Staunton Music Festival pushes past tradition

Musicians from around the world gather August 10-19 at the Staunton Music Festival to perform classical and modern music. Many of the artists, such as UVA’s I-Jen Fang (shown performing a John Cage piece last year), return thanks to the festival’s unique programming and performance opportunities. Photo by Les Kipp Musicians from around the world gather August 10-19 at the Staunton Music Festival to perform classical and modern music. Many of the artists, such as UVA’s I-Jen Fang (shown performing a John Cage piece last year), return thanks to the festival’s unique programming and performance opportunities. Photo by Les Kipp

What do two cellists, one percussionist, and a tennis match have in common? The answer is “a lot,” if you ask UVA faculty member and distinguished percussionist I-Jen Fang. On Sunday at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, as part of the Staunton Music Festival, Fang will be joined by cellists Jan Müeller-Szeraws and Michael Unterman. “Chair umpire” Fang and her “tennis players” will perform Mauricio Kagel’s 1964 composition Match—appropriately scored for three players, according to music publisher Universal Edition.

“The percussion is like a judge and we have to act. I’m putting my hand out and saying, ‘You, go!” Fang says. She enjoys the theatricality of the piece, and the challenge of not knowing how the cellists performing alongside her or the audience will react.

Ever since Fang began her music education at age 6, she’s incorporated a sense of innovation and fun into her studies and practice. She grew up in Taiwan playing with a Chinese drum as a toy, which she looks forward to playing again in Match. She’ll also perform Kagel’s composition using various types of cymbals, police whistles, castanets, toy instruments, and a Brazilian drum called a cuíca, which Fang says creates a funny sound similar to crickets’ chirping or a dog barking.

For professional artists like Fang, the Staunton Music Festival provides a 10-day-long opportunity to delve into avant-garde musical territory such as Kagel’s contemporary work, while also celebrating classical compositions by Beethoven, Wagner, Vivaldi, and dozens more. (For many performances of pre-1850 symphonies or chamber music, musicians will play historical instruments made in that era.) Festival executive director Jason Stell says this lineup highlights the festival’s ability to bring together works that aren’t typically programmed together and creates an intimate listening experience.

“Performers love coming here because they do things they don’t get to do anywhere else,” Stell says. “They’re not just coming here for a paycheck. They’re here to reconnect with old friends, be challenged musically, and to perform music they are inspired by that they don’t get to stage elsewhere.”

Stell points out that of the festival’s nearly 80 artists, approximately 60 of them participated in the event last year. Host families in Staunton have offered to house over half of the artists for the musical celebration, something founder and artistic director Carsten Schmidt says is an important feature of the festival.

“It’s a great way to connect [artists] to the community. It’s one thing to just come stay in a hotel and perform, but some artists have been performing here for 10 to 15 years. There is a sense of community,” says Schmidt. “There is a special feeling that’s created.”

Another performance that contributes to this unique gathering is opening night. It’s a semi-staged presentation of Handel’s baroque opera Hercules. By Schmidt’s estimate, the festival’s staging of Hercules will be the first time the opera has been presented in the United States in a decade, and only the third stateside production.

“It’s a big deal,” Schmidt says of the rarely-heard opera. “It’s not a stuffy opera. Some people might think it’s a little out there, but it’s very much in relation to the contemporary world we live in.”

Peter Walker, who sings the role of Hercules, agrees with Schmidt. “At the end of the day, human nature hasn’t changed appreciably since 18th-century England or ancient Greece,” says Walker. He concedes, however, that clothing has changed over the course of that millennium, and points out that his modern costume includes a leather jacket instead of the hero’s oft-depicted lion skin garment.

Though Walker performs in locations ranging from St. Petersburg to London and other international destinations, he looks forward every year to returning to the Staunton festival. This August marks his fifth year performing in it, though he feels “lucky enough” to perform in the Charlottesville and Staunton region several times a year with the baroque ensemble Three Notch’d Road. During the festival, Walker also attends as many shows as he can. He feels it’s a wonderful chance to hear “some of the best chamber musicians in the world” performing repertoire both familiar and new.

Fondly remembering a conversation he had last year with a local restaurant owner who attended his performance the night before, Walker says, “I think this [experience] shows a level of connection that’s rather unique, and very special when it happens.”

Staunton Music Festival

Downtown Staunton

August 10-19

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