International Appeal at Home

Hear modern masters and classical favorites at the Staunton Music Festival.

A performance inside Blackfriars Playhouse.

Photo by Les Kipp

To experience a festival that features the same musicians playing rare operas, period instruments, and contemporary classical music all in the same 10-day stretch, you could travel to the remote lakefront town of Kuhmo, Finland—or to charming Staunton. 

One is much more accessible than the other. 

The 22nd annual Staunton Music Festival kicks off Friday, Aug. 16, with Handel’s Theodora, a rarely performed opera by the composer who wrote The Messiah. On Saturday, things get rolling with a free performance of Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of the Animals produced with the Staunton Academy of Ballet, an evening of Haydn symphonies, and finally an intimate “night cap” violin recital at a bookstore. And on goes the festival docket, chock full of music through Aug. 25. 

The schedule is designed so patrons never have to choose between events or miss a concert, says Jason Stell, the festival’s executive director. There may be four events per day, but visitors can easily walk between venues, which include Black Swan Books, the 170-year-old Trinity Episcopal Church, and Blackfriars Playhouse, home of the American Shakespeare Center. 

In addition to Theodora, which will be directed by international Handel specialist Timothy Nelson, highlights of the 2019 festival include Maria de Buenos Aires, an opera by tango composer Astor Piazzolla; the annual Early Keyboard Extravaganza

“The element of diversity is the strongest element that we do,” Stell says. Few festivals allow patrons to hear contemporary works alongside authentic performances of classics. (Any piece written before 1850 is performed on a period instrument or a replica.) Rather than hosting guest string quartets and other artists, Staunton hires a core group of around 45 musicians who form ensembles especially for the festival. Musicians stay in homes to keep costs down, and a few host families then travel the world to hear their guest musicians play elsewhere, including Staunton’s sister festival in Finland.

“The musicians always say to us that they love playing here,” says Stell. “The attention of the audience and the interaction with the audience is unique, so they come back year after year.”

This article originally appeared in our August 2019 issue.

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