Anytime one hears Rob Gibson speak about the past, present and future of the Savannah Music Festival, there’s one word which crops up in his vocabulary more than any other: “vision.”
That’s because Executive and Artistic Director Gibson -- whose own taste and business acumen have set the course for this high-profile showcase for the past five years -- prides himself on being a visionary. He also seeks that quality in those he surrounds himself with.
This founding director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, educator, musicologist and tireless promoter has led the charge to turn the former Savannah Onstage vocal competition into one of the more ambitious nonprofit music events of its type.
With only a few short weeks until opening night, Gibson sat down with us in his City Market office for a frank and revealing examination of both his organization, this year’s festival, and the year-round challenges our city faces in regards to live music.
How are things progressing for this year?
Rob Gibson: When I arrived here in the summer of 2002, we had an organization with about an $800,000 yearly budget, a staff of five and what I would describe as a “community board.” It was a good little festival. The goal was to give it a different type of artistic vision, to grow it and connect it with Savannah and its history.
Five years later, we’re a $2.5 million festival with a full-time staff of ten people doing over a hundred events representing a wealth of the musical arts. I would say we’re on schedule for the original five-year plan. I think that it takes five years for people to notice you, and I still meet ten people a day in Savannah who have never heard of the Savannah Music Festival.
Hmm -- where are you hangin’ out at?
Rob Gibson: I just don’t think you can assume people will have heard about you. But I think five years from now, if I met ten people a day who hadn’t heard about us, I’d be very concerned about what I’d been doing with myself for the past ten years!
When we first met, you spoke of a desire to see this festival grow into something similar to Atlanta’s Music Midtown, where they block off a large area and bring in major artists for gated, fee-based shows. Is something like that still in the back of your mind?
Rob Gibson: I think that’s a very real objective of the festival. To have a large outdoor component of our schedule, whether it’s free to the public or a paid, ticketed event. We had to get ourselves out of debt, which was very much the case five years ago when I got here. We’re almost there.
So I believe that in the next five years you’ll see something that’s a large outgrowth of the festival — whether it’s a big, one-time-only weekend, or whether it’s a year-round presenting schedule, which may or may not coincide with the festival.
On a scale of one to ten, how stressed out are you right now as opposed to the same period of time in years past?
Rob Gibson: I’m not a worrier, and I don’t really get stressed out. But I would say that the pressure was really intense when I first got here, primarily from a fiscal point of view. But now we’re able to pay our bills on time, because we’re “righting the ship.” We have a great staff, a great board, a really strong team and a good artistic vision.
So I guess on a scale of one to ten, I’d say one. Not stressed out at all.
What’s the most difficult aspect of your job — the one part you dread the most?
Rob Gibson: I would just say it like this: I’ve never really considered it to be a job. It’s a crusade. And I’ve been on this crusade since I woke up when I was 25 years old and realized that I needed to like my job.
Meaning that you needed to find a job you enjoyed doing, or that you needed to find a way to enjoy the job you already had?
Rob Gibson: To me, life is too short to not enjoy your work. A lot of people enjoy counting money for a living. I just wasn’t in that group. But I love what I do, and I love working with people.
There must be one particular aspect of this job you love so much that you’d do for free.
Rob Gibson: Well, my title is Executive and Artistic Director. The artistic direction is the really, really fun part. The executive direction is the business and the responsibility side. I cherish both of them, but I really, really love the artistic direction.
On your watch this festival has grown by leaps and bounds. Do you still feel you have unfinished business here, or has the festival reached a plateau?
Rob Gibson: My experience here is not unlike my experience in New York when we started Jazz at Lincoln Center. I was there for ten years and it took five years for us to even be noticed, because we were next door to the New York Philharmonic. The New York Philharmonic is six years older than the saxophone! The Metropolitan Opera has been around since the 1880s!
When they let jazz on the campus of the Lincoln Center, a lot of people thought it was nothing more than a politically correct maneuver. Like, “Oh, they’re finally gonna let black music in the doors.” Wynton (Marsalis) and I never looked at it like that. We saw it as a fine art. It just happened to be a fine art music that had been created in America. So, five years after we started it, people began to notice we were there. But ten years after we started it, when we had built a $131 million building at Columbus Circle, people said, “Oh, I see what they’re tryin’ to do. These guys aren’t messing around.”
I think the same thing is true here. After this festival, which will be my fifth here, I think people might actually notice we’re here. That said, there’s much to be done. Five years from now, we need to have our own space. We need to be internationally renowned. We need to be impacting the economy not by just ten million, but hopefully 30 to 50 to 80 million dollars, and have the type of outdoor event you mentioned earlier. Hopefully, by then, Savannah will have double the amount of hotel rooms, and all the other things we’re striving for as a city.
It seems this year’s lineup skews a bit more in the “art music” direction, with less blues and jam music than in years past. It also features as much if not more classical than ever before. What precipitated this subtle shift?
Rob Gibson: I would say this year is possibly what I would regard as a festival that’s more rooted in tradition. As I’ve lived here longer, I’ve wanted to root the artistic notion of the festival and connect it with the historic qualities that emanate from Savannah. This year is probably a little safer, but wait till next year!
Safer for whom?
Rob Gibson: You could probably bring your grandmother to almost everything we’re doing this year, and she might like it. But that won’t be the case in 2008.
Rob Gibson: This is a very artistically ambitious festival in terms of some of the events we’re staging. For example, The Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is one of only three performances in the whole U.S.A. this year by this massive troupe. It’s a chorale and two orchestras together. This is huge! We haven’t sold a lot of tickets to it yet, but I’m hoping very much that we will. It serves as the foundation of the Western canon. However, we happen to live in a time where not a lot of people know that or even care about such things. So, in many respects, as traditional as that show is, it’s also a bit of a significant risk to program.
So, there probably are less jam-bands and maybe a little less blues. Unfortunately, for the most part, jam-bands just don’t book themselves six months in advance. One of the very notions of pop music is that it’s very popular right now, but it might not be next year.
We have found that by trying to announce our full schedule six months in advance, that we simply can’t line up many of the acts that we’d like to. We might have to reevaluate that for next year. I’ll tell you right now that 70 percent of next year’s festival is already programmed — but the 30 percent left to finalize represents the styles you’re referring to, and we’re working on them now.
Is the safer nature of this year’s lineup an example of seeing what this market will bear in terms of support and money for upper echelon fine art music? Is part of your job to see just how far you can take that demographic?
Rob Gibson: The answer to that is definitely yes. We have 14 consecutive nights of world-class classical music this year. In a row. Four of those nights have two concerts each, so we have 18 paid concerts and two free recitals in the daytime.
The question is, in a town of 135,000 people, how many will come out to that? How well can we market it? And how many people can we draw to the town as visitors, just to see those shows? We’ll know at the end of this festival. We’ve sold out five of those concerts. Five are very close to selling out. Four are struggling, and four will wind up doing pretty well.
Do the ones which are struggling most fall at the tail end of the festival?
Rob Gibson: The Bach work is the one that’s struggling the most. We’ve sold a few hundred tickets to it, but it’s in a 1200-seat room. There’s always a struggle in Savannah with venues. We’re not a venue-rich city. We have a lot of very interesting venues, but the sizes of the rooms are crucially important to their viability, and not many people understand that.
In terms of hall sizes that we use in our festival, we go from Orleans Hall at about 280 to the Trustees at 1100, to the Lucas at 1200, to the Johnny Mercer at 2500. So, you see, if we had a room that seated 1700 people or one that sat 650 people, we could do so much more.
Now, we do have some historic places of worship that seat 600, but then, you’ve got folks sitting on pews. Plus, we’ve often got to build a stage — and these rooms don’t have adequate acoustic insulation. So if an ambulance goes by during the concert it takes you out of the moment. These are elements that the average person doesn’t think about, but they are key for us.
I want to make it very clear that I’m not complaining about these things. We’re thrilled to be able to utilize all the venues that we do.
Would you care to share any tantalizing names of acts you almost signed, but which wound up falling through? The Savannah Music Festival’s “deleted scenes.”
Rob Gibson: Well, last year Bonnie Raitt’s tour came through before the festival, and this year it’s coming through afterwards! I’m glad to see, however, that she’ll be coming to the Johnny Mercer Theater.
Lucinda Williams is another one. She’s coming through the area, and it happened to be around the time of this year’s festival. But the dollars don’t work out, because the fee she’s asking really requires a room of about 1500 to 1700 seats. We can’t risk putting her into the Johnny Mercer, because I don’t think she’s gonna sell 2500 seats in Savannah. She would sell out the Trustees Theater, but then we’d lose a lot of money on it.
A lot of people were disappointed when Al Jarreau cancelled this year’s appearance. Had you sold many tickets to that show?
Rob Gibson: I think we’d sold 400 tickets.
Was the cancellation a surprise to you?
Rob Gibson: It did not come as a surprise to me, because this is the second time in my booking career that Al Jarreau has cancelled on me. He has gone through several different managers through the years, and while I think his artistry is unquestioned, in my opinion his vision from a business standpoint is quite mediocre.
You’re virtually omnipresent at most of the major concerts at each year’s festival, and many of the minor ones, too. How much of any given show do you actually see?
Rob Gibson: Well, I love the music and I wanna see every performance - I can’t always hear every performance in its entirety. But I’ve always maintained that everyone who buys tickets to the Savannah Music Festival should treat it like they would the sushi platter at the Japanese restaurant. And try a little of this one night and a little of that the next night.
That way, even if you only see half of Noche Flamenca with Soledad Barrio, you can walk next door and see half of Anoushka Shankar. Then you might be able to make it over to Orleans Hall just in time to catch the tail end of a great jazz concert.
What’s the last live concert you took in that was in no way connected with the Music Fest, or that you had a hand in presenting?
Rob Gibson: I go hear music as often as I can in Savannah. A lot of times I hear two and three concerts a night.
Have you seen anything lately that you felt was truly outstanding?
Rob Gibson: Well, the weekend before last, I went to hear Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile at the Lucas. We stayed for the first half, then we walked down the street to Kokopelli’s, and saw the Eric Alexander Quartet’s first set, then had some dinner and felt like we were in New York City! (laughs)
If money and scheduling issues were no object, give me your dream lineup.
Rob Gibson: I don’t necessarily think in terms of acts. I think of staging productions. I hope to be able to stage a wonderful opera that would run for three or four nights in the Lucas Theatre. We’re working on that but it might be three or four years before we raise the money, because opera is very expensive.
I really want to have Leif Ove Andsnes play a recital here. He’s one of my favorite pianists. I wish we’d had the venue this year to bring the Eric Clapton concert with Derek Trucks, because a lot of folks would have attended that show and found out about the Savannah Music Festival. A lot of times you need to do a program that’s not necessarily your dream artistic wish, but which will introduce a lot of new people to your main event.
Since you’re asking about my “wish list,” what I would really wish is that instead of the city building a new 12,000-seat coliseum that might house a minor league hockey team, that we would build an outdoor amphitheatre with a shed that covers four thousand seats and a lawn that holds eight to ten thousand more. That would operate in this wonderful climate that exists almost year round, and we can have all of the main acts that want to stop between Charleston and Jacksonville or Orlando and Miami or whatever can stop and play Savannah and build a music scene here that is viable economically, artistically and innovatively.
Do you feel there’s any real chance of that, or do too few folks who control things of that nature see the big picture?
Rob Gibson: I would like to see the state of Georgia -- which owns the mega-site property -- require the eventual developer to build at the corner of I-16 and I-95 this very amphitheatre I’m speaking of, and name it after themselves! Call it the Daimler-Chrysler Amphitheatre, or whatever, you know? They’d get a ton of marketing out of it. Imagine how many people would drive down those two major Interstates or just out from here in Savannah to this great central location to see live music.
That’s the whole thing, right there. This Music Festival is predicated on live music. Don’t forget: Milli Vanilli was lip-synching! Live music is something that can never be replaced.
The other discussion about live music that’s important not to avoid is the one about quality. There’s been a series of articles running in “the other newspaper” about classical music here in town. But nowhere has the issue of quality surfaced. It’s always about somebody being disenfranchised, or Savannah giving up on its symphony, or musicians who are struggling to make a living.
Well, let me tell you: Some of the really top musicians from the Savannah Symphony left town very unfortunately. But many of them landed on their feet, either with the Atlanta or the Philadelphia Symphonies. That’s quality right there.
But for anybody who believes that a symphony is coming back to this city anytime soon, I’ve got some real estate to sell you. It’s in the swamp. You can build a shopping center on it.
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