Wintergreen Performing Arts: A Brief History

John D. Evans Center - Home of the Wintergreen Summer Music Festival - Photo: Ben Blankenburg

The history of the growth and development of Wintergreen Performing Arts, Inc., and the Wintergreen Summer Music Festival (WSMF) is truly a remarkable story, featuring impressive levels of community commitment and perseverance that continue to the present day. A brief chronological sketch of that history is provided here.

It began on Saturday morning, June 25, 1995, at a meeting of Mountain and Valley music lovers, brought together by Sarah McCracken. At this meeting the group embarked on the writing of a mission statement and the development of a phone survey to assess the degree of community interest in bringing music to Wintergreen. Both tasks had been completed successfully by the time of the group’s second meeting in July.

The next step was to schedule the first concert. Held in the mountain home of Joan and Erwin Berry in November, it featured a performance by George McKinney, baritone, and Dr. Arnold Popkin, piano. Two more in-home concerts were scheduled before the end of 1995. During 1996 the organization was incorporated as Wintergreen Performing Arts, Inc. (WPA), a board of directors was established, by-laws were written, and twelve public concerts plus an additional in-home concert were scheduled.

The public concerts were held at the Rockfish Presbyterian Church, the Wintergreen Resort’s Skyline Pavilion, and the Red Barn at Rodes Farm. Solicited family and individual memberships and ticket sales served as the major sources of revenue, and WPA ended the 1996 performance season in a solvent financial position–no small accomplishment for a new musical venture!

The year 1997 was highly significant for WPA. During that year the organization received its 501(c)(3) status and launched the first Wintergreen Summer Music Festival, featuring the American Sinfonietta conducted by Michael Palmer. Only with the financial support of L.F. and Susan Payne, who provided underwriting from Wintergreen Development, Inc. and helped secure additional sponsors, was it possible to launch the Wintergreen Summer Music Festival. Additional financial support was provided by John D. Evans, Michael Gage of Pegasus Motorcar Company in Charlottesville, and Wintergreen Partners, Inc. (WPI). The Festival included several outstanding guest artists: violinist Robert McDuffie, classical guitarist Pepe Romero, and pianist Robert Roux. Another important accomplishment of the 1997 season was the initiation of an education program that included both a partnership with the Nelson County Schools and the American Sinfonietta Performance Academy, a training program for pre-professional artists.

Yet another highlight of the 1997 season was a series of weekly in-home chamber music concerts performed by American Sinfonietta musicians and guest artists. These concerts took place in historic homes located along the James River in Nelson County.

The 1998 Summer Music Festival again featured the American Sinfonietta and an impressive group of guest artists including cellist János Starker, trumpeter David Hickman, soprano Julia Faulkner, Robert Roux, and violinist William Preucil. The Festival was moved from the Skyline Pavilion to the newly-erected John D. Evans Center, thus providing not only improved acoustics for WPA’s performances but also invigorating the organization with a new sense of permanence. The generosity of John Evans, owner of a second home on Wintergreen Mountain, was critical in helping WPA achieve a higher level of performance.

Major changes again took place in 1999. Members of the Richmond Symphony, conducted by Geraldo Edelstein, were featured during the 1999 Summer Music Festival, and David Wiley, conductor of the Roanoke Symphony, was hired as the first Artistic Director and first WPA staff member.

The new millennium was ushered in with a summer of major productions. July 3 saw the premiere of an original composition by composer-in-residence Anthony Iannaccone. WPA won the right to represent Virginia as part of Continental Harmony, a 50-state celebration sponsored by the American Composers Forum. WPA’s Virginia piece, “From Time to Time,” had its world premiere as part of a Richmond Symphony orchestral celebration of the new century before thousands on Wintergreen’s Mountain. Continental Harmony was sponsored by funds from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the John S. and James L. Knight, Rockefeller, and Land O’Lakes Foundations, and had the endorsement of the White House Millennium Council.

In August 2000 the new maestro, David Wiley, brought “Sophisticated Ellington: Symphony and Swing” to the Evans Center. The program, in its Wintergreen version, included four days of recitals and lectures showcasing the African-American contribution to American Music. Funds from the George J. and Effie L. Seay Foundation and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy made the event possible.

David Wiley is to be commended for his leadership in recruiting musicians from across the nation to create the Wintergreen Festival Orchestra and the Wintergreen Festival Academy. This change in direction represented a major turning point for the festival and the organization. Wiley also continued the practice of bringing in highly regarded musicians to serve as guest artists, composers, and/or master teachers. In recent years these have included pianist Norman Krieger; cellists Julie Albers, Wesley Baldwin, and Zuill Bailey; mezzo-soprano Angela Horn and baritone Thomas Barrett; composers David Dzubay and Russell Peck; violinist Roger Frisch, Associate Concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, who served as concertmaster of the Wintergreen Festival Orchestra for five years; and David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 2002 composer Judith Shatin presented the world premiere of “Singing the Blue Ridge,” celebrating the cycles of nature in Nelson County. This commission was made possible by a grant from Americans for the Arts and the Ford Foundation.

After serving for seven years, Wiley resigned from his position in 2005, effective at the end of the 2006 Summer Music Festival, in order to focus more attention on his many other musical responsibilities. His success as a conductor, as he moves on to new venues and continuing acclaim, will be our success as well. We will look back with pride on what was accomplished with the Wintergreen Festival Orchestra during his tenure.

Following intensive outside consultation and internal deliberations in 2005, the WPA board decided to adopt a new leadership model, with administrative and artistic direction being combined in a single position. A national search was conducted during the winter of 2005, resulting in the hiring of Larry Alan Smith as WPA’s new Artistic and Executive Director. Smith brings with him the background and expertise required to take the organization to new artistic heights. The organization looks with optimism to a future filled with the excitement generated by an enhanced educational program for both the Wintergreen Summer Music Academy and the students of Nelson County, and by the inspiration that comes from great music performed high on a beautiful mountain.