Highlights of the Virginia Arts Festival’s Upcoming Season

by Tom Robotham | Mar 6, 2018

This spring the Virginia Arts Festival will enter its 22nd season with an astonishing array of performances you won’t want to miss.

“We’re really excited about this year’s lineup,” says Rob Cross, the Festival’s executive director. “Every year when we sit down to plan the next one we say, ‘Let’s have a more manageable season this time. Then we get excited about one artist after another. The good news is that ticket sales are fantastic so far.”

Leonard Bernstein, Virginia Arts Festival
Bernstein at 100; photo by Paul de Hueck, courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office

Cross is especially looking forward to Bernstein at 100, a tribute to legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, which will officially kick off the Festival on April 13 at Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News. (See interview with Virginia Symphony conductor JoAnn Falletta.) The concert will be repeated April 14 at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk.

The Festival will celebrate the work of Bernstein again on May 12 at Sandler Center in Virginia Beach with a concert called Bernstein on Broadway, featuring the Virginia Symphony under the direction of Rob Fisher, a Coastal Virginia native whom Cross calls “the country’s foremost interpreter of Bernstein’s music for Broadway.”

Birmingham Ballet, VIrginia Arts Festival
Birmingham Royal Ballet

From April 20–22, the Birmingham Royal Ballet—which has become a Festival favorite—will perform Romeo and Juliet set to a score by Sergei Prokofiev. “There’s no question in my mind that it’s the greatest ballet score ever written,” Cross said. “The orchestra really gets to shine.”

Rounding out the dance offerings will be Parsons Dance, known for their “wit, split second shifts in tempo and mood and sheer exuberance,” according to The Washington Post. They will perform for one night only, May 3 at the Sandler Center.

Lovers of classical music should take special note of a Mozart Celebration on May 11 at Sandler Center, featuring pianist Andre-Michel Schub, who has been part of the Festival since its inception. “It will be bittersweet,” Cross says, “because he’s retiring; this will be his last season with us. But it’s going to be a wonderful program, with three Mozart piano concertos: a single, a double and a triple concerto. (i.e., the ‘double’ will feature two pianists, and the ‘triple,’ three.)

Over the years, Schub has also shepherded the chamber music offerings. This year, he’s once again bringing the Miami String Quartet, which will perform May 2 at the Robin Hixon Theater inside the Festival’s headquarters across from Chrysler Hall. There will be an abundance of other chamber music offerings as well, including the Dover String Quartet on May 14 at the Hixon, and a series of daytime “Coffee Concerts” at various venues in Coastal Virginia.

Jiji, Virginia Arts Festival
Jiji; photo by Lauren Chun

If you’re looking for something more outside the box, you’ll want to check out Jiji, a young Korean guitarist who plays both acoustic and electric guitar and ranges from classical offerings to free improvisation. She’ll perform at the Hixon on April 19.

Other musical performances at the Hixon will include duo pianists (and twin sisters) Christina and Michelle Naughton on May 16, and ModernMedieval, an a cappella vocal group on May 10. The Naughton sisters perform together “seamlessly,” Cross told me. ModernMedieval, meanwhile, will be of great interest to fans of Anonymous 4, which has performed in past Festivals. The group has disbanded, but a former member has formed this new group to carry on the tradition.

If you prefer popular music, you won’t want to miss RAIN: The Beatles Experience, on May 2 at Chrysler Hall. The multimedia show will feature a first-rate band that has mastered the Beatles catalogue, elaborate video effects and period costumes.

Rhiannon Giddens, Virginia Arts Festival
Rhiannon Giddens

Yet another musical highlight will be a performance by singer/songwriter Rhiannon Giddens, former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I saw her with them a number of years ago in Charlottesville and was captivated by her vocal power, stage presence and originality. She’ll take the stage at the Attucks Theatre on April 18.

The Fringe Festival, the lineup of which had not been announced as of press time, will also present a variety of smaller, more cutting-edge artists at venues in Norfolk’s NEON District, from May 17–20. After a break, at the end of June, Coastal Virginia native Bruce Hornsby will once again head up the Funhouse Festival in Williamsburg, with Alison Krauss kicking things off.

Virginia Arts Festival, Virginia Tattoo
Virginia International Tattoo; photo by Heiko DeWees

Finally, once again, the Festival will present the Virginia International Tattoo, an extravagant display of military music, pipes and drums and expert drill teams. This year’s Tattoo will pay tribute to Medal of Honor winners. “We’ll have four or five Medal of Honor winners at each performance,” Cross says. “I’m sure it will be very moving.”

There will be other events that aren’t mentioned here. For the complete Festival lineup—and for ticket information—visit VaFest.org.

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