​SSMF Through the ‘Ears’ of Many

by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer

When Sally and Walter Sedelow first heard of the Sewanee Summer Music Festival (SSMF) four years ago, they decided to come for a week to see if it was a good fit for their interests.
Before hearing about Sewanee, the couple typically spent summers in Europe, listening to orchestral and chamber music. But now, Sally said it’s the quality of the music at SSMF that brings them back to the Mountain each year. And Walter agrees.
“We were in upstate New York, and we began to notice students who had been here at the festival. That alerted us to the fact that there was good music here,” said Walter. “The first time we came, we came for a week, and we told friends they would be amazed. The expertise of the students is really exceptional. You’ve got something good here.”
In its early days, the SSMF—known then as the Sewanee Summer Music Center—was a summer home to only about 30 students. Now, the festival attracts more than 200 student musicians from around the globe each summer, all looking for chances to hone their skills and gain performance experience.
Joe Pierce was a student at the University in 1963, six years after the revival of the music festival. Pierce said he was in music history classes with Martha McCrory, the woman who would soon be at the helm of one of the best orchestra and chamber music training festivals in the country. More than 50 years later, Pierce now volunteers with and attends the festival each year.
Pierce’s love of music began early—when he was in the fifth grade, visits to his school by a bassist from the Chattanooga Symphony sparked his interest.
“I was lucky enough to have a really dedicated and well-educated high school band guide. We did marching band in the fall for sports games and parades in town, but in the concert season, he had us playing lots of really, really good music—not just crowd-pleaser kind of stuff. My interest got in high gear in high school, and I’ve been an active listener since then. I was a subscriber to the Baltimore symphony for about 28 years.”
Pierce said, during the past 11 years since he has been attending the festival, things have only gotten better.
“There are times when I’m sitting in the audience listening to the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra, just thinking, ‘Those guys are so good.’ They played a favorite of mine [last Sunday], and it was just such a lush, lyrical performance. I was thinking how good they are, and most people really couldn’t tell the difference [in the level of SSMF orchestra performances and those from the Baltimore Symphony]. The quality of the music always brings me back. I’ve been an attendee at music venues for so many years, and these guys are so good that I come back every year. They work very hard to prepare, and it shows.”
Wanda Everett, who was a student pianist of the festival in 1971, agrees. She has been coming to the festival for 46 years.
“You wouldn’t think that it could just keep getting better, but it does. I think when you start something out the right way and you’re determined to keep it excellent, it certainly pays off. The staff is determined to keep it great,” said Everett. “They set the standards higher every summer. I’m amazed at the opening concert because, in the beginning, the first week of the summer, the orchestras would sound good, but they weren’t terrific. For the last two or three years, the opening concerts have been fantastic. They obviously hit the ground running.”
Everett teaches piano now and brings her students to the Mountain for the concerto concert every year.
“I think I’ll have about eight students this year, and I would like to think some of the students will want to go to the festival. It’s good for them to be exposed to it. The opportunity to be exposed to truly world-class musicians is amazing here in our small town. I wish there was a way to gather up carloads of people to bring, but when you mention to people, they just don’t have any concept of how fantastic it is. When I’m traveling, I hear concerts in other big cities, and those professionals, they’re no better than Sewanee’s students. It is such a privilege to hear that kind of musicianship right in our backyard,” said Everett.
The 61st season of the SSMF will continue through July 17. Tickets are available at <ssmf.sewanee.edu>.