In anticipation of this week’s public unveiling of the lineup for the 2009 Savannah Music Festival, Connect spoke briefly with the SMF’s Communications Manager and Director of Marketing and Public Relations. We also caught up with the festival’s Executive and Artistic Director Rob Gibson in Spain, where he was attending a major conference on world music. Below are the complete transcripts of those chats.
Even by SMF standards, this is a very ambitious and diverse lineup you’re announcing. Around the office, what are some of the shows that SMF staff themselves are buzzing about and can’t wait to see?
Ryan McMaken (Communications Manager): It is definitely the most diverse season to date, and the current “picks” around the festival office reflect that. I’d say that the most anticipated 2009 shows are Mariza, Bela Fleck’s Africa Project (which is only happening in five cities), Chick Corea & John McLaughlin’s Five Peace Band, the Latin Dance Party with Eddie Palmieri y La Perfecta, and the Academy of Ancient Music performing the complete Brandenburg Concertos. Also, “Long Time Travelin’” on the first weekend with Rayna Gellert from Uncle Earl, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and others. The finale concert this year is much anticipated, with a new Mahler-esque commissioned piece written for an orchestra of 95 by Christopher Theofanidis, followed by Marcus Roberts’ arrangement of Gershwin’s “Concerto in F” to be performed with his trio and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
The entire festival organization seems to really be diversifying, in terms of podcasts, radio shows, CD releases, a proposed photography book, etc... Is it getting harder and harder to do all of this with such a limited staff, or is the workload spread pretty evenly among the existing crew?
Ryan McMaken: From an organizational perspective our growth has been very organic, playing to each individual’s strengths as we build new projects. The media projects that you’re talking about make use of an incredible recording archive that has been built up over the last five years, which is an extraordinary marketing resource. Informing new audiences by using that content has so much more potency than simply talking about performances from past festivals. Rob and the festival’s senior staff have assembled a capable team that works very well together. When necessary, each staff member stretches beyond his or her departmental role to get things done.
Are there any significant differences that ticketholders to the 2009 SMF can expect from the way things have been handled in the past?
Maria Lancaster (Director of Marketing and Public Relations): I believe the most significant change is our use of a new ticketing system, which makes it easier to purchase tickets online and offers the ability to print tickets at home. We are also training the SCAD box office staff to have a better understanding of our events in order to give better information and suggestions about our 2009 schedule. Lastly, we continue to have better integration between our website and the ticket system to make the ticket purchase decisions quicker and easier for our patrons.
As time goes by, what are some of the ways the SMF has streamlined or improved its operations?
Maria Lancaster: What has streamlined our operation is always looking for ways to improve processes and the use of technology to automate those processes. This includes a production database which includes everything about the artists and show requirements, a volunteer database that keeps track of and schedules our volunteers throughout the year (and more importantly throughout the festival), a customer database for mailing and past purchasing history, and a full featured ticketing and contributor management system. What are some of the notable adverse effects the past year’s economic downturn has had on the SMF, and what are some of the ways your organization is battling these unexpected hardships?
Maria Lancaster: People are very cautious about how and where to spend their money these days. It has been more time consuming, but we have been lucky to have the community support that continues even in these economic times. We have implemented some pricing strategies including the return of our free organ concerts, midday concerts with matinee prices and “series prices” on second tier seating. We think these strategies —along with our extraordinary lineup— will entice more people to see more events. We are also continuing our community outreach programs, and have added a broader international outreach which includes marketing partnerships with chambers of commerce and consulates from around the globe which are located in Georgia. These partnerships include website presence, event promotion via e-mail lists and concert sponsorships.
The first thing I noticed about this upcoming SMF lineup is that a few of the familiar faces from past years (i.e., Derek Trucks and Wycliffe Gordon) seem to be either missing or featured very sparingly. Was this a conscious decision on you part to infuse some fresh names and chops into the festival, or was this more of a case of some of the “old guard” simply having scheduling conflicts with the 2009 event?
Rob Gibson: Well, with 400 artists in our festival each year, there are always plenty of new ones. It’s important to understand however, that in order to build something concrete, a few key people are hired annually to conceive original programs. Daniel Hope curates unique chamber music programs that feature a core of returning players. Marcus Roberts gives shape to our jazz education initiative, Swing Central, in which Wycliffe plays an important role teaching high school students. Wycliffe will definitely play on the “Battle Royale” concert, but you can be sure that whenever Wycliffe is in town he’ll want to be on the bandstand, so don’t be surprised to see him show up at the Clayton Brothers concert! We adore Derek, and he’ll be back at some point. Just not in 2009.
This year, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra returns after their triumphant performance at the 2008 SMF, and they will be joined by jazz piano phenom Marcus Roberts and his trio to perform Gershwin’s Concerto in F. This inspired pairing would seem to be a major moment in the SMF’s history. Tell me a bit about the work that went into making this collaboration possible. Has either group ever played this piece before at any other time? Who chose the work? How much actual rehearsal will take place with all participants? Do you imagine this pairing will ever be repeated, or is this contractually a one-time-only event?
Rob Gibson: Marcus created an original arrangement of Gershwin’s Concerto in F for his trio and orchestra, which was premiered by Seiji Ozawa and the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002 outdoors in front of 50,000 people, and later issued as a DVD. Because we have an ongoing relationship with the ASO, I had encouraged them to put this work on their season, thus this program will be played three consecutive nights in Atlanta before coming to Savannah to conclude our festival, so it will be red hot by the time it arrives. The other half of the concert will feature the premiere of a work by Christopher Theofanidis that we co-commissioned with the ASO. Needless to say, it should make for a wonderful finale in this festival.
