Director. He has assembled another amazing series of original concerts, including three with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, with whom he serves as Musical Director. Daniel’s career continues to catapult upward and while everything he does is first-class, I am particularly fond of his interpretations of masterworks such as the Brahms G Major String Sextet and the Elgar Piano Quintet, both of which he will perform on April 10th.



The opening Friday night pairs two formidable talents outdoors at Ships of the Sea: violinist Jenny Scheinman and guitarist/singer Margaret Glaspy each present their own original projects. Jenny has toured and/or recorded with Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell, Lou Reed, Ani DiFranco and Bill Frisell, but her group Mischief & Mayhem features cohorts Nels Cline (guitarist of Wilco since 2004), Todd Sickafoose and Jim Black performing her original and dazzling compositions. 27-year old Margaret Glaspy previously played Savannah Stopover and began her career as guitarist and singer for The Fundies along with Rachael Price and Bridget Kearney (Lake Street Dive) and fiddler Brittany Haas. Now with guitarist Julian Lage, she has created an authentic and virtuosic set of songs that take her to new levels.



Arguably the most unique event in our festival, Manual Cinema presents Lula Del Ray, a work I saw in Australia and adored. Performed with overhead projectors, shadow puppets, actors in silhouette and live music, it’s a story set in the mid-century American Southwest and inspired by the music of Hank Williams, Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline. Lula del Ray is a mythic reinvention of the classic coming-of-age story, and afterwards the audience is invited to join the artists on stage to see how they performed their phenomenal shadow puppetry work.



We just got the news that violinist Jeremy Kittel had an accident and broke his arm, so we are sad not to have his group this year. The great news is that we replaced him on very short notice with the amazing young Sam Reider, whose phenomenal group, Human Hands, will make their Savannah debut. I heard Sam for the first time two months ago and immediately fell for his music. He plays accordion and piano, writes all of his own music, and is a very bright light for the future of acoustic music! Hailed by Yo-Yo Ma as the “ideal musician of the 21st century,” Mike Block is a pioneering cello player, singer, composer, educator and member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble (SRE) since 2005 (while still a student at The Juilliard School). Along with SRE tabla virtuoso Sandeep Das, Mike has developed a telepathic sound hailed by The New York Times as “a breathless duet” that will comprise the first half of the concert.   



This tour de force evening features the Savannah debut of two completely different jazz trios, including NEA Jazz Master Dr. Lonnie Smith, an authentic guru of the Hammond B3 organ for over five decades. Called the most creative jazz organist by many, he is a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a turban who never stops swinging. His groove-bound trio will follow pianist and New Orleans native Sullivan Fortner and his trio. Sullivan is the 2015 Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz of the American Pianist Association, and his Crescent City sound is steeped in gospel, 4/4 swing and the blues. The joint will be jumping!



I’ve always loved the Cuban son (Son cubano) tradition, so when I watched Septeto Santiaguero make their US debut and get 500 people dancing in a NYC nightclub last year, it was obvious that this Latin Grammy-winning group needed to play SMF. They bring their signature sound developed at the famous Casa de la Trova nightclub in Santiago de Cuba – the cradle of bolero, a slow-tempo Latin music and associated dance – for a big, outdoor dance party at Ships of the Sea. Bring your dancing shoes!