One of the many admirable things about the Virginia Arts Festival is that there's something for everyone.
“My goal is that if someone is looking through the brochure, if they have any interest in the arts at all, they'll find something they like,” says Rob Cross, the festival's director and founder.
The multivenue Virginia Arts Festival began in 1997 as the Virginia Waterfront Festival, a ragtag affair manned by Cross and one assistant. Today, the six week assembly of arts performances and recitals employs 25 full-time staffers, hundreds of volunteers and is one of the top-rated arts attractions on the East Coast, bringing out thousands to stages spread out across 10 Hampton Roads communities — organ and ballet recitals, bluegrass, world music and jazz shows, classical concerts and American's largest military tattoo extravaganza.
The 14th annual festival will start April 15 but it began as a pipe dream. “My background is as a drummer, a classical musician,” Cross says. “So I was fortunate enough to attend as a musician several of the really big festivals when I was in college and high school.” A Virginia Beach native, he got big ideas when he started working for the Virginia Symphony.
“I started to dream,” he says. “Wouldn't it be great to have a festival here in our community? We've got good venues, the water, it's so nice here.”
To pull it off required rare commodities: corporate sponsorship and regional cooperation. “There were folks in leadership positions in some of the cities that realized that Norfolk and Hampton Roads were underutilizing the arts as a way to tell the story and showcase the city. It was something that I had brainstormed with a bunch of folks and the stars lined up,” Cross says. “The economic development folks and the tourism folks all got behind it early on. We got some early buy-in from people who could make it happen.”
With that buy-in, the event has presented some classic moments over the years — unforgettable diva performances from singers such as Patti LuPone and Petula Clark, memorable turns by jazz great Wynton Marsalis, classical cello legend Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Joshua Bell — the list goes on. Cross counts the Birmingham Royal Ballet's 2007 appearance as one of his transcendent moments from previous festivals. The London dance group will be back this year, performing “Swan Lake” at Norfolk's Chrysler Hall.
This year's program schedule is peppered with other must-see performers — the Reduced Shakespeare Company, the Pilobolous conceptual dance group, the Niames Russian Folk Dance troupe, even an old time tribute to Virginia's Crooked Road. Highly anticipated are two rare performances of Leonard Bernstein's Mass, a piece originally commissioned by Jackie Kennedy for the opening of the Kennedy Center. The Chrysler Hall concert will involve the Virginia Symphony and Chorus, the Todd Rosenlieb Dance group and the Virginia Children's Chorus. “It's such a big piece, it's rarely done because of the size and the expense,” Cross says.
More intimate pleasures beckon too, such as singer Kelli O'Hara, the Broadway star of “South Pacific,” who is set to present two cabaret performances at the Virginia Room in the Williamsburg Lodge. One special booking for Cross this year is concert pianist Maurizio Pollini “I got to hear him when I was very young at a Chopin recital in Boston,” he says. “I'm really excited about having him, he's like an icon.”
And then there's the popular Tattoo, the loud and boisterous centerpiece to the fest held at Norfolk Scope. “It's a chance for the community to recognize the military and show appreciation, to be patriotic in a very positive way,” Cross says of the event, which takes hundreds of volunteers to pull off each year. “It's the only place in the U.S. where you can see this kind of production.”
This year, the planners hope to rectify a longtime logistical problem by staying a spell in each locale — the festival's first two weeks are in Norfolk and Portsmouth, the third in Newport News and the final week in Williamsburg. “The festival is lucky enough to be supported by all of these different cities,” the director says. “But it's a challenge to the visitors coming to the festival because we are spread out.”
Somehow, with all of the festival planning and promotion, Cross still finds time to be a Virginia Symphony percussionist. “It helps me to have an appreciation for what the artists have to do to give good performances,” he says. “And sitting in the orchestra playing a Mahler symphony or a great Shostakovich piece is still a big high for me. Until I get tired of that, or they get tired of me [laughs], I'm not going to make that change.”
The Virginia Arts Festival runs April 15 to May 30 in communities across Hampton Roads. For tickets and full schedule, log onto virginiaartsfest.com or call 757-282-2800.