NEXT WEEK, Savannah will uphold one of its most treasured traditions.
The American Traditions Competition returns in 2017 with a crop of talented individuals from across the nation. The rising stars will raise their voices in a variety of musical genres, competing for covetable, life-changing cash prizes and invaluable experience.
For 24 years, the Competition has showcased tomorrow’s superstar vocal talents and celebrated classic American music and standards. Born out of Savannah Onstage, a forerunner of the Savannah Music Festival, the American Traditions Competition blossomed into an independent nonprofit organization in 2011, thriving in the hometown of legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer.
This year, newcomers, locals, and returning talents descend upon Savannah to sing their hearts out. Jessica Baldwin, Julie Benko, Jessica Ann Best, Melissa Brobeck, Alexis Cole, Grace Field, Katie Dixon, Stephen Dobson, Johnathan Estabrooks, Brian Giebler, Jocelyn Hansen, Gillian Hassert, Katherine Henly, Kisma Jordan, Suzanne Lorge, Sarah Mesko, Aundi Marie Moore, Christia Nastasi, Brittany Proia, Megan Schubert, Rachel Sparrow, Nikki Switzer, Dara Tucker, Brenda Marie Turner, Erica Everett, Missy Wise, and Jordan Wolfe will all perform.
The 27 quarter-finalists kick off the competition on Tuesday, February 21, but the four days of festivities are also filled with inspiring master classes, community outreach programs, and even a concert showcasing the talents of the judges.
The quarter-finalists will sing for the best in the business: this year’s esteemed judges’ panel includes Andrew Lippa, Kurt Ollmann, and Sylvia McNair.
Andrew Lippa is a composer, lyricist, book writer, performer and producer who received a Grammy Award nomination in 2000 for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and a Tony Award nomination for the score of The Adams Family. The Leeds, England native, who currently resides in New York City, penned the music and lyrics for Big Fish, I Am Harvey Milk, The Addams Family, and many more heralded productions.
Kurt Ollman, who served on the judge’s panel at the 2016 American Traditions Competition, returns to the panel. The lyric baritone and Savannah resident is best known for his collaborations and associations with American composer Leonard Bernstein.
Sylvia McNair is a two-time Grammy Award-winning singer. As one of the leading interpreters of the Great American Songbook, she’s a fitting choice for an American Traditions judge.
Lippa looks forward to bringing a fresh perspective to the judges’ panel.
“Part of it is not my expertise,” he says. “I don’t work with singers—I work with actors who sing.”
With his incredible theatrical resume, Lippa will help vocalists take a deeper approach to their craft, teaching them how to highlight the passion and vulnerability of the material they’re working with.
“There’s a whole world of opinion in how singers should approach new work—what the responsibility is to the page, what’s different from what the writers imagined,” he says. “There’s an immense amount of rhetoric for written notes and words honored, but also a lot of variation and a whole world of emotion and connectivity.”
New board member Mike Zaller of The Savannah Theater (a longtime venue for the competition) looks forward to contributing to a nurturing artistic environment.
“It’s not easy to become one of the quarter-finalists,” he points out. “We got over a thousand applications this year—a record. To come to Savannah means you’re obviously very talented.”
And that talent is rewarded. The American Traditions first place winner is awarded a $12,000 cash prize. Second place earns $6,000; third, $3,000; $1,200 for fourth and fifth place, and on down to $500 for the Sherrill Milnes American Opera Award, Ben Tucker Jazz Award, and Richard Chambless’ People’s Choice Award.
“When you talk to past winners, they’ll say, ‘This is allowing me to quit that catering job or whatever I’m doing to pay my rent and made me able to focus in on my craft, do some jobs that aren’t going to pay as well but have the right people to meet or put the right thing on my resume,’” Zaller says. “It really can propel someone toward what they’re trying to do. This is real money that’s going to affect their lives and allow them to go out and pursue their dreams. That’s exciting.”
There are many opportunities to catch the heat of the competition this week; grab a seat and start an annual Tradition of your very own.