Folio Weekly: The St. Augustine Music Festival is staged in the St. Augustine Cathedral Basilica. How does that unique venue intersect with festival goals?
SAMF: The festival was actually inspired by the Cathedral space. The founders, Jorge Peña (viola) and Jin Kim-Peña (cello), had played a gig there in 2007 and were blown away by its wonderful acoustics, beautiful architecture and historic significance. Their impression: "This place cries out for classical music performances," just as you see in the historic churches throughout Europe.
The festival is classical-music focused. How are the pieces selected and arranged for performance over the six days of concerts?
Jorge Peña, founder and artistic director, spends months weighing music choices, and considers many factors. He aims to make each of the six concerts unique, with its own personality. So one concert may feature orchestral music that spotlights a virtuoso guest soloist, another may present intimate chamber ensembles, followed by a concert of lush suites for string orchestra. He also has to consider SAMF's resources, and which players will be available during the festival. We don't have the budget to do full orchestral concerts every night, and many of Jacksonville's fine musicians are juggling multiple gigs during the summer. He also sets the order of pieces with the dramatic arc of a concert in mind: How do we engage the audience's attention and keep it? Which pieces will make the most of the musical resources, expose the audience to something new, delight them with something familiar, make a great finale, encourage applause and encores and send the audience home high on music? He filters all of this, and more, and puts together truly remarkable programs of free concerts.
How has the festival evolved since its start?
The festival started with no money, no board of directors, and very few financial supporters. The Peñas gathered their musician friends together for the first concerts, being paid partly in currency and partly in "will play for food" mode. Initially, a handful of believers donated a few thousand dollars to launch the festival. The only "marketing" for the first couple of years involved homemade inkjet-printed "FREE CONCERT" flyers distributed outside the Cathedral by the Peñas' three daughters. By 2009, SAMF gained not-for-profit tax status and recruited a board of directors. That's when fundraising and marketing went full-tilt. The biggest hurdle to overcome was the general public's lack of awareness about the festival. So we sought grants that would help us promote awareness both locally and statewide, and bring people into the Cathedral to hear us. Once they heard us, they were hooked and our financial support network grew. That, in turn, allowed us to bring in nationally known soloists, perform works that required larger orchestras, and even to commission composers to write unique, St. Augustine-oriented pieces for SAMF. And it allowed us to further SAMF's mission to present, at no charge, world-class music that educates, elevates and entertains all who experience it.
What does the future hold for SAMF?
The festival continues to evolve. A priority is to create more community engagement outside of the June concerts. In December, SAMF plans its third Christmas Holiday concert, this one to be performed at the Lightner Museum. In 2018, we funded a pilot education program in which Jorge brought a string trio to Sebastian Middle School to present classical music to guitar and orchestra class students. He also conducted and coached string classes. It was well-received, and SAMF hopes to continue and perhaps expand that educational element. The people involved with SAMF are a creative bunch, and we're always discussing ways to bring music to different venues and new audiences. Turning ideas into music requires funding, so we've been reaching out to corporate supporters and seeking grants to help attain some financial security. We are thrilled to have The Players and Stellar as major donors this year, and hope their commitment inspires others to do the same.
Violinist Nigel Armstrong is among your guest soloists again this year. How does SAMF attract such luminaries?
Nigel is one of our top audience-pleasers. His talent is mind-boggling, his performances seem effortless and joyful, and he is just a really nice person. He is concert master of California's Santa Cruz Symphony, an international performer and has won awards in violin competitions all over the world. He often steps into local clubs and coffeehouses to spontaneously jam like a rock star with the resident jazz, blues or bluegrass group.
Another returning guest is cellist Andres Diaz, who's a member of the Diaz Trio. We have had the Diaz Trio and its individual members as guest artists. Last year, we had piano legend Leon Fleisher perform. There is an interesting synergy at work: Most of the guest soloists have been reached through personal connections in Jorge's musical network. Once they understand the high-quality musicianship SAMF maintains, they're willing to come on board. What motivates them to return, though, are the performances themselves. They are thrilled with the acoustics and beauty of the Cathedral, the intimacy they share with the audience, and the enthusiastic responses of the listeners. More than one star soloist has remarked that, yes, I've played at an international music festival to a relatively jaded audience of thousands, but that doesn't come close to the satisfaction of playing to 900 eagerly attentive St. Augustinians in the Cathedral.
The six SAMF concerts run at &30 p.m. (doors 7 p.m.) on a Thursday, Friday and June 28, 29 and 30 at St. Augustine Cathedral Basilica. General admission is free; seating is on a first-come, first served basis. Remember to allow time to find parking in St. Augustine. For concert details and information on supporting SAMF, go to staugustinemusicfestival.org.