Each year, Festival Napa Valley offers a stunning array of excellent food, wine, art, music and theater to delight the senses. Over 10 days, this year’s event takes you from opera under the stars at Meadowood Napa Valley to Solage to CIA at Copia to Far Niente Winery. It’s absolutely epic and helps keep Napa’s reputation as a cultural Mecca.
This year’s festival is happening now and runs through July 29th. We caught up with two well-known Bay Area philanthropists, Timothy Blackburn, (Festival Chairman) and his wife, Athena Blackburn (Board Member) to get a closer look inside one of the most anticipated Napa Valley festivals of the year.
Travel Writer, Jennifer Boden: How did Festival Napa Valley Begin?
Thirteen years ago, a group of individuals had the idea of creating a music festival in the Napa Valley. The idea was to bring world class music, paired with world class wine and food in, what many believe is one of the most beautiful valleys in the world. The intent was to create a festival that would be on par with other top music festivals such as the Aspen and Tanglewood Music Festivals. That idea was brought to life by our Festival Director, Rick Walker, and our Artistic Director, Charles Le Tourneau, who have both been with the Festival since its inception.
The primary mission of the Festival is to enrich the Napa community by providing both musical performances and educational programs to as many people as possible. Over the past 12 years, we have become the largest contributor to arts and music education in the Napa Valley.
What Festival Napa Valley events are you looking forward to this year?
My husband and I are particularly excited to attend a program featuring Maxim Rubstov, whom we met many years ago as a flutist of the Russia National Orchestra and who is now playing often as a soloist. Of course, we are also looking forward to concerts featuring the Blackburn Music Academy and last but definitely not least, Joshua Bell who has appeared at the Festival so many times that he has become a friend.
This year the Festival is honored to present the world premiere of the film The Red Violin accompanied by Joshua Bell and a full orchestra. This will be the first time Joshua has played this Academy Award winning music since it was originally recorded.
What free concerts are you offering?
This year we have 22 free concerts throughout the valley this year. This includes performances by the Bouchaine Young Artist series that showcase the next generation of soloist and a series of concerts by the Blackburn Academy Orchestra.
Festival Napa Valley is special because it gives people who visit the Napa Valley some culture instead of the standard wine tasting. Not only do we offer our patrons an opportunity to hear wonderful music, taste great wines and eat scrumptious meals. But they also get a chance to meet the first-class artists that we feature. Most of all we have something for everyone and every budget.
How much time is spent selecting the entertainment for Festival Napa Valley?
That is a year-round effort. We have already begun working on planning for not only next year, but the year after. Many of the individuals we would like to bring to the valley are booked years in advance. We try each year to have a theme and great program that will represent that theme. We are fortunate in that our festival has become one that musicians, singers and dancers look forward to performing at. Credit the Napa Valley, its great wine, food, and a very appreciative audience.
Share a few of your favorite past performances throughout the festival’s history.
There have been so many, however, two standouts would be a piano concerto played by 11 year old Conrad Tao who was a last-minute substitute for another pianist who fell ill. When he walked on stage we all looked at one another. However, after he began to play we realized that we were witnessing the beginning of someone who would become one of the world’s great pianist. Of course, the Adagio from Spartacus ballet that my husband commissioned in my honor and was danced under a willow tree at Far Niente Winery in 2012.
How does Festival Napa Valley give back to the community?
There are so many programs and events that are both funded and or produced by the festival that it would be hard to list them all here. The entire purpose of the festival is to bring the arts to all throughout the year. Everything we do is oriented towards that end. Over the past 13 years, the festival has given more than $8 million for music and arts education in the Napa Valley.
The Festival also donates more than 6000 tickets free of charge to seniors, veterans and families. It is part of our ongoing effort to bring the arts to as many people as possible.
What is the Blackburn Music Academy?
The Blackburn Academy was started 3 years ago and is an extension of the mission of the Festival. We often times go to concerts but forget how those musicians got there. One of the most important things for an aspiring musician is to have the opportunity to study with an accomplished musician; to have the opportunity to perform alongside them during a performance and to learn what being part of a professional orchestra is all about.
The Academy brings together 80 pre-professional musicians from nine countries, all currently studying at top music schools. During their time at the Academy they will have master classes from individuals like Joshua Bell along with members of prominent orchestras such as the Met Opera Orchestra and the Russian National Orchestra.
The Academy is tuition free and students stay with families in the Napa Valley during the time they are here. The idea that we could play a role in helping develop the next generation of musicians is what inspired Athena and myself to endow the program.
What does music mean to you? Is it a big part of your life?
Music has always played a big part in my life. From the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, the music is on. In good days and bad. When my father suddenly died at home from a massive heart attack, I found great solace in sitting in my room and listening to classical music till morning. When I was pregnant with my son, I used to put the transistor radio on my tummy and feel him react to the music. The result is a young man who loves opera, classical music and is in charge of the Contempo group of the Festival.
Who are a few of your favorite musical talents of all time?
Actually, there are too many to list, but my short list would be:
As composers; Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Chopin.
As artists; Joshua Bell, Jean Yves Thibaudet, Renee Fleming, the Ballet dancer and now choreographer Yuri Possokov.
Why is wine country special to you?
The wine country is our haven from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco. We both sit on boards for different organizations and also attend a lot of functions. Coming to the Napa Valley is for total relaxation except for the “Ten Most Beautiful Days of Summer “.
It’s been nearly a year since the wildfires in Napa Valley. Talk about Wine Country Strong.
Last year’s fires were devastating to the valley. Anytime someone loses their life, business or home it is a tragedy. We created Wine Country Strong (Thank you Boston) to help honor those individuals who gave so much to help save the valley. We can’t always replace what has been lost, but we can try and help to bring people together. Every year we try to honor someone who has made a contribution to making the Festival what it is today. This year we honor the First Responders. They are our hero’s. Come and help us thank them.
For a full calendar list of events visit https://festivalnapavalley.org