Asheville Amadeus Festival: Amadeus Goes Americana

Asheville Symphony launched the Amadeus Festival in 2015. Originally conceived as a way to honor and spotlight the works of classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the semi-annual festival has grown and changed in the years since its beginnings as a one-week enterprise. This year’s 10-day event represented the most ambitious chapter in the festival’s development. Built upon an Americana theme and featuring Béla Fleck and Kishi Bashi, it featured 40-plus events, enlisting the participation of multiple venues and more than two dozen partner organizations. The Asheville Amadeus Festival took place May 11-20.

Béla Fleck, Kishi Bashi

Adversity into inspiration
Asheville Symphony executive director Daniel Crupi has only been in his is new position for about 18 months, but once settled in Asheville, he quickly immersed himself in the planning for this year’s festival. He points to the COVID-19 pandemic as a challenge that would find him sharpening his skills, making him ideally suited to program what he describes as the “complex and intricate” enterprise that is this year’s Amadeus Festival.

Immediately prior to coming to Asheville, Crupi worked as executive director with the Santa Fe Symphony in New Mexico. “Especially during my final year, creativity and innovation through programming was at the absolute forefront of my mind,” he says. At the time, New Mexico was experiencing a near-total shutdown in the wake of the pandemic. “You could not gather more than five individuals together without it being constituted a mass gathering,” he explains. “Performing arts facilities were shuttered until March of ‘21.”

Crupi rose to the challenge of sustaining the Symphony and providing cultural enrichment for Santa Fe audiences. “I was really interested in finding a path through the pandemic, to keep the musicians in Santa Fe employed and continue the Santa Fe Symphony’s mission rather than shutting down,” he says. With his team working “out of necessity, through sheer force of will and with a lot of creativity,” the Santa Fe Symphony put together a 10-concert virtual series. Crupi says that the experience “forced me to reconsider the position of a symphony orchestra in its community, and broaden my perspective in terms of what was possible for an orchestra.”

That enterprise prepared Crupi for his next major challenge; building on the success of Asheville’s Amadeus Festival as the event took things to a new level. He says that this year’s event is characterized by collaboration, and has a scope that sets it apart from previous festivals. “It has all the same core tenets,” he notes, “but we’ve flipped it on its head in terms of programming and how we’re working with our partners.”

Different direction
The first two Amadeus Festivals stuck close to a Mozart theme, and were almost exclusively centered around classical music. But in the third year of the festival, Crupi’s predecessor David Whitehill shifted away from Mozart, broadening the scope to include a rock music theme. With a program that featured Warren Haynes in collaboration with the Asheville Symphony, the “Rock and Rach” (as in Rachmaninoff) theme was a major success.

Crupi’s approach both followed on from that strategy and, he says, stripped the concept down to some basic principles. “It’s all about music excellence, innovation and collaboration,” he explains. The Amadeus Festival is “not just about the Symphony; it’s about elevating the entire arts community, using the Symphony as a pivot point to be able to do that.” He believes that mixing up the variety of artists is at the center of that approach.

“In past years, it’s been major classical artists,” Crupi explains. “The famous pianist Emanuel Ax, Midori on violin. But we had an opportunity to do something really different this year.”

Collaborative concerts
Kicking off with a May 11 gala at Cursus Kĕmē that included the release of a themed beer, Das Hornier Bier, the 2023 Asheville Amadeus Festival was organized around what Crupi calls its two anchor performances. Headliner and cross-genre multi-instrumentalist Kishi Bashi joined the ASO (led by musical director Darko Butorac) to open the performance schedule with a concert at Salvage Station on May 13. Acclaimed banjoist and 15-time Grammy Award winner Béla Fleck appeared with the Opal String Quartet on May 16 for the Amadeus Festival’s grand finale. Fleck’s program included a performance of his The Imposter concerto for banjo and orchestra.

“When I think about musical excellence and collaboration, one of the top people that comes to mind immediately is Béla Fleck,” says Crupi. “He has worked with everyone from Chick Corea to Edgar Meyer to Sam Bush.” Crupi believes that Fleck’s musical artistry and collaborative spirit “really speaks to the essence of the festival; he is able to bring a hyper-relevance” to the event.

Crupi says that the high-profile participation of Béla Fleck helps connect the Asheville Symphony with the roots music traditions of Western North Carolina, emphasizing that Fleck’s presence offers an “interesting intersection opportunity” as well. “Because of his diversity of styles and experiences, Béla Fleck can work not just with the Symphony but also with our youth orchestra, with the Asheville Chamber Music Series and other fabulous groups that speak to the essence of the festival,” Crupi says.

Panoply of Partners
This year’s Amadeus Festival was far too expansive for one venue. So an assortment of locations was employed to host the full and varied lineup of performances and events. In addition to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, festival locations included Salvage Station, the Wortham Center, Citizen Vinyl and other venues.

Partner organizations for the festival represented a cross-section of Western North Carolina’s cultural and creative communities. This year’s Amadeus Festival’s participants included Brevard Music Center, Junior Appalachian Musicians, Connect Beyond Festival, Ballet Conservatory of Asheville, Different Strokes! Performing Arts collective and many others.

Crupi readily admits that mounting a festival of this magnitude is a daunting prospect. “The sheer scope of coordinating 40 events with 25 partners is immensely challenging,” he says, “especially for a small nonprofit like us.” He notes that the Asheville Symphony staff numbers only nine persons. “And that’s an all-time high for the organization.” Crupi says that while some might expect that coordinating the artistic components of the festival would be a challenge, in this case the opposite is true. “Both Béla Fleck and Kishi Bashi have been a pleasure to work with,” he says. “They’re both flexible and amenable to all the wild and crazy ideas we’ve been throwing at them. It’s been a total blast.”

Festival Futures
Daniel Crupi says that the Asheville Amadeus Festival is in line with the symphony’s goal of community engagement. It’s of a piece with other initiatives like the free Symphony in the Park concerts in Pack Place, and the ALT ASO chamber orchestra series. The latter embeds the orchestra in community venues that don’t typically host classical music; Crupi lists Highland Brewing, the Asheville Art Museum, High Wire Brewing in the RAD and the Orange Peel as past venues. “It’s all about getting the orchestra out into the community and engaging people where they’re already comfortable,” he explains, “rather than expecting folks to always come to us. And the Amadeus Festival is the culmination of all of that.

Hybridizing classical music and other forms like Americana can sometimes be an uneasy marriage, but Daniel Crupi believes he knows the secret to making it work. “Ultimately,” he says, “it has to start with great music. That’s our guiding principle, and Darko Butorac shares that principle. We’re fortunate to have him as an artistic partner and leader.”

Ahead of the event, Crupi and his staff were immersed in the details of this year’s Amadeus Festival. But at the same time, they’re already looking toward the next one, scheduled for 2025. “First, we’re going to be conducting some robust survey work to gather data about how this year’s festival was received,” he says, “because it is so different [from past festivals].” Assuming a positive response and ticket sales that meet projections, he promises that the 2025 Amadeus Festival “will continue to stretch boundaries.”