theartsdesk at Savannah Music Festival | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk at Savannah Music Festival
From bluegrass to Lang Lang, the Deep South festival caters for all musical tastes
Over four days I've gorged on some world-class music. If you take a pretty city in the full swing of spring, add a dose of Southern US hospitality, some exquisite venues, and a music promoter able to garner the cream of musical talent from across the genres, you have arguably found the perfect ingredients for a top-class musical extravaganza - and a wonderfully restorative experience for a music-lover ready for anything.
The Savannah Music Festival (SMF) in the port city of Savannah, Georgia, which is now into its second week and has a week to run, has all that and more. It boasts a proud line-up - from Chinese piano whizz Lang Lang (pictured below), who along with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra began proceedings, to Bassekou Kouyate, the Malian ngoni player (a type of lute), who will round the festival off on 3 April - and transforms a city that according to one Savannahian writing in Savannah Morning News resembles a "cheese-burger take-out kind of a place" the rest of the year.
I’ve seen Chris Thile, one of the world’s greatest mandolin players, rip his trousers on stage, he was apparently playing with such gusto, watched Uzbekh pianist Yefim Bronfman adjust his hairdo in the reflective gleam of his Steinway before he launched into a rousing performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata No 2, and whooped with a teenage crowd to the Chicago rock band Wilco.
Rescued from provincial obscurity by Rob Gibson, the founder of NYC’s now legendary Jazz at Lincoln Center, the SMF has grown to become one of the most vibrant and varied music festivals in North America. It specialises in bringing together artists for one-off, often cross-genre encounters. One of the most talked-about so far this year saw three of the world’s foremost mandolin meisters, Chris Thile (he of the ripped trousers), Caterina Lichtenberg (Europe’s sole Professor of Mandolin) and Mike Marshall (formerly of the David Grisman Quintet) come together on one stage. During a 90-minute show under the banner "Connect Americana", they segued their way between Bach, bluegrass, Bulgarian dance and Brazilian choro, tackling both classical and American string band numbers with equal prowess.
“It’s quite a night to be together with all these mando nerds,” says Thile. During the Goldberg Variations Thile and Marshall (“He’s the right hand, I’m the left,” Marshall quips) whose collaboration goes back several years, sway back and forth, hunched over their instruments, with such verve and urgency it was like watching sailors tacking into a gale. “They’re so wired,” volunteers the woman sitting next to me.
Below, Chris Thile plays in Manchester 2006:
Backstage afterwards an eloquent and tousled-looking 28-year-old Thile, whose new band the Punch Brothers – an exciting NYC-based bluegrass hybrid group that seems to take its steer from everything from Janáček to Thomas Adès and gypsy jazz – tells me how he first gravitated towards the mandolin after hearing it as a toddler. “My two-year-old self liked its quacky reedy-ness,” he says, explaining that the instrument’s very restrictions (its quietness, its lack of sustain) are the very characteristics that have encouraged him to push the mandolin in directions it has arguably never been before. “It is a really interesting instrument with its unique tremolo, but it also has its limitations which I spend my time trying to transcend,” he says as he packs his $200,000 1925 F-5 Gibson into its case.
One example of that "transcendence" is his version of Radiohead’s "Tourist" from the album OK Computer, for which he beckons the syrupy-smooth-voiced Texan teen Sarah Jarosz (pictured left) - recently nominated for a Grammy for "Mansinneedof" from her debut album Song up in Her Head – onto the stage.
It’s also much in evidence on the Punch Brothers’ new album, Antifogmatic, due out at the end of May, morsels from which he feeds the Savannah audience as well as teaching us a new word. Antifogmatic - an old term for a “bracing beverage, typically rum or whiskey, which you take before going out on a ship or an oilrig”.
It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the festival that you miss what’s going on elsewhere in this exquisite town (pictured below). On Forsyth Park I spot a Frisbee tournament which is in full flow. At the end of one game participants have wrapped a team-mate in the grey-green spindly Spanish moss which hangs from the city’s wild oaks like the thick cobwebs in Miss Havisham’s ruined mansion. “They’re obviously not from here,” one horrified local remarks. “Otherwise they’d know about the red ants living in the moss that burrow under your skin.”
