The Virginia communities of Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Williamsburg might not be the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of an annual international arts festival in the Old South. For more than three decades, the Spoleto Festival USA held in Charleston, S.C., has taken up a lot of the spotlight, but another enterprise has steadily gained attention and admiration over the past 13 years — the Virginia Arts Festival.
It's no wonder that nearly 25 percent of the attendance at this enterprise comes from beyond the Hampton Roads area. The Virginia festival routinely presents worth-the-drive attractions, and the broadly inclusive lineup for this spring's 14th season is no exception.
"The marketing people tell me that, historically, people tend to travel south," says Robert Cross, director of the $6 million, six-week festival. "Our visitors come primarily from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Northern Virginia. We also get a little group from Canada each year. They like our beach, as well as the events."
The 2010 festival, which opened last week, still has a hefty assortment of activities left through May 30, including the Birmingham Royal Ballet from England performing Tchaikovsky's iconic "Swan Lake," the troupe's only appearance in this country this season; the innovative dance ensemble Pilobolus; an all-Chopin recital by eminent Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini; a concert by the genre-crossing trumpeter Chris Botti; and a collaborative performance by banjo star Bela Fleck, bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla master Zakir Hussain.
Then there's something best described as spectacle. Patterned along the lines of the famed Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo held in Scotland every summer, the Virginia International Tattoo will assemble more than 850 participants — pipe and drum ensembles, drill teams, folk dancers and more from at least six countries.
"The mission of the festival is threefold," Cross says. "We try to bring in some great artists who would otherwise not come to our community. When we can, we also try to showcase great artists that are here. The third component is education. Almost every artist who comes in does performances, workshops or master classes for students. Last year, 60,000 students attended festival events."
A variety of venues are used during the festival, including concert halls, an opera house, historic churches, a temple and an arena. For folks thinking of catching the action, the schedule is user-friendly, Cross says. "We group major events around each weekend," he adds. "So there will be a lot of performances in Norfolk and Virginia Beach on [several] weekends, and then a full weekend in Williamsburg, which, of course, is very much a travel destination."
Enticements this weekend in Norfolk, for example, include the Reduced Shakespeare Company's inimitable "Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)." There will also be a production of Leonard Bernstein's eclectic and stirring "Mass" involving about 200 performers, including the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the Todd Rosenlieb Dancers and Virginia Children's Chorus, all conducted by JoAnn Falletta.
Weekdays are quite busy as well, with visits by such top-drawer ensembles as the Venice Baroque Orchestra this Wednesday, for example, and the Cavani String Quartet May 6. Pollini, who performs on May 4 in Norfolk, is a particular favorite of the festival director.
"I'm a classical musician by training," says Cross, who is also principal percussionist of the Virginia Symphony. "A suitemate at school dragged me kicking and screaming to a Pollini recital. It just blew me away. I'm really honored, 20 years later, to be bringing him here."
A very different kind of musician on the festival calendar prompts just as much enthusiasm. "I'm really excited about having Kelli O'Hara here to do two cabaret shows in May," Cross says. "She starred in the ‘South Pacific' revival on Broadway and was sensational."
The Virginia Arts Festival has dealt with the Great Recession that has bitten into cultural life just about everywhere. "Last season's attendance was a little bit down, but not much," Cross says. "This year, we're doing OK. And we're holding our own with funding. I'm really proud of what we're accomplished in 14 years."