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Sanibel Music Festival is well-loved island tradition

By Staff | Mar 6, 2009

For one month every year the Sanibel Congregational Church is transformed

from a sanctuary of prayer into a concert hall of praiseworthy song and music.

It is at this church, whose walls create phenomenal acoustics and an intimate

atmosphere, that talented musicians and singers – many already global superstars and the others on the cusp of international success – ply their trade.

The Sanibel Music Festival, celebrating its 23rd season, features world-renowned artists during the month of March at the Congregational church. The non-for-profit organization says its mission is to present classical music of the highest standard at affordable prices and to promote the careers of young artists through performance opportunities.

Nearly 2,000 people come to the Sanibel Music Festival every year.

“This is sort of a boutique chamber festival,” said Sanibel Music Festival

vice president Jana Stone.

Stone said the Sanibel Music Festival is rated by Chamber Music Magazine as one of the top venues.

Board members volunteer many hours throughout the year to decide who will perform in the festival. They also work throughout the year to raise the $100,000 needed to put on the festival. That keeps the festival affordable. The groups only other cost is paying to set up the church for performances, said Bob Orell, president of the Sanibel Music Festival.

Tickets for each performance cost $30.

And it’s mostly an island crowd. Only about 10 percent of those attending come from off island, Orell said.

Dr. Michael Newhouse and his wife Carol look forward to the event each year.

“We are big fans,” said Carol Newhouse. “The performers are far above

average. They are world class.

The church’s setting is also a draw.

“The accoustics are particularly good,” she said. “It’s very intimate.”

Carol Newhouse said she delights in the fact she doesn’t have to deal with the hassle of big city crowds and parking.

“I think the fact that we get them here is great,” she said.

The festival developed 23 years ago when a woman from the Chicago Orchestra visiting a friend on the islands noticed there was not any major music events.

The musician contacted her musical friends and they started coming to

perform on the islands. First they played in homes and on the

beach, Stone said. But as things got organized, the Sanibel Music Festival

was born.

Now residents get to hear performers from the Opera Theater of Connecticut – a returning favorite – and cellist David Finckel and his pianist wife, Wu Han. They have served as the artistic directors of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center since 2004.

“We only hire the best people,” Orell said.

The performers and companies look forward to returning to the Sanibel Music Festival every year. They cite the church’s acoustics and intimate setting as a draw to come perform. But the warm reception of island residents year after year is also a plus.

Han, who performs a much celebrated duo with her pianist husband, travels to more than 200 national and international destinations a year.

“Sanibel has always been one of our favorites,” Han said.

The destination is seemingly as important as the journey to performers.

“We have a wonderful audience of people who truly appreciate what we bring down,” said Alan Mann, the artistic director for the Opera Theater of

Connecticut. “It’s just a marvelous, moving experience for them (the audience).”

Mann and his company have been coming to the Sanibel Music Festival for more than a decade.

This year, attendees can see two favorites – Rachel Watkins and

David Ossenfort – both are prominent singers.

And to draw the audience further, this year Mann said the opera company will be performing scenes from five operas.

Last year the company performed arias, duets and ensembles. Some of the

Performances, such as Die Fledermaus, will be performed in English.

“It’s actually going to be like a full presentation,” Mann said. “That’s

very exciting.”

Tickets may be purchased for the seven concert series at $200, a savings of

$30, by contacting the Sanibel Music Festival, P.O. Box 1623, Sanibel Fl,

33957-1623 or by calling (239) 336-7999. Single tickets may be purchased by mail or phone and are available at Bailey’s store, MacIntosh Bookshop or

Sanibel Island Bookshop.