Save the date

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rena Jean Schmieg has to navigate through a maze of cardboard in the parlor of her house.

But the boxes scattered across the room aren’t evidence of a lack of spring cleaning. The stacks of fliers, boxes of crackers and piles of schedules are part of the final preparation for the month-long Natchez Festival of Music that kicks of in earnest Sunday.

But for Schmieg the work didn’t just begin a few weeks ago. Schmieg, president of the Natchez Festival of Music Guild and a member of the festival’s board of directors said she and the rest of the festival organizers have been working tirelessly for months to fill the month of May with music.

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And, she said, all their hard work has paid off.

“The resumes of these singers just go on and on,” Schmieg said of the line up of performers. “Their voices are just fabulous.”

Schmieg said many of the performers are festival veterans who enjoy the atmosphere Natchez provides.

“They know they are loved here,” she said. “More than other places, we really care for our performers. That is why we are able to get such quality musicians to come back each year.”

The festival begins Sunday with an evening performance by the Alcorn State University Concert Choir. The choir will perform the Lord Nelson Mass at 7 p.m. at St. Mary Basilica. Lord Nelson Mass was composed by Franz Josef Haydn.

The Alcorn State choir has been a regular performer in the festival and is always a festival favorite, Schmieg said.

“You just have chill bumps the entire time you are listening to them,” she said.

The concert is a free event.

The Alcorn State choir performance is the first in what Schmieg said will be a series of “phenomenal” performances. She said the “An Evening of Jazz” concert should be a favorite since some of the music will be “familiar favorites.”

Fran Ponzio, a jazz pianist and Annie Zozuch, vocalist, will perform over 20 songs during the May 9 concert. They will be accompanied by local musicians Terry Travato and Bob Sizemore.

The concert will be at 8 p.m. at The Columns. Tickets for the event are $25 and $35.

This year’s festival will feature “The Fantasticks” at 8 p.m. on May 16 and “Carmen: at 8 p.m. on May 30. Both of these main stage performances will be at the Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center.

This year’s festival is the third time the Natchez Festival of Music will put on a performance of the musical “Carmen.”

“It is just so loved by the people,” Schmieg said.

And she thinks “The Fantasticks will be just as well received. Schmieg said it is the most performed New York stage production of all time.

“It has been performed for over 42 years,” she said.

The lead, El Gallo, is being portrayed by festival regular Will Earl Spanheimer.

“He keeps wanting to come back,” Schmeig said. “He is so loved here.”

New to this year’s festival will be a vocal competition for apprentice performers, The Blackburn/Killelea Award. Male and female performers will be judged during two nights of competition with the top male and top female being awarded a $500 honorarium and a contract for a future main stage production.

Vocalists will be judged on May 15 in Death by Aria performance at New Covenant Presbyterian Church. On that night, performers will be singing a selection they chose.

“This will feature the performers at their best,” Schmieg said. “They will be singing the songs they feel they perform the best.”

The second night of competition will be May 23 where the performers will be singing assigned songs from popular Broadway musicals and operas. The winner will be chosen the the festival’s new artistic director, George Hogan.

Hogan replaces David Blackburn as the festival’s artistic director. But Schmieg said festival goers should expect great things from Hogan.

“He went to Dr. (David) Blackburn when he was in ninth grade and begged (Blackburn) to take him as a vocal student,” Schmieg said.

Blackburn mentored Hogan though graduate school and picked him to be his successor as artistic director.

“We never expected George to take over so quickly, but he is just fantastic,” Schmieg said.