25th Anniversary in Review

by Rob Gibson, Executive & Artistic Director

As reviews and press clips come in after each festival, we always take pleasure in seeing what new food metaphors are used to describe SMF’s programming. Phrases such as “feast,” “smorgasbord” and “omnivore’s delight” are among the culinary comparisons that critics have employed to describe our event. I’ve always used the concept of the sushi bar to describe the SMF experience, in hopes of encouraging people to branch out and try a little of this and some of that, seeking the input of those around them and hopefully leaving with the discovery of a new favorite or two.

During the 2014 festival, Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Bo Emerson attended SMF for the first time and was pleasantly surprised by the ingredients of its musical menu. The first concert he attended was the SMF co-commissioned project Flamenco Meets Jazz, in which we partnered with Spain’s Flamenco Festival International to create new music exploring the combination of our respective countries’ renowned musical traditions through a collaboration between flamenco artists Dani de Morón, Guillermo McGill and Rosario Toledo, and jazz pianist Aaron Diehl and his Trio. “The swing and sweetness of jazz mingled with the stern melancholy and poly-rhythmic thrust of the Spanish idiom,” he wrote, following up by quoting the observation of an SMF patron: “It’s like bacon and chocolate! You don’t think it’s going to go together, but somehow it does.”

Beyond his astute comestible correlations, Emerson put a fine point on the indisputable impact that an event such as SMF has on Savannah, and went on to muse: “How did a city of 150,000 (360,000 in the metro area) create a music festival that rivals Spoleto in Charleston? How did Savannah slip past Atlanta and claim this prize? A visit to Savannah for the first three days of the festival offered a few clues: relentless hospitality, choice and courage.” My take on those three words in relation to SMF follows:

HOSPITALITY. The bedrock of SMF is our community, which more than ever, embraced SMF with pride during our 25th anniversary season. Restauranteurs, hoteliers and other local businesses reported as much as 25 percent revenue increases during the 2014 festival. Partner organizations such as the Lucas Theatre for the Arts, Charles H. Morris Center, Trinity United Methodist Church, Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum and Savannah College of Art & Design (among many others) worked with our staff and crew to elevate our productions, helping create an atmosphere in which patrons could be inspired by the artists on stage. Volunteers came together to support our team, offering priceless services with their enthusiasm and grassroots promotion. We aspire to be like other long-term festival cities such as Lafayette, Louisiana, whose residents and visitors can be heard throughout the city’s long-running Festival International de Louisiane saying “happy festival!” With the hospitality and fulfillment evident during our 25th anniversary season, we are well on our way to that goal.

CHOICE. SMF’s artistic planning is always ongoing. There are innumerable factors that influence the programmatic decisions, though the ultimate goal is to present a variety of world-class artistry across 17 days. We work hard to align programs for our patrons by staggering showtimes and offering rich choices every day of the festival. Take March 21, 2014 as a snapshot: where else in the world could a concertgoer be presented with the premiere of Flamenco Meets Jazz; the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in an intimate venue; Daniel Hope & Friends performing the music of Mozart, Brahms and Bartók; Aoife O’Donovan and The Lone Bellow sharing a bill on an outdoor stage; flamenco singer Estrella Morente and her esteemed ensemble in the Lucas Theatre; and folk-rockers The Avett Brothers leaving it all on stage for their fans in a sold-out encore performance? You might find all of this at once in NYC’s five boroughs, but no other festival on the planet is offering this variety of musical selection in one day.

COURAGE. Duke Ellington summed up the approach we have taken to overseeing the programming of SMF. While critics, listeners and others are prone to genre classification and categorization, Ellington responded in a bold and courageous fashion with “there are two kinds of music: good music, and the other kind.” Though it might seem like an oversimplification, the intent of that statement is reflected through the artistry of each Savannah Music Festival. Eight years ago we might have had a difficult time selling tickets to a double-bill of African musicians, but the night before we closed out the 2014 festival, a wildly enthusiastic jam-packed house relished the artistry of Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara and the desert blues of Niger-born guitarist Bombino in the open air at Ships of the Sea. The same goes for Pakistani qawwali singer Asif Ali Khan, who in 2014, wowed the overflow crowd at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah. And it’s always the case with an artist like Daniel Hope, who lives by the mantra that “we need authentic, serious and communicative musicians who want to play the hell out of their instruments and open their mouths, not to ‘bond’ with the audience, but to deliver their message about why this music is so incredible.”

We thank our loyal supporters, contributing artists, audiences and community members for taking pride in SMF, and for putting trust in our choices. Here’s to the next 25 years!