Back in 1998, when the Virginia Arts Festival was only in its second year, my husband and I had a call from our 27-year-old son in Manhattan who asked if the Norfolk-based festival was “a big deal or what?” He informed us that the New York Times had given it “a really great review.”
It’s not surprising that the Virginia Arts Festival, now in its 22nd season, has shown what artistic and executive director Rob Cross calls “steady growth because of our track record.” Though the core festival is mid-April to mid-May, travelers should check out all listings this month.
The festival has spread its wings into other months, when, according to Cross, it has found opportunities for occasional performances not possible during the core dates. For example, on Feb. 24, the festival presents the L.A. Theatre Works production of the critically acclaimed Broadway hit, The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s play about the night before Martin Luther King’s assassination.
With increased attendance and offerings, the festival continues to get rave reviews. A frequent local visitor, painter Nancy Topping Bazin, said she doesn’t think she’s missed a year of attending one or more events. “I particularly love dance, but never had the courage to become a dancer myself.”
Another reason Bazin mentioned returning is a reason my husband and I have enjoyed festival events: the diversity of venues, stretching across Hampton Roads west to Williamsburg and ranging in size from the Norfolk Scope Arena (site of the festival’s renowned International Tattoo) to the city’s 200-seat Robin Hixon Theater for intimate shows.
This year’s festival performances will feature celebrations of the genius of Leonard Bernstein, a dazzling array of ballet and contemporary dance, lively theater, and music across many genres, from classical to jazz to pop.
Leonard Bernstein at 100
The festival joins the worldwide celebration of the Leonard Bernstein centennial for a spectacular opening weekend.
On April 13, at the Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News, and April 14, at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra will be joined by the Virginia Chorale and Todd Rosenlieb Dance in performances of some of Bernstein’s most exciting works. Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie, will serve as narrator, and the symphony’s music director, JoAnn Falletta, who studied under Bernstein while at Juilliard, will conduct.
Bernstein on Broadway in May in Virginia Beach will bring together award-winning Broadway music director Rob Fisher with Broadway stars and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Virginia Chorale to celebrate Bernstein’s unforgettable musicals, including Candide, West Side Story, On the Town, Wonderful Town, and others.
Dance, classical, and vocal music
Direct from the United Kingdom, in its only North American appearance this year, the acclaimed Birmingham Royal Ballet will perform Romeo and Juliet with all of the beauty and poignancy befitting Prokofiev’s score. The powerful, graceful Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, an audience favorite, returns to the festival, which also includes one of the most popular dance companies in the U.S., Parsons Dance.
For 21 years, the Virginia Arts Festival has been a destination for chamber music lovers. This year, the headline-making Dover Quartet’s performances are, according to critics, a must-hear.
Outstanding vocal presentations include: singer, songwriter, artist, and activist Rhiannon Giddens , the Grammy Award winner who was just awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant”; the internationally renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers, recipients of the National Medal of Arts; and the female a cappella trio ModernMedieval.
Theater, jazz, signature events
Visitors to the festival will get to explore the roots of Celtic music across countries and centuries and enjoy a mystic brew blending African tradition, jazz, and soul. Another must-see is the spectacular hit RAIN: A Tribute to the Beatles, celebrating the anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Iconic jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader Chick Corea joins banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck in an evening of high-flying, genre-jumping musical invention at Norfolk’s Harrison Opera House.
An international, spectacular tattoo that has become a signature event, Virginia International Tattoo brings military bands, pipe and drum corps, dancers, choirs, and others together for an awe-inspiring production at Scope Arena. The centerpiece of this year’s celebration of patriotism and international friendship is a moving salute to Medal of Honor recipients. From the colorful NATOFest Parade to the American Pipe Band Championship to the daily pre-show Tattoo Hullabaloo, the tattoo weekend will offer nonstop entertainment and inspiration.
Outdoor events return this year, as well, as does the Virginia Beer Festival on May 19 at Norfolk’s Town Point Park.
A full calendar of 2018 Virginia Arts Festival season is available at vafest.org. Tickets can be purchased online or by phone at 757-282-2822.