Get These HANDS

Organizers of this year’s Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival billed 2018 as “the Year of the Piano,” and they certainly delivered on that declaration. Festivities began with classical piano heavyweight Yefim Bronfman on Jan. 16, followed three days later by jazz icon Chick Corea. Those were only the first two of nearly two dozen performances held all over the island, and now things are ending in fine form on April 29 with festival mainstays Julie Coucheron and Elizabeth Pridgen teaming up for a four-hands duet performance that showcases both women playing the same piano at the same time.

The Oslo-born Coucheron matriculated at the Royal Academy of Music in London before launching a career that’s already taken her to four continents. “Julie Coucheron has been coming to the festival for many years,” says Dr. Joe Marasco, the festival’s executive director. “Her brother David is Concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony.” The Coucherons have performed regularly as the Christiani Trio, including with festival founder and Artistic Director Christopher Rex, principal cellist of the Atlanta Symphony.

Both Coucheron and Pridgen have performed at Carnegie Hall, and both are longtime associates of the AICMF. “Actually, Elizabeth Pridgen was a young student when she first worked with the festival back in the early 2000s,” says Marasco, “and now she has a career of her own.” And what a career it’s been: Pridgen studied at Juilliard and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore (at Johns Hopkins University). She’s featured at top venues from San Francisco to Amsterdam. “Both Julie and Elizabeth have been really strong supporters and contributors to the festival,” says Marasco, noting that their collaboration began spontaneously at AICMF 2016.

“Last year, we had a concert at the Savannah Grand senior citizens’ facility; it was a free concert, supported by Rayonier, and they both happened to be in town-Elizabeth was there to play with the young artists, and Julie was due to play with them the following Friday evening. And they got together, and decided to do some four-hand piano at that particular concert; it was wonderful. I and others said to them, ‘You’ve got something good here that’s really worth expanding,’ and indeed they did. They did some solo four-hand in Atlanta, and there was a festival in Maryland [The Joan Stockstill Godsey Concert Series] where they performed together. This is sort of a new thrust for them, artistically, so who knows where they’ll go?”

Coucheron and Pridgen were just kids when the festival began back in 2001, and it’s evolved into one of the island’s premier cultural attractions. “Amelia Island, it’s interesting,” says Marasco. “First of all, it’s a working town. Westrock is located here, Rayonier. And with the beachfront hotels like the Ritz-Carlton and the Omni, it’s also a resort facility. With the festival, we have the best of both worlds. We have older venues like churches, the Courthouse, and we have the newer venues like Ritz-Carlton and Omni Amelia Island Plantation. In fact, a lot of the folks who support the festival are snowbirds who have places here where they come during the winter months.”

“The festival used to always be in May, because that’s when symphony musicians were available after their season, but it’s grown to be from January through the end of April, because that’s the time that many of our strong supporter snowbirds are here.” They have received support from a variety of sources ranging from corporations like Rayonier to WJCT and the National Endowment of the Arts. Most important, Jack Melvin of Keyboard Connection has graciously donated the use of one of his grand pianos to the festival since 2005, at a total value of nearly $300,000.

Organizers are looking forward to vastly expanding the festival’s mandate, as well as its duration. “Next season, 2019, we are going to have the main festival from January through April,” says Marasco, “but then in May, we’re going to have what we call the Spring Institute. Instead of bringing the young, newly fellowshipped artists we’re mentoring into the main part of the festival, we’re going to do that in May. And one of our biggest assets is the Dover String Quartet. It’s becoming an international jewel, if you will; we’re already working to get dates for them in 2019, they’re so in-demand. They love to teach, and we’re very excited about that.” You can bet on Coucheron and Pridgen also being on the bill in 2019, and for many years to come.