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Renaissance man
Joel A. Martin re-ignites the American Traditions Competition
Pianist/composer Joel A. Martin is artistic director of the "new" American Traditions Competition for singers

The American Traditions Competition began 17 years ago, as a centerpiece of Savannah Onstage, which eventually morphed into the Savannah Music Festival.

After last year’s edition, American Traditions — a vocal competition, bringing in world–class singers from across the spectrum (classical, opera, jazz and popular song) — separated from the festival.

“I just felt that the competition got lost somewhere in the shuffle, and that the focus wasn’t what it was maybe 10 or 15 years ago,” says Joel A. Martin, who was hired by the newly formed ATC board of directors as the new/old competition’s artistic director. “I want to bring back the glory of ATC from its roots — and then expand it out and blow it to the world.”

Martin, a Massachusetts–based classical and jazz pianist with a mile–long resume, had been the ATC’s gold–medal accompanist since 2004. He and the board had felt the vocal showcase getting back–burner status by the SMF. And attendance was down significantly in 2010.

“It’s a world–stage festival,” he says, “and that’s OK, there’s no problem with it here. And we should have these kinds of things.

“I just want to return ATC back to its roots, back to the people that helped make all this possible. Without people, the spirit of camaraderie and musical excellence, and a community–based involvement the way it started, none of this would have happened.”

Martin’s mission, as he sees it, is to expand American Traditions, increase its profile, and bring in a cross–section of well–known and prestigious judges.

Coming in for the 2011 edition, Jan. 24–29 at the Lutheran Church of the Ascension, are: Sherrill Milnes, the great, Grammy–winning baritone who performed more than 650 times at the Metropolitan Opera; Craig Schulman, Broadway star of Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Jekyll and Hyde; Mezzo–soprano Hilda Harris, another former Met star and currently a vocal instructor at the Manhattan School of Music; Broadway singer, actor and author Chapman Roberts (he was in the original Broadway cast of Hair, back in the day); and satirical singer/actress Christine Pedi, a longtime member of Forbidden Broadway, and part of the ensemble cast of The Sopranos.

Many of these artists have worked with Martin, in performance or in the recording studio. “I’m not appealing to them through a financial thing, I’m appealing to them through art,” Martin explains. “And if you’re a true artist, you will understand and appreciate what this competition is all about. With 17 years behind it, it’s certainly worth a major effort to bring greater visibility.

“Everyone just said ‘Let’s get together and do this thing right.’”

Thirty–two contestants will vie for gold, silver and bronze medals, and more than $30,000 in cash prizes. Applications arrived from as far away as Italy and The Netherlands.

Things get started Jan. 24 with a Past Winners concert; two gold medalists, and one silver winner, from ATCs past will perform (they are Robert Sims, Morgan James and Sharon Clark). Pianist Martin will accompany the singers.

The Judges’ Cabaret, with performances by Craig Schulman and Christine Pedi, takes place Tuesday, Jan. 25, again with Martin accompanying on piano.

There are finalists’ competitions through Jan. 28 at the church, and everything wraps up Jan. 29 with the ATC Finals concert at the Lucas Theatre.

Martin has also re–ignited the educational component of American Traditions; Milnes will conduct a master class Jan. 26 for vocal students at Armstrong Atlantic State University, and another (with six finalists) Jan. 28 at the church.

And more than a dozen of the competing vocalists will visit Chatham County public and private schools during the week.

“We also have to foster the next generation of concert–goers,” Martin enthuses. “And if we don’t bring it to them, it’s lost. We will have a generation that’s lost on great art and great culture, because we never gave it to them.”

It’s an ongoing process, he explains, and he’s certain ATC will find its place among the great musical institutions of Savannah.

“There are more than 300 non–profits here dedicated to bringing arts and culture to people,” Martin says. “You’re lucky if you find that in this kind of proportion almost anywhere in the country.

“And yet here it is, it’s situated in Savannah. This is the beginning of a new renaissance for this city. That’s what I would like to be a part of.

“That’s what community is all about. And it doesn’t matter if you live here, or you don’t live here, you should be able to reach out and connect.”

American Traditions Competition

Tickets: $20–$59, at

At the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Ascension, 120 Bull St.:

Past Winners Concert: At 7:30 p.m. Jan. 24

Judges’ Cabaret: At 8 p.m. Jan. 25

Quarterfinals: At 5:30 and 8:15 p.m. Jan. 26 and 27

Semifinals: At 5:15 and 8 p.m. Jan. 28

At the Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.:

Finals Competition: At 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29

Followed by the ATC Curtain Call Reception ($125)

For details: