A Tale of Two Festivals
From Classical to Rock 'n Roll, it's the music that takes us
By Jenny Enderlin
Natchez Festival of Music
Jazz, classical and opera
In a city where steamboats and horse carriages endure and where hoop skirts are still donned for certain occasions, it’s no surprise that Natchez holds the record for the most antebellum homes per capita in the United States.
“ The houses survived because no one had money after the Civil War to modernize them,” says Rena Jean Schmieg, president of the Natchez Festival of Music Guild. It’s against the backdrop of the Southern parlors in these white-columned plantations that the festival has been holding concerts for more than 20 years.
The festival’s founder, the late Dr. David Blackburn, came up with the idea after the owners of Monmouth Plantation talked with him about how much they had enjoyed Santa Fe’s opera festival. He concluded that Natchez needed one of its own.
In 2010 when the festival needed a new director, the board approached Jay Dean, who serves as musical director for the University of Southern Mississippi Symphony Orchestra and the Mississippi Opera. “I decided that I would like to be a part of the wonder of the long and treasured history of that city,” he said.
The festival has high standards, Dean said. “I was never more aware of that than when I was auditioning singers for the Mississippi Opera in New York, and a number of them had the Natchez Festival of Music on their resume,” says Dean. The majority of the festival’s artists were also recruited out of New York. “I heard about 140 singers in a two-day period, and then heard 30 more in Natchez.” Of these, about 20 were selected to attend this year’s festival.
Dean says performers in some of the recitals “will talk to the audience in first person so there’s a historical perspective.” For example, at Stanton Hall, soprano Kristen Vogel will present herself as Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale” P.T. Barnum brought to Natchez in the mid-1800s. Similar events will be held at The Towers, Lansdowne and Waverly Plantation.
The three-week schedule will also offer jazz, Broadway melodies and classical selections. The festival opens with the One O’clock Lab Band, which has been around for decades; some of its members have gone on to play in house bands for David Letterman, Jay Leno and Johnny Carson.
Returning to the festival’s opera roots, both “The Mikado” and “Don Giovanni” will be presented. The Natchez Festival Guild stages productions year-round, many of them free to nursing home residents and schoolchildren. This year, “The Three Little Pigs” will be performed with music by Mozart for approximately 7,500 young schoolchildren, many of whom have never before been exposed to classical music.
Producing a nonprofit festival of this magnitude requires a great deal of planning and fund-raising, but mostly a dose of something Southerners seem to have inherited in large quantities: hospitality. All artists are housed, fed and transported by volunteers.
“ I grew up in one of the antebellum homes and I’ve known everyone all my life; they’re very generous. We all keep our artists in our homes, and once we get somebody, they’re ours—we claim them,” Schmieg says. “We have people from big cities saying ‘How can you do this?’ but we can because people care. All my life, I’ve known that if something is really artistically beautiful it will be appreciated here.”
To purchase tickets, call (601) 445-2210 or go to www.natchezfestivalofmusic.com. For information regarding bed and breakfasts, check out www.natchezpilgrimage.com.
Hattiesburg June 9-23
Dean says he planned to stay at the university for 23 years. “But the closer I got to that, the less appealing retirement became,” he says. “I wanted to do something with the community.”
While visiting Rome, Dean was inspired by the vibrant arts market and had the idea of creating something that could become a cultural identifier for Hattiesburg. So he devised a plan to partner with the university and others in the area to infuse Hattiesburg with music and art.
“ Jay brought these ideas to the table and has been masterful at picking artists who will generate excitement and will attract a lot of people who might not otherwise attend a trio or an opera,” says David Ott, chairman of the Hattiesburg Concert Association. “We want to raise the awareness of the performing arts. We are very aware of all of the studies that show that music is one of the hallmarks of successful education. My desire is to see a child see the wonderful beauty of someone playing the cello and violin and bassoon, and pursue these opportunities on their own.”
Still, as Ott puts it, “You don’t generally get someone to listen to Bach first.” So, pop music and classical instrumentation will be fused in the Classical Mystery Tour, the first of three major performances. “Can you imagine the best Beatles cover band in the country with our Symphony Orchestra? It should be a great show,” says Ted Webb, president of BancorpSouth, one of the sponsors.
The second high-profile event, Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni,” will carry over from the Natchez Festival of Music, but this time the younger understudies of the first performance will take the lead. The festival finale will be five-time Grammy winner Sandi Patty singing hits from Broadway.
In its third year, the festival has grown to about 75 events and 40 venues—all of which take place in air-conditioned environments. There will be musician workshops, a family Jungle Brunch with a hands-on “instrument petting zoo,” and jazz, gospel, and string concerts in establishments all over town. “You can’t go anywhere and not be aware that there is music here,” says Dean. He is especially excited about Mississippi’s own Vasti Jackson performing at The Bottling Company . “This is not only a music event, it is a fashion, dining and dancing event.”
Dean says the festival wants to expand beyond music. Last year saw the addition of a dance competition and two-week exhibitions featuring painter Amy Giust and sculptor Ben Watts; this year, the featured artists will be painter Wyatt Waters and sculptress Kim Sessums. Festivalgoers will be able to enjoy wine tastings, ballet, art shows, a myriad of children’s events, daily musical luncheons and festival dinners at Brownstones and The Bottling Company.
Dean says he envisions the festival growing into a tourism engine that will encompass the city and contain everything from the arts to medical and business conferences. “One of the things I’m really anxious for is for people to take ownership,” he says.
Dr. Aubrey Lucas, retired president of the University of Southern Mississippi, says he devotes several days to the festival and attends as many of the events as his schedule will allow. “FestivalSouth is the most wonderful musical addition to our area that I can remember. We have always had delightful music, but nothing as concentrated as this festival. It takes us downtown, it takes us into churches, it takes us into synagogues, and it gets us to meet people. It’s getting better known and once you go, you’re hooked!”