Like the moss, which bizarrely is most closely related to the pineapple, the pink azaleas too are something of a Savannah trademark. Those and the grid-style of 21 walk-through leafy squares - which are a great way to traverse Savannah and give the sense of the city being a giant game board across which you can flit on a bike between concert venues - add to its charms.
The Cherryholmes (pictured below) think so, anyway. “A great city to explore. So pretty and friendly,” says Sandy Lee, sitting backstage after their sell-out show. The traveling family-of-six from Nashville, Tennessee, has parked its trailer in front of the Charles H. Morris Center ahead of their performance on Thursday night. Jere, Sandy Lee and their four children Cia Leigh, BJ, Skip and Molly Kate – and yes, Cherryholmes is their real name – are a true example of the depths and breadths of bluegrass music and of why its popularity is expanding all the time.
Spangly and frenetic, the four-times Grammy-nominated Cherryholmes (“always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” jokes Sandy), who have been described as "bluegrass on steroids" but who personally favour the phrase “hypergrass”, engage in head-butting Irish dance. They even advise the audience: “If anyone is sitting next to a sleepy buffalo, you just smack ‘im in the head to wake ‘im up.” Despite this there is a surprising sophistication to their repertoire, which spans everything from tributes to Django Reinhardt to hot swing in the style of Stéphane Grappelli to traditional bluegrass with the whole family gathered around a single silver-headed microphone, to a stirring a cappella version of the gospel song “O Mary, Don’t You Weep”.
“We perform more and more for people who aren’t bluegrass purists,” Sandy Lee, who home-schooled all her kids, tells me. “To make sure we keep happy those audience members who want to feel they also got their dose of mountain music, we throw in a bit of clawhammer, but we do like to cross-pollinate,” she adds, pointing out that she has even performed the moonwalk in some of their hoedowns.
"Paganini of the double bass" is the nickname that’s been given to Renaud Garcia-Fons, the 47-year-old French-Spanish virtuoso bass player who has developed his own con arco and pizzicato techniques and added an extra, top fifth string to his bass, and in so doing, enabled it to escape from the confines of being a mere accompanying instrument. In a trio, with Pascale Rollando on percussion and Kiko Ruiz on flamenco guitar, he thrills with a pounding rhythm-driving technique in the lower register, and a sweetly delicate touch in the upper end.
Watch Renaud Farcia-Fons play below:
British violinist Daniel Hope, SMF’s associate artistic director, who curates and performs in "Sensations", the SMF’s one-off chamber music programme, looks on in awe. “I’ve spent the whole day rehearsing Mozart and Dvořák, and then I hop over here and hear double-bass tones I didn’t even know existed,” he says.
During the festival, he says, “Savannah is bathed in music - it’s omnipresent beyond the concert venues, in the streets and in the bars.” And although he is proud to be the SMF’s "classical music lieutenant", bringing chamber music concerts to the Telfair art gallery, tickets to which rank among the hottest of the festival, he says he would “never want to miss the experience of bluegrass as well as Brahms, of being able to let it all hang out”. Collaborating onstage in Savannah with bluegrass greats, such as Marshall, Sam Bush and Edgar Meyer, says Hope, “has totally changed my view of the hillbilly hoedown and has directly influenced me as a musician.”
Then the passionate red-head, who at next year’s SMF will perform Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with the Atlanta Symphony, slips back inside the hall to hear Grammy-winning fiddler Marc O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio, a spicy combo of jazz, swing, tango and gypsy blues, whose playlist includes the soaring and wonderful "Fiddler Going Home", a tribute to his teacher Claude "Fiddler" Williams who recently died.
The perfect music festival? My only complaint is that there’s no dance floor.
- The Savannah Music Festival runs until 3 April. Next year's festival runs from 24 March to 8 April.
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