Staunton Music Festival: celebrating a living tradition

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Staunton Music Festival: celebrating a living tradition

Staunton hasn’t heard about “the death of classical music.” The little Shenandoah Valley city with the handsome, historic downtown and the rich reputation for the performing arts celebrates a living tradition each summer with the Staunton Music Festival, drawing larger crowds each year for dynamic and innovative chamber music concerts. The 2014 event, August 15-24, features nineteen performances in ten days – nine of them free, and all of them by an international cast of musicians. That’s highly impressive, but not highly surprising for a town hailed by Smithsonian, Travel and Leisure, and other national magazines for its charm and wide-ranging cultural offerings.

This year’s festival has its roots in two weekend concerts organized in 1998 by its pianist, harpsichordist, conductor, and festival artistic director Carsten Schmidt. A core group of 35-40 players returns annually, lured by varied and imaginative programming, musical community, and appreciative audiences. “Director Carsten Schmidt has a wonderful talent for crafting programs where the familiar favorites are counterbalanced with world premieres and incredible unknowns from ages past,” says baritone Thomas Florio, who started as a stagehand in 2004, and will sing the role of Jesus in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion this year. “With concerts taking place on the campus of Mary Baldwin College, in Trinity Episcopal Church, and in the unique Blackfriars Theatre (built as a recreation of Shakespeare’s original theater of the same name), concertgoers will find the Festival’s setting provides a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.”   

“As a Virginia native currently living abroad, my yearly residency at the Staunton Music Festival feels like a homecoming in a number of ways,” says the festival’s resident composer, Zachary Wadsworth. “The city itself is such a verdant, beautiful spot. But the people of Staunton make the festival what it is. Audiences come to concerts in droves with open ears, eager to hear not only the most incredible works of the past, but also brand new music. I’ve never been to a festival with such a dedicated and engaged audience culture.”

Open-eared listeners this year can hear compositions from an astonishing number of composers (50), ranging from Handel and the Three B’s (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms), to late Romantic masters like Mahler and Rachmaninoff and 21st century torch carriers like Wadsworth. All the lunchtime concerts are free. Each evening concert will be preceded by a free 30-minute talk. 

The festival begins on Friday, August 15 with a 1920s-style gala billed as “part Viennese ball, part Berlin nightclub,” that includes dinner and waltzing, a champagne and martini cash bar, plus six musical selections beginning with Mozart and ending with Weill. Tickets for this Midsummer Ball running from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. at Hunt Hall at Mary Baldwin College are $100. Formal or period dress is encouraged.

This year’s first free concert, entitled Love and Sacrifice, takes place at noon on Saturday, August 16 at Trinity Episcopal Church. The program includes Benjamin Britten’s Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, Yoshihisa Taira’s Sublimation, for harp, and Pytor Illyich Tchaikovsky’s popular Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, arranged for piano and string sextet.

That evening at 7:30, Trinity Episcopal will be the setting for Birds, Whales and Dragonflies. This musical menagerie will include Johann Strauss’s Overture to Die Fledermaus (The Bat), George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale, Ross Edwards’ Dance of the Dragonfly, Josef Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 (”The Hen”), and Gioachino Rossini’s Cat Duet, plus Thomas Weelkes’ Two madrigals, Franz Liszt’s Franziskus Legend No. 1, a selection from John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano, and Zachary Wadsworth’s The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts. Tickets for evening performances are $22 for adults, $20 for seniors, $8 for students, and free for kids 18 and under.

Wadsworth’s music, praised for its “evocative mixture of old and new,” will be heard in five concerts this year. The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, one of two new compositions he will premiere, “is a short cycle of silly songs about animals for contralto and piano,” the composer says. “I will play the piano and Sara Couden will sing. With titles like ‘The Whale,’ ‘The Dodo,’ and ‘The Marmozet,’ the songs explore humanity’s relationship with our furry, feathered, and even slimy friends.”

Like many of this year’s programs, Britannia at the Blackfriars, on Sunday, August 17 at 7:30 p.m., ranges from the familiar to the obscure, and from the comforting to the challenging. Among the program’s eight selections are Georg Frideric Handel’s Sinfonia and Chorus from Acis and Galatea, Vaughan Williams’ Studies in English Folksong, Benjamin Britten’s Canticle V: The Death of St. Narcissus for tenor and harp, and March No. 1 from Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, for chorus and orchestra. Tickets are $28 for adults, $24 for seniors, and $10 for students and free for youths 18-and-under.

University of Virginia faculty member and percussionist I-Jen Fang looks forward to what is the most unusual – and may turn out to be the most invigorating – piece of the evening, Anna Clyne’s Steelworks, a 2006 composition for flute, bass clarinet, two percussionists, tape and video.  “I get to play fast sextuplets,” says Fang, who is returning for her fourth year at the festival, “sometimes on one note with different accents and sometimes all over the place on marimba.”

Collegium Vocale, at noon on Wednesday August 20 at Trinity Episcopal Church, will include selections from Robert Schumann’s Spanische Liebeslieder, op. 138, for vocal quartet and piano, four hands, University of Virginia composer Judith Shatin’s Marvelous Pursuits, for vocal quartet and piano, four hands, and Zachary Wadsworth’s The Golden Key, for tenor and harp.