Savion Glover would seem to be another amazing “get” for the SMF. How long has his appearance in the festival been in the works, and will he and his group be performing a show that you had seen in the past, or will this be something all-new just for the SMF?
Rob Gibson: I worked with Savion on a couple of occasions beginning in the early ‘90s while in NYC, but we’re pleased to finally have him in the festival. His current working group is a jazz trio called The Otherz, but he has also been doing performances with two other tap dancers sans musicians. This program is special in that it features both of these groups, and it should serve as a terrific introduction to a guy that many folks consider to be the world’s greatest tap dancer.
Neko Case is an artist that my friends and I in the Tiny Team had looked into bringing to town, but we were never able to find the proper venue on the right night. I’m thrilled to see her being featured as part of the Roots & Twang series. Can you speak a little bit about what drew you to her as a booking? Does she in some way exemplify the type of crossover appeal that the SMF needs in order to bring more young people and —dare I say it— hipsters into the ticket-buying fold?
Rob Gibson: I’ve enjoyed Neko’s work for several years and we’ve tried to get her here in the past but our schedules never synched up. Part of the problem with having a festival that only runs 18 days is that it doesn’t always fit everyone’s touring calendar. I’m not sure about hipsters per se, but I do believe that Neko, an artist that is sometimes referred to as “alt-country,” has a very original musical conception that lends itself to a broad audience of modern music lovers. Jim, don’t forget that we’re bussing in more than 15,000 young people each year for free concerts, and that six years into that endeavor, I’m now meeting kids fresh out of college who started attending those programs while they were in high school! Additionally, this year we’re adding a weekend of alternative rock and funk concerts called at the Morris Center that will be marketing specifically to college-aged youth throughout the region. It’s called “Indimu” and we’ll be announcing those details in January.
Last year’s tremendous concert by fado singer Ana Moura was one of the festival highlights. Now you have booked Mariza, who is even more renowned than Moura. What is it about fado that speaks to you as a listener, and why should folks be excited about this particular SMF event?
Rob Gibson: Fado is a more than 200-year-old musical tradition from Portugal that has now reached an international audience, due in part to Mariza, who is the most renowned fado singer in our time. She is creating contemporary interpretations of this sensual and mournful tradition and taking it to the finest halls in the major cities of Europe. We are elated about her Savannah debut.
The notion of seeing John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride and Brian Blade onstage at the same time is already blowing my mind. Congratulations and thanks in advance! Have you been following the Savannah Jazz Festival’s seemingly great success in regards to booking more contemporary (and thus less purist) forms of jazz music for their annual free event, and has that in any way influenced your interest in bringing such contemporary masters as these to town? In other words, does the Jazz Fest’s overwhelmingly positive response to booking modern jazz acts signal that this market is perhaps more ready to accept shows such as this than they may have been at one time?
Rob Gibson: The history of jazz in Savannah runs very deep, as does its audience. When people tell me they love Wycliffe Gordon’s trombone playing, I always encourage them to check out the great Trummy Young from Savannah, who made some of his greatest recordings with Louis Armstrong in the 1950s. The evolution of the Coastal Jazz Association and their leadership of the Savannah Jazz Festival bodes well for the future of jazz in our city, and we enjoy working with them each and every year, sharing resources to promote jazz music. I’d be lying if I told you I had an inkling of interest in the marketing genre known as “smooth jazz,” but I’ve been enjoying Chick and John since I heard them play with Miles Davis when I was 12 years old. They’re still out here playing creative music and extending the boundaries of the art.
This may seem like a silly question, but no sooner than the SMF began to earn widespread acclaim and regional praise, there were many in the immediate area (both musicians and music fans alike) who decried the festival for its relative lack of locally-based artists — despite the fact that from time to time, there have been many notable area players who have appeared in SMF concerts. I’m always amazed by people’s misapprehension, as it’s clearly called the Savannah Music Festival for where it is held, not what it claims to represent. However, these grumblings seem to hold steady —if not increase— with each passing year. Do you ever hear the same criticisms? As the executive and Artistic Director of the festival, how would (or do) you explain your methodology in choosing which (and what sort of) acts to present to the public at large?
Rob Gibson: Jim, I’ve never viewed it as our responsibility to foster or maintain the local music scene, even though each edition of our festival has always featured local artists. Don’t forget that our single biggest donor is the City of Savannah, which funds us specifically as a cultural tourism destination, so in order to bring people from Europe or the West Coast or the Northeast to our event, we’ve got to maintain a caliber of programming that is unique internationally. Whether they play gospel, jazz, blues, classical or rock music, local and regional artists have and will continue to play a role in our festival.
You’ve been at this here for several years now. Is the job as fun as it ever was? On a personal level, are you and your family enjoying Savannah more or less these days?
Rob Gibson: Savannah offers a quality of life in the early 21st century that is very appealing to a 50-year old guy like me. Talking to you from Barcelona, where I’ve been for the past week, let me assure you that Savannah is relatively small and not really that old! But it is a very unique place with a culture that is charming and funky at the same time, and musicians from all across the globe love coming to Savannah. I have always maintained that I am thankful for the opportunity to be able to work in the performing arts and direct a music festival in this wonderful community.
If someone were to hand you $500,000 free and clear, with the stipulation that you had to use it to better Savannah’s musical landscape, but that it all had to be put towards one single purpose (instead of using it to fund, say, 20 great shows), what would that half a million dollars best be spent on?
Rob Gibson: I have dreams like that in the middle of the night sometimes, but I wake up in the morning and always remember that raising money and selling tickets —what we refer to in the office as “RMST”— is the priority of the moment. In this tough economy, we’re staring reality in the face every day. Our supporters know how challenging it is to keep this festival alive and vibrant each year, so our single purpose is to try and build on our success and create something great for Savannah during three fast weeks every year.