John Kilkenny Marks Final Season with Sewanee Summer Music Festival

by Beth Riner, Messenger Staff Writer

The upcoming Sewanee Summer Music Festival June 16 to July 14 marks John Kilkenny’s seventh and final season as executive director.

More than 215 talented young musicians from across the world will attend this year’s prestigious festival, which is one of the largest of its kind in the country. Students live on campus for four weeks and attend full-day lessons, coaching sessions, masterclasses, and rehearsals in specialized areas: instrumental, composition, and opera.

Kilkenny, who first came to the Sewanee festival in 1993 as a student percussionist himself, returned as a faculty member in 2010 before assuming its directorship in 2018 and guiding the program through the unprecedented challenges of COVID.

“I’m proud, quite frankly, of what we were able to do during COVID” Kilkenny said. “We kept making music and connecting with our audiences and with our students. We did a summer program in 2020 that was virtual, and we also did a winter program in January of 2021 that was all online. Those are two things that a lot of programs didn’t do — a lot of programs just shut down.”

During his tenure as director, Kilkenny strived to increase diversity and introduce new programs.

“I think we’ve been able to build a more inclusive and comprehensive program than we had,” Kilkenny said. “We have more students from across the country, from around the world — we have a more diverse population of students, both economically and racially. The international student population is higher.

“I’m also proud of the new programs we’ve been able to introduce. We have a thriving composition program now which is something we’d had for decades and had let go of for a while. And, of course, the addition of opera in 2021 is a major step forward artistically and culturally.”

While Kilkenny’s new position as executive director of the New York Youth Symphony is what he describes as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he admits it was a difficult decision to leave Sewanee.

“Believe me when I say I thought about it because I knew what I would be giving up,” he said. “For what I do in the arts — as a performer as an artistic leader as an executive, there’s no better place to do it than New York City. This particular job allows me to synthesize all of the different things that I am most passionate about in the arts. I’m still working with young people; we’re still cultivating the next generation of young musicians. We have programs in jazz and musical theatre and composition and conducting and orchestra, so I’m working with a whole range of musicians here.”

For Kilkenny, the hardest thing about leaving the Mountain is the people.

“I think the faculty—the community support that we have is so incredible,” he said. “I have really gotten close to a number of people in Sewanee and alumni—it’s the people and the relationships we’ve been able to foster there.”

As the SSMF seeks to fill his shoes, Kilkenny has his own hopes for the future of the program he helped to build these past seven years.

“I want to see the festival stick to its core values of artistic excellence and access — I want to see young people continue to thrive the way that I did as a student and the way that so many others have by coming to Sewanee,” he said. “I want to see the University and the community continue to embrace the festival and for it to grow and continue to be a vital part of what makes the Mountain and the community so great and special.”

This season, students will present 35 concerts. Guest conductors include returning favorites JoAnn Falletta and Dr. Christopher Cicconi and newcomers Chelsea Gallo and Jonathan Rush.

A $150 season pass for the festival includes admission to all 15 ticketed concerts including Faculty Artist Series, Cumberland Orchestra, Sewanee Symphony, Opera Scenes, Jacqueline Avent Concerto Competition, Student Chamber Ensembles, Composer Showcases, Aria Showcases, Festival Brass, Concerto Lab Orchestra, July 4 Patriotic Band Celebration, and Opera’s Greatest Hits at Angel Park.

For more information, see the festival’s website at <;.

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