Jorge A. Peña and Jin Kim-Peña are both accomplished classical musicians (he plays viola in the Jacksonville Symphony; she’s a cello soloist), and both are immigrants. Their love of the craft and their search for new, diverse audiences led them to found a free classical music festival in 2007. As the St. Augustine Music Festival (SAMF) prepares for its 13th annual production, the classical power couple spoke with Folio Weekly about SAMF’s flourishing, its return to founding principles and its latest concertmaster: Gabriela Peña-Kim.
“At one point, we decided there was something lacking in the area,” Peña said of the festival’s conception. He was already a member of the Jax Symphony, but the venerable institution’s season is only so long. The couple were invited into Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, which would become their event’s home venue, by then-music director Bob Moore. “The environment seemed to require something like classical music. We were taken by the beauty—acoustic and visual—of the Cathedral Basilica. And from the very first concert, it was obvious we had something special.”
According to Peña, the space is ideal for classical music, especially the intimate camerata style on which the St. Augustine Music Festival’s excellent reputation is built.
“The good thing is, it’s not a huge cathedral,” said Peña. “It fits about 1,000 people. That’s the sweet spot. It’s just the right shape, just the right size that the acoustics work. And people recognize that. People are amazed about how good a harpsichord sounds there, for instance. It’s great for old music. At the same time, we play contemporary stuff, romantic stuff, heavy stuff, and it’s very luscious. It has a beautiful sound.”
With this year’s theme, “Simple Beauty,” the pair eschew the bombast of recent years—“the heavy stuff”—in favor of a back-to-basics approach. It’s chamber music in its natural state. The ensembles are lean and sinewy; the musicians perform standing.
“It reminds me of the early versions [of SAMF],” Peña explained. “We went on to do a lot of extravagant festivals, with a lot of bang. This is a little more intimate, more introspective.”
SAMF spans six soirées across an entire fortnight. Each evening’s production has its own theme and performers. This year’s headliners include pianist Scott Watkins and frequent guest soloist Nigel Armstrong, who returns to dazzle the opening-night audience with his violin virtuosity. Our pick, however: Percussion Fest (June 21), featuring Joseph Becker and Kevin Ritenauer performing contemporary vibraphone, marimba and steel pan compositions by the likes of Tōru Takemitsu and Anders Koppel.
Whichever night(s) you plan to attend, get there early. The venue fills up quickly—a testament to the festival’s success. Peña attributes this in part to the novelty of unplugging and enjoying a bit of classical culture in today’s hyper-connected world.
“What we see is that, especially nowadays with the new generation, younger people are hungry to hear something new,” he said. “Of course, it’s not ‘new.’ It’s been around for a long time, but it’s new to them. The generation that grew up with iPhones and iPads grew up with a kind of detachment. When they see a group that plays without electricity, playing together without a conductor, it’s like magic happening in front of your eyes. The beauty of classical music is that it really speaks to everybody. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or where you come from, and that appeals to the new generation.”
If the festival has come full circle, so has the family itself. The 24-year-old daughter Gabriela Peña-Kim was raised back in the wings of her parents’ annual event. Now, as she packs her bags to pursue a Los Angeles Philharmonic Resident Fellowship in the fall, the young violinist is set to step into the spotlight as one of SAMF’s concertmasters.
“She grew up with the festival,” Jin said. “In the beginning, it was really a family affair. My kids would be folding festival programs and collecting donations. Now Gabriela is leading the orchestra.”
There’s a bittersweet dimension to this year’s festival, however. In January, the Jax Symphony lost violist Colin Kiely. Kiely was one of Peña’s closest colleagues—they played the same instrument—and a regular SAMF performer.
“We shared a lot of things in common,” Peña recalled wistfully. “We arrived in Jacksonville at the same time. We went through the audition process together. We saw our families grow up together.”
Peña has dedicated the festival finale to Kiely’s memory. The closing-night Around the World program features Samuel Barber’s plaintive “Adagio for Strings,” a favorite of the late violist.
“It’s one of those pieces that everyone has heard without knowing it,” said Peña, “an iconic piece. a beautiful piece, very moving.”