Southern Appalachia is known for its traditional homegrown music and for its fierce independence and cultural insularity.
But when the majestic music of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky soars up from a tiny point on the Cumberland Plateau — played by young people collected from 39 states and five foreign countries — that regional definition needs some revision.
Now in its 49th season, the Sewanee Summer Music Festival (SSMF) at the University of the South is designed not only to educate but to inspire and expand the horizons of the 180 high school and college-age musicians who make up its talented but diverse student body during the five-week program. The Sunday afternoon symphony concerts at Guerry Hall offer evidence of the ability and determination of the students as well as the quality of the instruction that goes on during the week.
From its modest beginnings, the SSMF built a reputation for quality and began to attract international attention under the leadership of Martha McCrory, a cellist based in Chattanooga. Serving as executive director from 1963 to 1998, the 95-year-old McCrory is being honored with special recognitions from festival this summer.
“The students we see here are usually the over achievers at their schools and homes,” said Katherine Lehman, SSMF executive director and professor in the university’s music department. “The qualities of discipline, creativity and work ethic serve the students in all their pursuits,” she continued, noting that many of the festival participants plan to pursue academic and vocational specialties other than music.
Sidney King, SSMF string bass instructor for the last 11 years and professor at the University of Louisville, affirmed Lehman’s idea about the universal relevance of the music education experience.
“To get up on the stage and perform — you can’t run away and hide,” King remarked. “Young musicians are attractive to employers of all sorts,” he continued, noting that players are immersed in a situation that demands total personal commitment, accountability and teamwork. Even the frustration and disappointment that young musicians experience as they work toward higher levels of competence serve to build character and endurance.
The students interviewed for this Southern Standard article returned the instructors’ praise, saying they grew not only in technical skill but also in confidence under their tutelage.
Bass player Carter Buckner, 16, is a 2015 SSMF student who was attracted to the Sewanee program by the professional reputation of King. The extraordinary combination of neo-Gothic style university buildings surrounded by a 13,00-acre forested campus was also a major attraction to the Pine Bluff, Ark., high school musician who is also interested in studying science and mathematics.
Percussion instructor John Kilkenny, a professor and administrator at George Mason University just outside Washington, DC, spoke of the personal satisfaction in observing the technical and artistic progress of the young SSMF players. “It’s incredibly rewarding,” he commented. “They can’t believe how fast and how far they will go.”
But the teachers are not trying hammer amazing prodigies out of aspiring youth. “We’re here to get the students to where they want to be, not where we want them to be,” he stated.
And it’s fine if many participants are planning on careers other than musical performance. “Whether they want to be lawyers, doctors, bankers — I love working with them all. These people are just as important if not more important than some hot-shot player,” Kilkenny observed.
“I fell in love with this place,” violinist Scarlett Martinez recalled describing her first day at Sewanee upon arrival from her home on the Dominican Republic. Now a second-year participant, she asked her parents for a violin when she was 3 years old, but formal lessons didn’t start until a few years later.
Another string player, Gawain Usher from Shoreham, Vt., is proud of the central role his viola plays in a large symphony orchestra. “It’s the meat in the sandwich between the violins and the cellos,” he explained. “A good violist makes everything else sound good.”
And sounding good is the sincerest resolve of the guest conductors and student instrumentalists in the series of Sunday afternoon concerts, continuing this year through July 19. For concert information and tickets ($12.50 online, $15 at the door; children under 12 free) go to sewaneemusicfestival.org. Drive time from McMinnville to the university campus is about 55-60 minutes by way of Interstate 24 from Manchester or US 41 through Hillsboro.
The twin-bill concert starting at 2 p.m. Central this Sunday, July 12, features the Cumberland Orchestra conducted by Joseph Young playing the overture to Wagner’s opera Rienzi, ballet music from Gounod’s opera Faust and Tan Dun’s Internet Symphony Eroica. Raphael Jimenez takes the podium at 3:30 p.m. to direct the Sewanee Symphony in Ricardo Lorenz’s Olokun’s Awakening, Ottorino Respighi’s Brazilian Impressions, and concluding with the four-movement Symphonic Metamorphosis by Paul Hindemith.
A bonus for Sunday concertgoers is the carillon concert at 4:45 p.m. Richard Shadinger will play various pieces on the Chime Master Mobile Millennium Carillon, whose location on campus may be found at the SSMF website. This 26,000 pound musical instrument features 24 bells housed in a specially built trailer that is presently touring the United States.