Amelia Island, FL


Dear Readers,

When Christopher Rex, the principal cellist of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, told me that he was founding a chamber music festival on an island off of Florida, it seemed like a great idea. The timing – in early June – was great, because it came between the end of the orchestral season and the beginning of my summer break, and the music (sonatas with Natalie Zhu, a Bach concerto or two, and the Mendelssohn octet) was attractive.

What I didn’t count on was the Old-South beauty of the place. Amelia Island is a long stretch of land running north and south, less than half a mile off the Atlantic Coast of Florida. Its west coast is protected from the sea by the island, so it has lots of marinas and docks for fishing trawlers and pleasure boats to land; the east coast is one long 13-mile beach facing the sunrise. The city of Amelia Island is small but attractive, with lots of old Southern two-story frame homes with big white porches, and huge, spreading oak trees covered with Spanish moss.

Natalie and I spent the week in a house that was built in 1856, eight years before my violin. During the American Civil War it was confiscated and used as an infirmary by troops from both armies. Now it is a bed-and-breakfast hotel run by a young family with twin teenaged sons, who really took us in – serving us breakfast every morning, letting us use their bikes to ride to the beach, even washing our clothes when we ran out of clean ones. One of the greatest features for me was their 11-year-old dog Abby – a real softie of a Doberman pinscher, who walks around the house with a stuffed duck in her mouth and loves to lean on you when you pet her. She did that with Natalie and nearly knocked her over!

The festival itself was incredibly well organized, and the townspeople really took it to heart. In its very first season, in a place where people don’t hear much chamber music, all 14 of the concerts were sold out. The venues amounted to a tour of the town: there were concerts in churches, a town hall, a grand hotel, and a saloon. In the course of the week I got to hear and play with Atlanta Symphony musicians, chamber players, soloists, a pianist from nearby Jacksonville, and Chris himself, who – in addition to running the festival – played cello for nearly everything. When he wasn’t playing, he was glued to his cell phone, fighting fires of different kinds.

All told, I played sonatas by Bloch and Schubert with Natalie, the Bach double concerto with Helen Kim of the Atlanta Symphony, a Vivaldi concerto for four violins with a gang of fellow fiddlers, and second violin in the Mendelssohn Octet. On the side, I got to go horseback riding and kite flying on the beach, ride a borrowed bike across the island before sunrise, hang around with Natalie and the dog Abby, and eat a pile of shrimp at a gathering at Chris’ condominium. Altogether a great week at a beautiful place, with lots of interesting people. How can you beat that?

Yours from Amelia Island,

Hilary