Two weeks of music, art, food, and wine brought the best of summer to the Napa Valley
Words by CATHERINE BIGELOW
Photography by DREW ALTIZER PHOTOGRAPHY
For the past 17 years (18 if you count the virtual pandemic season in 2020), Festival Napa Valley has billed itself as “The 10 Best Days of Summer.”
One of those recent days included the Arts for All Gala on July 16 at the vaunted Nickel & Nickel winery. Helmed by gala chair Leslie Frank of Frank Family Vineyards and vintner Beth Nickel, 450 guests were wowed by eight-time Grammy winner Carrie Underwood, who delivered a rousing performance. The country music star also delighted the crowd with her gold lamé jumpsuit, which she said was inspired by a glass of Chardonnay.
The fête also featured Veuve Clicquot bubbles, a feast by Michelin-star chef Charlie Palmer (executed by McCalls Catering & Events), and a live auction of luxe lots that raised a record-breaking $4.2 million for FNV’s music education programs, free concert series, and scholarships for young musicians.
The fruits of some of these efforts were beautifully displayed at the opening night concert. Artwork created by 700 students and seniors in the How I See Music program (led by FNV’s Lissa Gibbs) unspooled on a large screen behind the musicians.
But as a result of the mighty popularity of this music, arts, and culinary celebration, which draws fans from around the globe, FNV co-founder and President-CEO Rick Walker rebranded the 2023 season with a smart new hashtag: #thebestdaysofsummer.
“If we include our rehearsals, the programming actually begins in June. Our public programs start after the Fourth of July with the official opening night this year on July 14,” he explained. “I’m not even sure how to add it up!”
The festival is now year-round with innovative concerts (located in San Francisco, New York, or Italy), music camps, music academy partnerships (including Frost School of Music, Blackburn Music Academy, and Manetti Shrem Summer Vocal Conservatory), and arts education programs in Napa Valley schools and assisted-living facilities.
Verdant grounds at Charles Krug Winery — Napa’s oldest winery, founded in 1861 and owned for the past 80 years by the storied Mondavi family — serve as headquarters for FNV’s evening concerts. But the 14-day festival is scattered among venues up and down the entirety of Napa Valley. The calendar is jam-packed with admission-free and family performances, the Bouchaine Young Artist series, vintner’s luncheons, wellness programs (sponsored by Kaiser Permanente), and fashion events (starring Italian luxury jeweler Pomellato and Neiman Marcus) as well as glamorous patron dinners held at exquisite vineyard estates.
And this year’s sold-out Taste of Napa, held at the Meritage Resort, welcomed 800 culinary connoisseurs who sampled gourmet nibbles and sips provided by 80 local restaurateurs and vintners.
For stalwarts who attend a majority of events, it’s a feat that demands Olympian stamina. And a well-appointed wardrobe.
“I think of the festival as a vacation: I’m away from my office to enjoy the beautiful Napa Valley and its wonderful food and wine,” enthused Maria Manetti Shrem, a founding FNV patron. “My stamina is inspired by my belief in this wonderful festival and being a benefactor for young people to pursue their artistic dreams. That is my greatest joy.”
Amid this cultural cornucopia, stellar sets featured such artists as pianist Yang Bao, guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas, singer-songwriter Matteo Bocelli, and ballet dancer Xander Parish, who directed an ensemble work of dancers impacted by the war in Ukraine.
Another emotional highlight was the Seasons of Hope program. The presentation featured “Symphony No. 6, Vessels of Light,” conceived by cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper and written by composer Lera Auerbach. The poignant work honors the World War II heroism of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who provided visas that saved the lives of thousands of Jews escaping the Holocaust in Lithuania.
The second half of the program was devoted to choral works by 89-year-old composer-philanthropist Gordon Getty, sung by sopranos Lisa Delan and Melody Moore, plus baritone Lester Lynch. The set also debuted the world premiere of his “Annie Laurie.” Acknowledging cheers from the audience, Getty raised his arm in the air like a jubilant prizefighter.
“Nowadays I don’t have to grit my teeth when I hear my world premieres because they’re a little better,” he said, chuckling. “Forty years ago I was the same composer. But I was nowhere near as good an orchestrator. I would have to start over three times before an orchestral piece was any good.”
A swank patron’s dinner followed, hosted by Getty at his Odette Estate Winery, where guests dined alfresco and savored his award-winning vino. Next year, Getty receives the festival’s highest honor, Angels of the Arts Award.
Although names like Getty and Bocelli are instantly familiar, many of the 300-strong festival cast performers are not yet widely recognized. But that doesn’t concern Charles Letourneau, FNV co-founder and director of artistic planning.
“Our guiding principle is we showcase great artists. If people haven’t heard their names, we will make them famous,” he declared. “I’ve been working on the ‘Hope’ project for two years. It was extremely complex, bringing in artists from around the world. You saw how many performers were onstage. I counted the wineglasses after the show and there were 180!”
Since its founding, FNV has raised more than $20 million for its arts education and community programs. Some 8,000 seniors, veterans, and students attend admission-free concerts, and 90 pre-professional or conservatory students take part in the festival’s tuition-free summer academies.
“One of the benefits of the festival is that it provides a community for Napa Valley restaurateurs, vintners, and hotels to interact. We’re also a community for people who love culture, philanthropy, and Napa,” Walker said. “This little festival that could is now a thriving organization and an international town square.” The 2024 season of festivalnapavalley.org runs July 12–21.
LEFT: Rick Walker and Tatiana Copeland. RIGHT: Beth Nickel and Leslie Frank.
Lester Lynch, Lisa Delan, Constantine Orbelian.
Matteo Bocelli, Nancy Pelosi, Paul Pelosi.
LEFT: Maria Manetti Shrem, Ken Moore. RIGHT: Raphael Edelman, Kristina Reiko, Leslie Edelman.
Feature image: Carrie Underwood.
July 24, 2023.
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