ArtsATL > Music > Preview: Artistic Director Sam Dixon focuses Spivey Hall’s season on the sounds of “Clara”

Preview: Artistic Director Sam Dixon focuses Spivey Hall’s season on the sounds of “Clara”

A key event in the Spivey Hall season is Mark O'Connor's Appalachian Christmas.
Mark O'Connor
A highlight at Spivey Hall this year will be Mark O’Connor’s “Appalachian Christmas.”

Step backstage at Spivey Hall and you’ll see rows and rows of head shots that ornament the walls, likenesses of the incomparable musicians who have performed there over the past 22 years. 

Patroness Emilie Spivey didn’t live to witness the groundbreaking for the hall in 1991, but her influence is evident. She and her husband, Walter Boone Spivey, were instrumental in its conception and construction and the creation of an endowment to ensure its longevity.

Today, when Spivey Hall Executive and Artistic Director Sam Dixon picks out the lineup of concert artists each season, Emilie is omnipresent. “I ask myself three things,” he says. “Who is the best? Who will come? What would Emilie do?”

Dixon never had the privilege of meeting the Spivey Hall visionary, but he was in attendance at the venue’s grand opening. It included a trio of concerts featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist André Watts and operatic bass Sam Ramey. At the time Dixon was working for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, but he eventually took a job with Spivey Hall in 2004 and was named director in 2006.

While a combination of factors have a bearing on concert programming, Dixon’s personal aesthetic taste weighs heavily on which artists will make music in the European-style concert hall. He seeks out artists who have a keen sense of musical style and a tremendous commitment to the composer. “Brahms should sound like Brahms and Mozart should sound like Mozart,” he declares. And when it comes to singers, he looks for those who possess a voice of exceptional sound and the ability to convey the song text with integrity.

Dixon’s blog about one Spivey Hall artist last season, British baritone Simon Keenlyside, is telling. “His stage presence is strongly palpable, and the listener’s experience is so deeply informed by how his physical presence enhances the meaning of what he sings,” Dixon wrote. “This combination is what makes the experience of hearing great singers live in concert almost addictive, because it is so profoundly personal and therefore so incredibly rewarding.”

Dixon’s life before Spivey Hall prepared him for his artistic role as the arbiter of taste there. As a child, he lived in Milan and attended operas at La Scala with his parents. He honed his musical instincts after completing an MBA at Northwestern University, working with a myriad of arts organizations including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the ASO, the St. Louis Symphony and the Music Academy of the West.

With patrons from 50 Georgia counties and seven states, Dixon is mindful of variety and balance. This means new artists, new music and a mixture of styles and genres.

So what’s in store during the 2013-14 season?

Dixon says that pianists are driving the season this year in light of the hall’s recent investment in a Hamburg Steinway piano that is affectionately referred to as “Clara.” Imogen Cooper opened the season October 13 playing Franz Schubert’s final three piano sonatas. Pianists Paul Lewis, Emmanuel Ax, Leif Ove Andsnes and Rafal Blechacz will also take the Spivey stage this season.

Patrons will also have the opportunity to hear chamber music from ensembles such as the Pavel Haas Quartet and captivating opera singers including Christiane Karg and Tara Erraught. In addition, the hall offers a series for classical guitar fans, an organ series and a jazz and swing series, featuring artists such as Regina Carter and the Monty Alexander Trio.

Dixon highlighted several performers, citing Mark O’Connor’s upcoming “Appalachian Christmas” concert as “serious fun.” O’Connor is a violinist, fiddler and composer whose music resonates with a broader public.

On November 17, Spivey Hall will feature mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, a Georgia native who won the Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions in 2007. This year she took home both the main prize and the world art song prize at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in Wales. Barton’s Spivey Hall recital will include works by Purcell, Brahms, Sibelius, Ives and Elgar.

Next at the hall will be organist Paul Jacobs, this Saturday, November 2.

Dixon says that Spivey Hall is engaged in strategic planning to grow audiences and that fostering curiosity about the music is central to its mission as it approaches its 25th anniversary. During Dixon’s tenure, the venue has offered an astonishing selection of repertoire and artists. And he has missed only three concerts over the last 10 seasons.

“Music tells us who we are,” he says. “The music is the reward.”

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