Music has forever changed the city of Aiken, South Carolina. It has enriched the lives of adults and children, and has forged a bond between New York City and this genteel Southern town. It has brought a community together and raised its quality of life.
The first notes sounded near the corner of Whiskey Road and Easy Street in 1989 when art collectors, music devotees, and Pulitzer Prize–winning authors Greg Smith and Steve Naifeh moved to Aiken from New York City and purchased Joye Cottage. “Cottage” is a misnomer for the 60-room Georgian Revival mansion, which was built as a winter retreat in 1897 for New York financier William C. Whitney.
Smith and Naifeh painstakingly restored the home, which they filled with their collection of fine art. In 1996, the two men bequeathed Joye Cottage to the Juilliard School in New York City for future generations of arts students, faculty, and alumni to enjoy. Their generous gift initiated a special partnership between Aiken and Juilliard and eventually gave birth to the weeklong arts festival known as Juilliard in Aiken.
Since 2009, some 40 Juilliard students each year have spent their spring break in Aiken, staging concerts, drama, and dance performances without skipping a beat. Aiken is the only community in the world with which Juilliard has collaborated to establish a festival of this magnitude.
In addition to concerts and performances, this year’s schedule, which runs from March 8–14, also encompasses receptions, lectures, teas, and master classes. The classes are attended in part by students from the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, many of whom enroll in the Juilliard School after they graduate. Venues range from the lobby of the Willcox Hotel to local churches and even the ballroom of Joye Cottage.
On Friday night, the festivities will culminate with the production of St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. In addition to Juilliard students playing historical instruments, the Trinity Wall Street Choir will lend their voices to re-create this sacred oratorio, which recounts Jesus’s life according to the Gospel of Matthew.
The festival fulfills Juilliard’s mission of outreach by offering free concerts in Aiken schools. Over the past five years, these performances have touched more than 16,000 Aiken students, from elementary to high school. “It’s a joy to behold the kids responding to the music!” exclaims Betty Ryberg, president of the festival’s board of directors. “And the precious thank-you notes we get from the Aiken students are more valuable than any other kudos we receive.”
Local families host the Juilliard musicians, and lasting bonds often form as a result. In one case, when the father of a former host family lost his brother, the Juilliard students who had stayed with the family volunteered to perform a musical tribute at the funeral. “It’s always amazing when you can introduce people of different interests and find them bonding over music,” notes Benjamin Sosland, administrative director of Historical Performance at the Juilliard School.
For the young musicians, the trip to Aiken is its own reward. “Any time a young professional can get outside the fishbowl, there’s a built-in benefit,” says Sosland. And then there’s the enthusiasm of the Aiken audiences, both student and adult. After one standing ovation at an outreach concert last year, the Juilliard students started laughing. When asked why, they replied, “We never normally receive this much applause.”
More than a festival, Juilliard in Aiken is a commitment to the future—the future of Juilliard, the future of the arts, and the future of the adopted city of the festival’s founders. As Steve Naifeh puts it: “When a child sees young artists, many from backgrounds no more privileged than their own, finding such fulfillment in the hard work and discipline that goes into developing their art form, it can provide that child with a path forward, no matter what he or she chooses to do in life.”