Savannah Music Festival like a mini Spoleto for Georgia


Savannah Music Festival. March 19-April 4, multiple venues. Ticket prices vary.

The 17-day Savannah Music Festival, which begins March 19, has established itself as Georgia's own Spoleto, a stellar collection of musical performances scattered throughout the city's congenial historic district.

Each year the festival presents world-class artists in the arenas of jazz and classical music, bluegrass and blues. Rosanne Cash, Mavis Staples, Dianne Reeves, Lucinda Williams and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra are among performers on the bill this year. There are also some exotic spices most attendees will have never heard before, such as Kayhan Kalhor, a virtuoso of the Persian spike fiddle. This year the festival will stage its first full opera productions: Puccini’s one-hour operas, “Suor Angelica” and “Gianni Schicchi.” The closest thing to mainstream pop this year is the husband and wife Americana duo Shovels and Rope. (Which is sold out, by the way.)

The festival is a success artistically, but, executive and artistic director Rob Gibson likes to point out, it also “puts heads in beds.”

Among the city’s many tourist events, the festival is the second largest filler of hotel rooms (St. Patrick’s Day is the first), which means it beats out every other convention in town, said Gibson.

And the festival attracts just the sort of visitor the city wants as a guest, said Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, the city's convention and visitors bureau. "The visitors who come to the music fest are generally staying three or four nights, they are making repeat visits … they are shopping, dining, enjoying the attractions, the museums and so forth."

In other words, they’re spending money, an average of about $290 per visitor per day. That works out to about $10 million in “direct spending” and about $1 million in tax revenues for the city.

The city of Savannah contributes $119,500 to the festival’s $3.5 million budget and receives a return on investment of about nine to one, according to the festival’s marketing and managing director Ryan McMaken.

Outside of its economic benefits and its boost to tourism, the festival has helped grow the local arts community and put Savannah on the world map. Visitors attend the festival from all 50 states and 20 foreign countries.

Marinelli cites the festival as the inspiration for Savannah Stopover, a rootsy, Americana fest that celebrated its fifth year March 5-8. Originally intended as a way to catch a few bands on their way to the massive South-By-Southwest music marathon in Austin, Texas, it has grown to become an event in its own right, featuring more than 100 musical ensembles, including 20 outfits from the Savannah area.

The Savannah Music Festival has other ripple effects. In addition to its performances, it sponsors musical workshops for jazz bands and acoustic musicians, drawing young musicians from around the country to participate.

This year, with a grant from local corporation Gulfstream, more than 9,000 Savannah-area students will participate in a musical education program under the direction of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hal.

What we see, then, is a festival that has entered the bloodstream of its host city.

“The Savannah Music Festival has demonstrated its values economically, culturally and educationally,” said Lisa Love, director of music marketing and development with the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “That’s why you see the strong private support and corporate support and the support of so many individuals.”