It’s a Classic: The Staunton Music Festival

by Fred Wish

The city of Staunton, Virginia is known as a hub for all sorts of music. Bluegrass, jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll have found a home in the clubs, restaurants and backyard jam sessions in this city of 23,000 nestled in the central Shenandoah Valley among the foothills of the Blue Ridge.

With all the contemporary music available in Staunton, it may be surprising to some that a standout event of the year is the Staunton Music Festival’s summer celebration of the form generally known as classical music – although present-day composers also attract enthusiastic fans. 2014 marks the 17th annual gathering of world-class vocalists and instrumental performers for 10 days of the best in traditional and modern chamber music.

The Summer Festival began as a modest gathering of a handful of musicians, mainly music instructors and professors from nearby colleges, who gathered for a weekend of community concerts, a project brought to life by noted harpsichordist Carsten Schmidt. The following year, a few more musicians joined in and a few more music lovers showed up to listen to and discover chamber music. Thanks to the quality of the music and the efforts of Schmidt, the festival’s Artistic Director, along with Executive Director and music historian Jason Stell and a dedicated group of Staunton Music Festival members and volunteers, the festival has expanded to its present form.

This year’s festival runs from August 15 through the 24th and features performances in several venues scattered through Staunton’s historic downtown area.

Notable among them are the Trinity Episcopal Church, which was built in 1855 and houses a Taylor and Boody organ, and the Blackfriars Playhouse, the only replica of the London theater famed for serving as an indoor theatrical home to William Shakespeare’s acting company. Other venues for this year’s festival include Central United Methodist Church, and Hunt Hall at Mary Baldwin College. Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church is the only location outside the downtown area and will be the site of a noontime organ recital played on that church’s own magnificent Taylor and Boody organ.

The Summer Festival attracts performers from all over the world, thanks in large measure to Schmidt, whose professional travels put him in the company of musicians with the talent and team spirit to match the needs of the festival.

Of the more than 60 musicians who will gather in Staunton, fully two-thirds come from outside Virginia, with many European and Canadian participants.

Kathy Moore, who is handling public relations for the 2014 Summer Festival, says one reason for its success is that the festival is truly “rooted in the community.” Local residents host the visiting performers in their homes for the duration of the festival.

Moore comments that seeing musicians emerging from their hosts’ homes and trekking with their instruments down from the city’s several hills to gather at the site of the day’s first concert “lends a European flavor to what is already a charming area.”

A continuing feature of the festival is its commitment to making the music available to people of every age and economic status. The festival charges nominal amounts – usually either $22 or $28 for adult admission – for evening concerts, but offers daytime performances at no cost. In addition, there is no charge for children under the age of 18 for any of the concerts. One of the free noontime concerts features the perennial children’s favorite, Tchaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf.

The first event of the 2014 festival is entitled Midsummer Ball: Vienna Meets Berlin. This year marks the first time the festival is using the iconic Hunt Hall at Mary Baldwin College for its kickoff gala, an evening of gourmet food, waltzing, continuous live performances, and the choice of a Viennese formal ball or a 1920s-style Berlin cabaret for attendees to enjoy. The tickets for this special event command a higher price than the festival’s other events.

While there is no dress code for this event, formal wear or period costumes are encouraged and add to the authenticity and pleasure of the evening Funding for the festival also reflects its community-based character, with only a small percentage of the budget coming from outside sources such as the National Endowment for the Arts. Most of the funding comes from ticket sales and private donations by enthusiastic patrons.

“We really aren’t budgeted for much advertising,” Stell says. “Most of our publicity is word of mouth.” He mentions that the music departments of several colleges, notably James Madison University and the University of Virginia, are fullthroated supporters of the Staunton Music Festival.

All told, there are 30 separate concerts, lectures and workshops scheduled for the festival, several of which include descriptions of the music’s background, composer and history from Stell, who gladly shares his extensive knowledge of Classic era music with the public.

This year’s program features compositions spanning nearly five centuries of music, from early composers to the classic works of Bach and Mozart to 20th century composers such as Benjamin Britten to the festival’s composers-inresidence, who will premiere original work.

Festival musicians operate on a tight schedule, often having only two rehearsal days before the live performances begin. “It takes a certain amount of boldness and trust,” Stell maintains when speaking of the new compositions, “for composers to place their work in the hands of people who may be seeing it for the first time. But the composers view this as an opportunity to refine their work based the talent and insight of the performers. They draw on the energy of the live performance to shape their compositions.”

The high point of the Summer Festival this year is undoubtedly the rare complete performance, on the festival’s final evening, of Bach’s Matthew Passion, played on period instruments. For attendees unfamiliar with this work, Stell will lead an extended discussion and preconcert brunch at the Frederick Hotel. The concert itself will be held at the Trinity Episcopal Church and is expected to draw a capacity audience of nearly 500.

Although the Summer Festival is the chief project of the Staunton Music Festival, there are a number of other programs the organization sponsors or supports. Among them is the Bach Project which since 2009 has worked to bring all of Bach’s harpsichord music to Staunton. Schmidt and Stell provide much of the impetus for this series of lectures and recitals. The Writer’s Ear is a program to encourage children’s musical appreciation by having them write stories inspired by pieces of classical or chamber music; each year, the winning entries are read aloud at a special concert. Like the Summer Festival, The Writer’s Ear began as a small program but participation has grown exponentially in recent years and now receives entries from several hundred local children.

With its careful blend of old and new music, its dedication to the community and its commitment to making this rich heritage accessible to all, the festival’s goal is best summed up in the tagline appearing at the bottom of each page on its website: “Rethink Classical.” Its 17 years of success in delighting fans and creating new enthusiasts indicate that the Staunton Music Festival has found a winning approach to bring that phrase to life.

Author: Brian

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