A wealth of arts in the mountains

It happens every summer: The Appalachian State University campus is transformed from a center of learning to a place for listening. And watching. And absorbing. And having a whole lot of fun, in the process.

An Appalachian Summer Festival (now in its 14th year) blends music, dance, theater and visual arts — everything from Willie Nelson to Ballet West, from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to “The Inferno of Dante” — creating a remarkably rich and diverse cultural experience.

Event organizers are particularly jazzed about Nelson’s Aug. 1 performance — complete with fireworks — at the university’s outdoor stadium. “We’re very excited,” says Denise Ringler of Appalachian State’s Office of Cultural Affairs. “This is [Nelson’s] only appearance in North Carolina this summer. We’re hoping for a great turnout.”

The festival, notes Ringler, is ideal for both daytrippers and tourists looking for a one- or two-week getaway. “You can come to only one show,” she concedes. “But most people purchase one of our packages, which are flexible enough to accommodate the most eclectic of tastes.”

This season’s musical offerings are impressive. They include: a recital by internationally renowned classical pianist Andre Watts (July 25 at 8 p.m.); concerts by the North Carolina Symphony, with guest violinist Stephanie Chase (July 29 at 8 p.m.) and the North Carolina Symphony Pops (July 5 at 8 p.m.); the timeless magic of the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band (July 16 at 8 p.m.); the elegant works of the Broyhill Chamber Ensemble (July 6, 12, 17, 20, 26, 27 and 30 — times vary); a “big band spectacular” by the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra (July 11 at 8 p.m.): Appalachian Heritage concerts by singer/storyteller David Holt (July 12 at 3 p.m.) and singer John McCutcheon (July 19 at 3 p.m.); a recital featuring works by composers (and Appalachian State School of Music faculty members) William Harbinson and Scott Meister (July 7 at 8 p.m.); and an evening of jazz by Broadway star Audra McDonald (July 13 at 8 p.m.). Smithsonian Institution programs on American pop music and American musical theater (July 14 at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m.) will round out the musical roster.

Salt Lake City’s Ballet West, one of the nation’s foremost ballet companies, will headline the festival’s dance component (July 18 at 8 p.m., accompanied by the music of Bach and Stravinsky). And Tony Award-winning Garth Fagan (July 10 at 8 p.m.) will serve up cutting-edge, contemporary dance.

For theater buffs, there’ll be a staged reading of A Night at the Algonquin (July 9 at 8 p.m.) by Chapel Hill playwright John Justice, as well as “The Inferno of Dante” (July 24 at 8 p.m.), a staged reading of U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s brilliant adaptation of this classic work.

As usual, the visual arts will also play a prominent role in the festivities. The 12th Annual Rosen Outdoor Sculpture Competition and Exhibition, a national juried competition, will give visitors a chance to sample a broad range of contemporary sculpture — not in a formal, museum setting, but installed at diverse outdoor sites. And an indoor exhibit (in the Catherine Smith Gallery) entitled “Post-Modern Potluck” will feature the exquisite quilts of Betty Bivins Edwards, which poke fun at stereotypical Southern attitudes toward food.

Recognizing a declining interest in the arts among young people, the festival is offering an entire family series, with matinee performances and workshops geared especially toward children and families — ranging from music to creative writing. Highlights include the Ballet West Young People’s Matinee (July 18 at 3 p.m.) and North Carolina Symphony Young People’s Concert (July 25 at 10 a.m.).

“With fine arts in this country, you find more attendance amongst older people,” Ringler asserts. “We’re trying to reach out by intentionally designing a festival for young people. We know that it only takes one event, one live show, to get a child interested in the arts, and it’s this kind of interest that we want to help foster.”

In that vein, An Appalachian Summer Festival will also be offering a special two-part family workshop, presented by the Smithsonian Institution, for children ages 6-9 and their parents. In “Just a Piece of Cloth” (July 11 at 1 p.m.), parents and children will work together to create fabric collages, using a variety of fabrics and found objects from home. In “Odds and Ends Sculpture” (July 12 at 1 p.m.), parents and children will create small sculptures using old toys, and other odds and ends brought from home.

The Visual Arts Workshop, led by Gayle Weitz of Appalachian State’s art faculty, is also geared for children. This week-long series (July 13-17) seeks to pique young people’s natural interest in the visual arts. The younger age group (6-to-8-year-olds) will focus on puppet-making, while 9-to-12-year-olds will learn the art of making wooden nested figures, based on the Russian folk tradition.

“We’re the only multi-arts festival in North Carolina,” notes Ringler, adding, “We’re quite proud of our accomplishments.”

The scoop

The Appalachian Summer Festival runs July 5 through Aug. 1. A variety of ticket options are offered, including full subscriptions — which cost $300 and include one ticket to all performances (except children’s matinees and Smithsonian presentations). Series options allow you to choose Celebrating the Classics, the Discovery Series, the Family Series or a series of your own creation (prices vary widely). Tickets for individual performances range from $2 to $25. Call (800) 841-ARTS for a complete schedule and info on performances, concert locations and ticket prices.

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