Listen to ‘World Voices’ at festival

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 29, 2015

More than 5 years ago, I received an email inviting me to be musical director for the Natchez Festival of Music educational outreach program.  Growing up in North Carolina and having lived almost half my life in New York City, I had never heard of the town or the festival before except through a couple of fellow musicians who had also worked there.  When asking people to describe the place I always encountered a loss for an adequate description but invariably the promise, “you’ll have fun in Natchez.”  Being there for the first time was an experience I will never forget.  The hospitality was overwhelming; people gave of their homes for the guest artists to stay, treated us to elaborate meals, threw parties for us, and generally treated us like family.

To this day my favorite part of Natchez are the people who make it up — all types of people with countless differences of backgrounds, interests and personalities. Many are extraordinarily educated and have made vast contributions to numerous fields even far outside of Mississippi, and to be sure, each one has their own singular voice and story to tell as if they just stepped out of a provocative novel.  As I have been back every April and May since then, each trip has seen new experiences with new discoveries, and the friendships and memories I have cultivated there are among my most treasured.  So it seems only fitting then to celebrate the 25th year of the festival (and my 6th year of coming to Natchez) with a program that is essentially about people — a collection of classical piano works based on folk traditions and folk music. These traditions capture the very essence of who we are — the spontaneity, humour, joy, beauty and sorrows of our daily lives.

Starting in the mid 19th century, composers all over the western world and, particularly in Eastern Europe, struggled with the idea of capturing a national identity in musical sound. What many found was that by taking the things that had remained largely unchanged throughout the ages — folk music passed down for generations by aural tradition — and incorporating the essential elements of this music — the rhythms, harmonies, melodic characteristics — into their style, it would imbue their musical language with a unique flavor all their own and touch at the very heart of a culture. We all have songs that our grandmothers or grandfathers taught us which carry with them a special meaning for us or remind us of a certain person or period in our lives. These are the sounds that speak most intimately about who we are and that is the fundamental idea behind most folk inspired music.

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This program, called “World Voices”, features works influenced by the lively gypsy style of Hungary, native dances of Poland, exotic flavors of eastern music as well as folk ballades from backwoods Kentucky, created by some of the most beloved classical composers such as Chopin and Liszt and including the work of some who are still living. I haven’t been to all of the countries represented in the program, but in a way I know about them on a very deep level simply through experiencing the music, and I would like to invite you to experience it with me, as I return to my second home this May — Natchez.

“World Voices” will be performed at Trinity Episcopal Church, 305 South Commerce Street at 3:00 p.m. Sunday, May 3, $20 admission ($10 for Students K-12, Adult with K-12 Student, College and Active Military with Current ID).

For tickets to “World Voices” and all other events please visit us online,, call (601) 446-6631, at Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, 640 S. Canal Street, Natchez, MS, or at the door.

Other events this weekend include “A Night at the Oscars II” Saturday, May 2 at Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center at 7:00 p.m. $25 admission ($10 for Students K-12, Adult with K-12 Student, College and Active Military with Current ID). Sunday, May 3, 7:00 p.m. at the Historic Natchez Foundation, 108 S. Commerce St. Rossinis, Puccini, and Martinis, free admission.


Jonathan Levin is the musical director for the Natchez Festival of Music.