When mapping out a new season of music at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall, Sam Dixon functions a bit like a meal planner.
Over his 13 years overseeing the Morrow recital hall, Spivey’s executive and artistic director has learned to deftly pair emerging artists alongside cherished musicians, serving intimately known classical repertory with less-familiar 20th-century offerings.
“I consider every season to be a series of dinner parties,” he said. “And when you’re going to have people over multiple times over the course of the year, you want to vary the menu.”
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Dixon’s spread for the coming season, the 27th year of programming at Spivey Hall, includes heavy helpings of classical music. Solo pianists are one of his focuses. After welcoming pianist Andras Schiff on Oct. 27, Dixon has booked performances by Benjamin Grosvenor (Nov. 19), Imogen Cooper (March 10, 2018) and Paul Lewis (May 6, 2018). He’s also programmed three string quartets, an opening night performance by the vocal group Chanticleer (Oct. 8) and a number of performances by Alan Morrison, the organist in residence, among the myriad concerts that constitute the entire season. But Dixon has also outlined a three-concert jazz program and a number of special events including a barbershop quartet.
“Mixing it up is important,” Dixon said, adding that he aims for musical diversity in the repertory performed.
This commitment to a rich musical assortment also leads Dixon to take a few risks. Introducing new musical ideas and artists can be a challenge, especially when unfamiliar classical sounds are involved, but Dixon said taking a calculated programming gamble or two each season usually ends up paying off.
“We need to try things to see how people like them,” he said. “We’re always trying to welcome new people to Spivey Hall, and programming plays an important part in that.”
A handful of artists in the new season have performed at Spivey in recent memory. This recurrence is by design and is reserved for artists Dixon thinks have become audience favorites in short order.
“When we have a success, it’s important for me that artists return within a few seasons, so that the audience and the artist keep the relationship going,” he said.
To create a multifaceted, enriching series of concerts, Dixon must become an expert in a wide swath of music. Dixon said he is constantly listening to music, reading about new artists and attending concerts throughout the country to hear emerging talents and keep up with artists he’s booked in the past. This musical due diligence is important to Dixon, and by becoming a musical polyglot who can converse in the many genres offered each season at Spivey, Dixon is able to create a balanced program.
“I’m constantly trying to discover the artists with whom Spivey Hall should be enjoying a relationship,” he said.
A few highlights of the 2017-2018 season:
Sir Andras Schiff (Oct. 27)
This lauded Hungarian pianist doesn’t play in Atlanta often. In fact, one of his most recent performances at Spivey, a concert pairing the pianist with the Panocha Quartet, occurred more than a decade ago. He’ll journey down to Morrow to perform compositions by Brahms, Bach, Beethoven and Mendelssohn.
The Tivon Pennicott Quartet (Jan. 13, 2018)
Pennicott, a tenor saxophonist who is still making a name for himself in the jazz world, will be joined in his debut Spivey Hall performance by a quintet anchored by pianist Sullivan Fortner. Pennicott has been touring the world with singer Gregory Porter, but is still rather new to presenting his own quartet. Fortner, an engaging, kinetic pianist, last appeared at the Atlanta Jazz Festival in 2014 with trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s ensemble. With Pennicott, Fortner receives equal billing, so this should be a concert that sufficiently highlights two rising jazz stars.
Elias String Quartet (Feb. 25, 2018)
This engaging string quartet will bring well-known repertoire from Mozart and Beethoven — “The Hunt” quartet and String Quartet No. 12, respectively — but the real prize on the program is Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Moments musicaux (6).” The title of the piece, which was written in 2005, alludes to Schubert’s short piano works of the same name, but the nonagenarian Hungarian composer’s musical moments are very modern. Kurtag’s moments commence with a startlingly brief work of spiky, jagged beauty and end with a three-minute bout of introspection.
Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (April 15, 2018)
To some Atlanta listeners, a three-year Spivey absence from an orchestra that trades in sunshine-washed, mischievous ukulele arrangements of popular songs is entirely too long. At the group’s 2015 Spivey performance, the orchestra members presented charming versions of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads.
Dixon said he booked the orchestra originally as part of a dedication to “traditional music with a twist.” When the orchestra sold out its concert, he knew it was important to have them back.
Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake (April 28, 2018)
Finley is no stranger to Atlanta; the baritone was mesmerizing in his 2008 performances with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in John Adams’ “Dr. Atomic,” and the singer last performed at Spivey in 2010. The chance to hear Finley in a recital setting should definitely not be missed.
For more about the 2017-2018 season at Spivey Hall, go to www.spiveyhall.org.