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Britt's Classical Festival opens

If it's August, it's time for classical music to take over the Britt Festivals hillside. Guest pianist Mûza Rubackyté and the Britt Orchestra will kick off the season with a celebration of the 200th birthday of classical music's first pop star, Franz Liszt, at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5, in the Britt Pavilion in Jacksonville.

The composer is famous for some of the most demanding piano literature ever written, and the Lithuanian pianist Rubackyté specializes in his music.

"It is maddeningly difficult," says Britt Music Director and Conductor Peter Bay. "She makes it seem like child's play."

Rubackyté will play Liszt's "Les Preludes," S. 97, "Fantasia on Motives From Beethoven's "The Ruins of Athens," S. 122, and the Piano Concerto No. 1. The orchestra will conclude the opening-night program with Tchaikovsky's "Capriccio Italien," Op. 45.

It's the 49th season of the annual Classical Festival, with three weeks of concerts under the stars including seven orchestral concerts, free string-quartet recitals and chamber music. Guest artists will join the 90-member Britt Orchestra, including guitarist Sharon Isbin, pianist Christopher O'Riley and the innovative trio Time for Three.

The Rubackyté concert will be preceded by Britt's annual Champagne Picnic (see www.brittfest.org for details).

Canadian violinist James Ehnes will visit Saturday, Aug. 6, to perform Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1 in a program that also includes music by Verdi and Rimsky-Korsakov. Bay has known Rubackyté for years but says he's never met Ehnes, although he's read a lot about him.

"He specializes in those knuckle-busting concertos," he says.

Time for Three will take the stage Friday, Aug. 12, after a 7:30 p.m. performance by Britt's String Quartet Academy students. Time for Three started as a trio of students (two violins and bass) at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. Their innovative music-making, which runs from progressive bluegrass and jazz to classical, has led to some interesting collaborations, including the "Concerto 4-3," composed for them by Jennifer Higdon, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Isbin, the first classical guitarist since Andres Segovia to win a Grammy, will play Saturday, Aug. 13. Isbin was the first to establish a guitar degree at the famed Juilliard School.

"She's done wonders for the instrument," says Bay.

Among her innovative projects, Isbin arranged a suite for folk singer Joan Baez.

After brainstorming with Britt's Jim Frederick and Angela Warren, Bay has put together a concert he's calling "Festival Favorites" for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 19, featuring pianist and National Public Radio host Christopher O'Riley and trumpeter Natalie Dungey. Pre-concert family activities will begin at 5:45 p.m. All seats are general admission at special prices (adults $25, children $5).

"We were trying to think of a program that would appeal to people who'd never seen a classical concert," says Bay.

The show will feature Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" and Brahms' "Academic Festival Overture."

"It should be very entertaining," says Bay.

The following night, O'Riley will return for the season's closing night to perform Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1. The program also includes Benjamin Britten's "An American Overture" and Brahms' Symphony No. 2.

Bay, the conductor of the Austin Symphony in his day job, is returning for his 19th season of leading a summer festival that includes orchestra members from all over the nation.

The best part for him? That's easy: "Being with the players. Each year we have a few new players who inject more life."

The hardest part? "Making it through the three weeks," he says. "I do in three weeks what I do in Austin in nine months. There's just a day to turn it around."

Pre-concert conversations will take place at 7 p.m. on the Britt grounds before all shows except the family concert. Hosts from Jefferson Public Radio will lead informal question-and-answer segments with guest soloists and Bay. The Britt Orchestra also will present two free chamber-music recitals, which they perform in thanks to their host community. Britt Institute's String Quartet Academy, which is in session during the Classical Festival, also will perform recitals.

Other events in connection with the festival are a String Quartet Academy performance at 6:45 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 7, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Green Show in Ashland; 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. recitals by Academy students at Southern Oregon University's Music Recital Hall in Ashland; a free chamber-music concert at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 14, at First Presbyterian Church in Medford; and a free chamber-music concert at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 16, at Paschal Winery in Talent.

Bill Varble is a freelance arts and entertainment reporter. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Muza Rubackyté joins the Britt Orchestra to perform a program of classical music by Franz Liszt. - Photo courtesy of Britt Festivals