The Asheville Symphony launched the Asheville Amadeus Festival in 2015. Originally conceived as a weeklong celebration spotlighting the works of classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the biennial festival has grown and morphed over time.
This year’s 10-day event, which runs Thursday, May 11-Saturday, May 20, represents the most ambitious chapter in the festival’s history. Built upon an Americana theme and featuring Béla Fleck and Kishi Bashi, it will feature 40-plus events, enlisting the participation of multiple venues and more than two dozen partner organizations.
‘Complex and intricate’
Asheville Symphony Executive Director Daniel Crupi has only been in his new position for 18 months. Before his arrival, Crupi worked as executive director with the Santa Fe Symphony in New Mexico. He says his time there, especially during COVID-19, has prepared him for the “complex and intricate” enterprise that is this year’s Amadeus Festival.
“Especially during my final year [with the Sante Fe Symphony], creativity and innovation through programming were at the absolute forefront of my mind,” he says. At the time, New Mexico was experiencing a near-total shutdown in the wake of the pandemic. “You could not gather more than five individuals without it being constituted a mass gathering,” he explains. “Performing arts facilities were shuttered until March of ’21.”
Crupi rose to the challenge of sustaining the symphony and providing cultural enrichment for Santa Fe audiences. “I was really interested in finding a path through the pandemic, to keep the musicians in Santa Fe employed and continue the Santa Fe Symphony’s mission rather than shutting down,” he says.
With his team working “out of necessity, through sheer force of will and with a lot of creativity,” the Santa Fe Symphony put together a 10-concert virtual series. Crupi says the experience “forced me to reconsider the position of a symphony orchestra in its community and broaden my perspective in terms of what was possible for an orchestra.”
That enterprise prepared Crupi for his next major challenge: building on the prior success of the Asheville Amadeus Festival and bringing it to a new level.
He says that this year’s event is characterized by collaboration and has a scope that sets it apart from previous festivals. “It has all the same core tenets,” he notes, “but we’ve flipped it on its head in terms of programming and how we’re working with our partners.”
Elevating the arts
The first two Amadeus Festivals stuck close to a Mozart theme with classical music as its core foundation and focus. But in the third year of the festival, Crupi’s predecessor, David Whitehill, shifted away from Mozart, broadening the scope to include a rock-music theme. With a program that featured Warren Haynes in collaboration with the Asheville Symphony, the “Rock and Rach” (as in Russian composer Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff) theme was a major success.
Crupi’s approach both followed that strategy and, he says, stripped the concept down to some basic principles.
“It’s all about music excellence, innovation and collaboration,” he explains. The Amadeus Festival is “not just about the symphony; it’s about elevating the entire arts community, using the symphony as a pivot point to be able to do that.”
Variety, Crupi emphasizes, is essential to the approach.
“In past years, it’s been major classical artists,” he explains. “But we had an opportunity to do something really different this year.”
Crupi says the 2023 Asheville Amadeus Festival is organized around its two headlining acts. On Saturday, May 13 at 7 p.m., cross-genre multi-instrumentalist Bashi will join the ASO (led by musical director Darko Butorac) at Salvage Station. Meanwhile, Fleck, an acclaimed banjoist and 15-time Grammy Award winner, will perform at a number of the festival’s events, including the festival finale on Saturday, May 20, at 8 p.m. at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.
“When I think about musical excellence and collaboration, one of the top people that comes to mind immediately is Béla Fleck,” says Crupi. “He has worked with everyone from Chick Corea to Edgar Meyer to Sam Bush.”
Crupi adds that Fleck’s high profile helps connect the Asheville Symphony with the roots music traditions of Western North Carolina. “Because of his diversity of styles and experiences, Béla Fleck can work not just with the symphony but also with our youth orchestra, with the Asheville Chamber Music Series and other fabulous groups that speak to the essence of the festival.”
Panoply of partners
This year’s Amadeus Festival, far too expansive for one venue, will employ an assortment of locations to host the full and varied lineup of performances and events. In addition to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium and Salvage Station, festivalgoers will attend shows at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts, Asheville Art Museum and Citizen Vinyl as well as several other sites.
Furthermore, partner organizations for the festival represent a cross section of WNC’s cultural and creative communities. Brevard Music Center, Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective, Connect Beyond Festival and the Ballet Conservatory of Asheville are just a few on the long list of participants.
Crupi notes that mounting a festival of this magnitude is a daunting prospect. “The sheer scope of coordinating 40 events with 25 partners is immensely challenging,” he continues, “especially for a small nonprofit like us.”
The symphony’s staff, he notes, totals only nine. “And that’s an all-time high for the organization,” he points out.
Despite the many moving parts, Crupi notes that this year’s headlining acts have helped keep things running smoothly. “Both Béla Fleck and Kishi Bashi have been a pleasure to work with,” he says. “They’re both flexible and amenable to all the wild and crazy ideas we’ve been throwing at them. It’s been a total blast.”
Community engagement is a core mission for the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, Crupi continues. The Asheville Amadeus Festival is one of several programs that contribute to this goal. Additionally, he highlights the group’s Symphony in the Park concerts in Pack Place and the ALT ASO chamber orchestra series.
The latter program, notes Crupi, embeds the orchestra in community venues that don’t typically host classical music. Previous locations have included Highland Brewing Co., Hi-Wire Brewing in the RAD and The Orange Peel.
“It’s all about getting the orchestra out into the community and engaging people where they’re already comfortable,” he explains, “rather than expecting folks to always come to us. And the Amadeus Festival is the culmination of all of that.”
And while hybridizing classical music and other forms such as Americana can sometimes be an uneasy marriage, Crupi believes he knows the secret to making it work. “Ultimately,” he says, “it has to start with great music. That’s our guiding principle, and Darko Butorac shares that principle. We’re fortunate to have him as an artistic partner and leader.”
Right now, Crupi and his staff are immersed in the details of this year’s Amadeus Festival. But at the same time, they’re looking toward the next one, scheduled for 2025.
“First, we’re going to be conducting some robust survey work to gather data about how this year’s festival was received,” the executive director says. “Because it is so different [from past festivals].”
Assuming a positive response and ticket sales that meet projections, he promises that the 2025 Amadeus Festival “will continue to stretch boundaries.”
Many of the festival’s events are free and open to the public. For a complete schedule, visit avl.mx/cma.
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