Parties: A Fest For The Senses

Written by Catherine Bigelow | Photography by Drew Altizer

That word that cannot yet be retired — “pivot” — is exactly what Festival Napa Valley did last year, when the acclaimed celebration of music and culinary arts postponed what would’ve been its 15th season. Instead, FNV developed virtual programming to keep its legion of fans engaged online.

But FNV leaped back into action this summer for 10 glorious days (July 16–25), producing 60 outdoor, in-person, sold-out concerts — including elegant alfresco patron dinners and lunches (starring top toques and 100-point vintners) held on the gorgeous grounds of five-star Napa wineries — to properly salute its anniversary and a return to the communal arts experience.

During the festival’s Arts for All Gala (July 18), starring “wow” performances by Academy Award–winning singer-actor Jennifer Hudson and heralded chef Charles Phan at Nickel & Nickel winery, a live auction of luxe lots raised a record-breaking $2.8 million. “In her first live performance since lockdown, Jennifer gave her all onstage. And the audience returned that love,” enthuses FNV co-founder, President and CEO Rick Walker. “Everyone was on their feet dancing. Napa has a strict evening noise ordinance, but no one wanted to leave — including Jennifer. The gala was unforgettable: being together, surviving what we’ve been through and celebrating a rebirth of the arts. It was incredibly moving.”

And those big gala bucks will fund FNV’s free community programs and arts education in Napa County public schools, as well as provide scholarships for emerging musicians of all styles and stripes. Yet this year, the festival’s sumptuous musical feast for the senses was so much more than an anniversary.

“It was a very emotional, cathartic season. But it wasn’t just about dancing in the streets,” shares Walker. “While we celebrated the rebirth of our future, we also paid tribute to the loss and heartbreak our festival family suffered, in different ways, during the pandemic.”

Opening night (July 16) honored the late philanthropist Ann Getty with an operatic performance by Lisette Oropesa, in her FNV debut. The Cuban American soprano’s set included an aria from the new opera Goodbye Mr. Chips, written by Ann’s husband, composer Gordon Getty.

“Lisette was one of Ann’s favorite artists, and she traveled the world to see her perform,” notes Walker. “It was Ann, a devoted supporter, who recommended that the festival book Lisette.”

FNV also created the Joel Revzen Conducting Fellowship to honor the award-winning conductor and beloved Blackburn Music Academy faculty member who died last year of COVID complications.

Walker and his FNV trustees (including board chairman Timothy Blackburn and his wife, Athena Blackburn, Jean-Charles Boisset, Richard Kramlich, Leslie Frank, Agustin Huneeus, Maggie Oetgen, John Trefethen and Clarke Swanson) ponied up to build two outdoor stages. Daytime concerts unfurled at the Culinary Institute of America at COPIA. Evening main-stage concerts, and a VIP lounge, were held at Charles Krug Winery. “Having everything outdoors was actually perfect,” notes Walker. “Because the beautiful Napa Valley, itself, became our stage.” The morning concerts, as always, remained free. Afternoon concerts, in a nod to FNV’s anniversary, were only $15. And FNV plans to further develop its online programming.

“Building on the success of last year’s engagement, we livestreamed our festival performances. And people tuned in from 20 different countries,” marvels Walker. “That was an unexpected silver lining of the pandemic: The festival now has a global audience.” FNV also debuted new initiatives, including the inaugural Manetti Shrem Opera Program (funded by one of FNV’s earliest devotees, Maria Manetti Shrem, and her husband, Jan Shrem) with a full-length production of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, conducted by the renowned Kent Nagano.

“Every festival artist rejoiced in their return to the stage. And music lovers echoed that jubilation. Art unites us in our experiences, in all life’s extremes. This season was extremely poignant,” says Walker. “Art speaks to us deeply amid our tragedies as well as our triumphs.”

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