Savannah Music Festival returns with live concerts

Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han will present a program of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms at the Savannah Music Festival.
Courtesy of Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han will present a program of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms at the Savannah Music Festival. Courtesy of Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Ten days before the opening concert of the 2020 Savannah Music Festival, the bad news arrived: Public gatherings were banned, and performing arts events around the world were canceled. There would be no music festival in Savannah.

After a 14-month hiatus due to the pandemic, the Savannah Music Festival returns in May with a curtailed schedule. Instead of spanning 17 days, the festival takes place over eight days starting May 23. Instead of the usual 15 venues, nine performances will be hosted in two locations, Trinity United Methodist Church and the Metal Building at the Trustees’ Garden. Seating capacity will be limited to 30% or less, and in typical pandemic fashion, some concerts will be live-streamed for home viewing.

It’s the first of a two-part festival this year. Additional concerts in October, at both indoor and outdoor venues, are being finalized for larger audiences. And Artistic Director Ryan McMaken is already thinking about next spring, when the festival will hopefully once again welcome performers from overseas and return to programming 100-plus performances.

“We can’t have international performers yet, and that’s a huge part of this festival’s programming,” he said.

To ensure visitors’ safety, McMaken and his team have developed extensive safety protocols with the help of Memorial Health University Medical Center, the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Georgia Coastal Health District. McMaken also spoke with his counterparts at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston and at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville to learn about their safety measures.

For the May concerts, audience members must be masked at all times while in the venues, and seats will be socially distanced. Additional entrances and exits have been added to reduce audience congestion. Enhanced cleaning procedures have been developed, and everyone associated with the festival, from the artists to the staff, will be screened for COVID-19 each day.

“Regardless of vaccination status, it’s too soon to let our guard down,” McMaken said. “We’re going to stick with that for this mini-series. Hopefully by October, we’ll be in a different scenario.”

Saxophonist and vocalist Camille Thurman will perform at the Savannah Music Festival with the Darrell Green Quartet for her first performance in front of a live audience since the pandemic began. 
Courtesy of Phillis Kwentoh
Saxophonist and vocalist Camille Thurman will perform at the Savannah Music Festival with the Darrell Green Quartet for her first performance in front of a live audience since the pandemic began. Courtesy of Phillis Kwentoh

Credit: Phillis Kwentoh

Credit: Phillis Kwentoh

Among the performers this year is Camille Thurman, tenor saxophonist and vocalist with the Darrell Green Quartet, which performs May 26.

“We haven’t seen an audience for a year,” she marveled. “It’s surreal to even say that because so much of what we do, we go and leave our house to connect with people around the world, sharing music with them.”

Thurman stayed busy during her socially distanced year by listening deeply to records, practicing and performing live-streamed concerts. She also started hosting Haven Hangs, a series of virtual Q&A sessions that connect female musicians who are in the early stages of their careers with some of the top women jazz musicians in the field, creating a mentor-like space where women can learn about the business.

“I started reflecting on my own experiences as a young woman musician and how I wished that there were opportunities to talk to other young woman musicians, just to get ideas on how to pursue this journey.” she said. “The first woman musician I ever met, I was in college. Before that, I hadn’t seen a woman on stage playing jazz.” She hopes to expand Haven Hangs to in-person sessions when it is safe to do so.

As an independent musician, the prospect of playing on stage again has given Thurman a new drive and dedication. “Last year around this time was the nightmare of seeing your whole tour schedule disappear overnight,” she said. “I’m looking forward to being able to feel the energy of the people, feel their spirit and be able to just be in the same space.”

FESTIVAL PREVIEW

Savannah Music Festival. May 23-30. Tickets $25-$146. Live-stream free-$10. Metal Building at Trustees’ Garden, 10 E. Broad St., Savannah. Trinity United Methodist Church, 225 W. President St., Savannah. 912-525-5050, www.savannahmusicfestival.org.

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis kicks off the 2021 Savannah Music Festival on May 23 with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet. 
Courtesy of Clay McBride
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis kicks off the 2021 Savannah Music Festival on May 23 with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet. Courtesy of Clay McBride

Credit: Clay McBride

Credit: Clay McBride

Festival highlights

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet with Wynton Marsalis. Led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was due to perform at the 2020 festival with a robust lineup of jazz musicians. Listeners this year will hear a pared down but no less dynamic version of the ensemble. Along with trombonist Elliot Mason, the powerful frontline features saxophonists Ted Nash and Walter Blanding. 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. May 23, Metal Building.

Piano Puzzler. From the NPR show “Performance Today,” Piano Puzzler tries to stump listeners by recreating popular songs in the style of classical music. For the festival, pianist Bruce Adolphe and host Fred Child expand the concept into a concert-length presentation of the game. 6 p.m. May 25, Metal Building.

Ulysses Owens Jr.’s Generation Y with Camille Thurman & the Darrell Green Quartet. Ulysses Owens, the festival’s artistic educator in residence, pairs Generation Y, his quintet of young jazz artists, in concert with the dynamic saxophonist and vocalist Camille Thurman, supported by her longtime collaborators, the Darrell Green Quartet. 7:30 p.m. May 26. Metal Building

Rodney Crowell. The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter last played the Savannah Music Festival seven years ago with Emmylou Harris. He returns this year to likely play tunes from his 2019 album “Texas,” a recording of duets with Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Lee Ann Womack, among other artists, that pays tribute to his home state. 8 p.m. May 27, Metal Building

David Finckel and Wu Han. Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han bring a tailored program dubbed “The Immortals” to Savannah, celebrating sonatas by Bach and Beethoven and Brahms. Also included are selected intermezzi for solo piano from Brahms’ “Klavierstucke.” 5:30 p.m. May 27, United Trinity Methodist Church.

Amythyst Kiah and Jontavious Willis. Featured in Rhiannon Giddens’ 2019 recording “Songs of our Native Daughters,” guitarist and banjo player Amythyst Kiah appears in concert with blues singer Jontavious Willis, a Georgia native from Greenville. 7:30 p.m. May 28, Metal Building.

Paul Huang and Anne-Marie McDermott. Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott and violinist Paul Huang make their Savannah Music Festival debut with a program of sonatas from Prokofiev, Brahms and Franck, opening with Arvo Part’s “Spiegel Im Spiegel.” 3 p.m. May 29, United Trinity Methodist Church.

Jeremy Denk. Since performing at the Savannah Music Festival five years ago, pianist Jeremy Denk has released a spellbinding exploration of solo piano music. The recording, “c.1200-c.2000,” presents 25 compositions culled from the previous seven centuries. During his Savannah concert, Denk will continue his musical investigation, presenting works from Coleridge-Taylor and Blind Tom Wiggins alongside Bach, Schubert and Beethoven. 3 p.m. May 30. United Trinity Methodist Church.

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