Staunton's 20th Music Festival

Aug 8, 2017

In the mood for some classical?  The Staunton Music Festival, where musicians from around the world descend on the town for a week long “rethink” of classical music, is back for the middle of August. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler spoke to its founders about why this festival in little ol’ Staunton has become a can’t-miss event for music lovers from all over.

Carsten Schmidt’s Staunton home has three harpsichords, three cellos, two fortepianos, and one Steinway. Here he is on the harpsichord.

[fade up Schmidt playing harpsichord]

Schmidt is the founder and artistic director of the Staunton Music Festival, which hits twenty years old this month. The festival’s longevity is still a bit of a shock to this German native because it started out as nothing more than a fun weekend for him and a few classical music loving friends back in the late ‘90s.

CARSTEN SCHMIDT:  There was really no budget. The budget was maybe $500 and most of it went towards beer.

My, how times have changed. The Festival now draws 75 professional musicians from all over the country, all over the world, for thirty performances, a mix of traditional (think Beethoven, Brahms) and avant garde over the course of the week. Some performances draw 500-600 people.

And a reason the festival has grown so large, says Schmidt, is that there is a level of spontaneity, of risk, that musicians don’t really get to tap into at other venues. Musicians are brought in as individual performers, not as preformed ensembles. This can create visible suspense on stage.

[Here's the Staunton Music Festival on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.]

SCHMIDT:  The idea that you have four people play that piece…that maybe they’ve known each other for awhile but have never played that piece together and they have four hours to put it together…you’re going to get an experience and most of the time a really good one here and sometimes an intense one for them. But it’s really fun that way.

[Fade up Dohnanyi, Romantic Era Piano Quintet performed by American, Finnish and Romanian musicians. It was the first time several of them had played together. ]

Executive Director Jason Stell points out another interesting feature.

JASON STELL:  An audience member might call and say, tell me who is performing this year. As if there are going to be a few household names they might recognize from the classical or musical world at large. And that just isn’t what we do. We’re not bringing in celebrities. We’re bringing in the best performers who also work well with each other in a very tight dynamic environment and we pair them up in all sorts of interesting ways.

Schmidt makes a point of re-contextualizing familiar works.

SCHMIDT:  You sometimes have a piece that everybody knows very well, I’m thinking maybe Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik or Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” then I think about, what is a new context in which we can place this piece with pieces around it maybe that nobody knows? To just shine a new light on these, so everybody thinks they know this and all of a sudden after you’ve heard that piece very different it might sound like you’ve never heard it before. And that’s always great when that happens.

[fade up Vivaldi’s Four Season concerto, a selection from “Winter,” performed on period Baroque instruments, the kind that would have been used in 1700 when Vivaldi’s music was written.]

Two to three performances are held each day in various locations downtown – Blackfriars Playhouse, Trinity Episcopal Church, late night performances at a bookshop and a wine store. Noon performances are free. Evening concerts run two hours and cost around $22 to $30 per ticket.

SCHMIDT:  I have to make a huge compliment to the audiences. It’s unbelievable the kind of things we’ve thrown at them. We would have been run out of town in many other places, I have to say, and I do play in lots of places, and many would not tolerate what happens here. And here, in fact, people seem to be coming for what’s happening here.

[fade up Vivaldi’s Four Season concerto, a selection from “Winter.”]

Get ready, Staunton. The Festival runs from August 11th through the 20th.