The Golden Key, the second Wadsworth world premiere this year, is a fairy tale for bass voice and harp. “The story of this piece follows a boy as he searches for the golden key at the end of a rainbow,” Wadsworth says. “While this sounds rather light, the poet (George MacDonald) adds depth to the work by withholding our expected ending.”

The Chaconne program, at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, August 20 at Trinity Episcopal Church, begins with J.S. Bach’s Chaconne for violin, and chorale Christ lag in Todesbanden, for vocal quartet. Completing the program will be E. I. Kahn’s Ciaconna dei tempo de guerra, for piano, Heinrich Schütz’s Es steh Gott auf for two sopranos, violins, and continuo, Johannes Brahms’  Symphony No. 4, and a new work for jazz ensemble by Chuck Dotas, Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at James Madison University. Tickets are $22 for adults, $20 for seniors, $8 for students, and free for youths 18-and-under.

The festival closes on Sunday, August 24 at 3:00 p.m. with one of the masterpieces of the classical canon, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, a sacred oratorio written in 1727 for solo voices, choir and orchestra, and performed here on period instruments. “The drama in Bach’s setting of St. Matthew’s tale of Christ’s crucifixion is as gripping as it is tragic,” says baritone Florio. “Though it’s sung in German, those familiar with the story will be able to follow the recitative (speech-like) sections of the piece, which detail the story. The arias and choruses which come between function as the voice of the observer, commenting on the story and reacting to it. Whatever one’s beliefs, the feelings that Bach conveys through this story and this music can strike a chord in all of our lives.” Tickets are $28 for adults, $24 for seniors, and $10 for students and free for youths 18-and-under.

A number of the festival’s core group of musicians have taken part in SMF’s Young Artist Program, which gives aspiring musicians the opportunity to perform alongside seasoned pros. “These Young Artists are budding professionals, graduate students or recent graduates from some of the best conservatories in the country,” says festival Executive Director Jason Stell. “They bring a vital enthusiasm and youth to our events, and they benefit from being thrown into the mix of chamber music with some of the most active and sought-after musicians in the world–and they hold their own!”

Oboist Alek Fester joined the Young Artists Program while studying with Carsten Schmidt at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. After seven summers in the program, he became an official Festival Artist in 2013.

“It’s a pretty exciting moment in a young musician’s life when mentors and teachers become colleagues,” Fester says. “The artists that Carsten assembles from all of the world are incredible musicians but also warm and easy-going people. It’s an atmosphere where people come to gather because they really want to be there. Year after year, many of the best concerts I see and play in are at the Staunton Music Festival.”

This year, Fester is most excited about playing St. Matthew Passion, “one of the most important, most monumental, and most beautiful pieces in the Western music repertoire. Bach’s favorite orchestral instrument was probably the oboe (he wrote more solos for it in his orchestral and choral works than any other instrument) and the oboe parts in the St. Matthew Passion are fiendishly difficult. I, along with my oboe colleague, must play three different oboes throughout the piece: a regular oboe, a larger, alto oboe called the oboe d’amore [oboe of love],” with a beautiful dark sound, and the tenor oboe, da caccia, which is curved, covered in leather and has a brass bell instead of the normal wooden bell.”

With an eclectic mix of works played on everything from 18th century instruments to 21st century electronic tape, the Staunton Music Festival brings in just over $500,000 in revenue each summer. “In those ten days,” Stell says, “not only do we build a great community enterprise, with about 40 musicians being housed for no charge by some 30+ local residents, but we draw about 2,500 people to the downtown area. Local businesses notice the bump in foot traffic, sales, and ‘buzz.’”

The festival also reaches out to the next generation of classical music lovers with The Writer’s Ear, a creative program reaching nearly 5000 area schoolchildren. “We believe that by tapping into a child’s imagination, we can connect them with the power of great music,” Stell says. “We ask Festival musicians to record several short pieces, and a CD (or online stream) of the music is then made available to any child in grades 3-8 throughout Staunton, Waynesboro, and Augusta County.” The kids choose one of the compositions and respond with a poem or short story, and some of what they produce, Stell says, is “absolutely brilliant. We pick some winners, and invite them to read their stories aloud during a live performance of the music.”

While Staunton’s downtown attracts culture buffs, homebuyers love the character of the architecture throughout the city, and the feel of a place small enough that the guy who sells you books and the barista who brews your coffee know your name. The 20 and 30-somethings flocking to the city “are not looking for cookie cutter neighborhoods,” says Monica White of Keller-Williams Realty. “They’re looking for something individual.” And what about prices? Are Staunton homes a good value? “Oh my gosh, yes, very much so,” White exclaims. “We blow everybody out of the water and it’s our best kept secret.” Yet while the city’s housing and living costs are relatively low, it’s in easy commuting distance to larger metropolitan areas.

In Staunton, “you definitely have the small-town America flavor,” White says, “with the flair of creative minds and personalities and a little eccentricity. The festival is a wonderful addition to the community. It really adds to the charm of the town.”

Ken Wilson

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