When the Richmond Symphony decided to throw itself a 60th anniversary party, it didn't want it to be all about the symphony.
Setting out to use a big mobile tent to showcase the city in a way that would be different from other festivals, the symphony decided to put the focus on the city's natural centerpiece.
"A big component of the Festival of the River will be educational," says Scott Dodson, the director of advancement and patron communications. "That way, children and adults can take something away in terms of what's in the James, what's around it and how we affect that."
The three-day event on Brown's Island celebrates music, art and the environment, pulling from some of Richmond's biggest talent pools. For Richmond's own No BS Brass band — scheduled to play the esteemed 61st annual Monterey Jazz Festival in September — playing the Festival of the River was a no-brainer.
"We wanted to do it because we want to record a record with the Richmond Symphony," says the band's co-founder, Reggie Pace.
No BS already has done two performances, one indoor, one outdoor, with the symphony and it was the outdoor one that left the band most impressed. "Outside, you can hear it all," Pace says. "Nothing gets lost musically."
Rhiannon Giddens will appear Friday evening, with tap dancer extraordinaire Savion Glover performing to Duke Ellington's "The River" on Saturday. The force responsible for Richmond's annual InLight event, 1708 Gallery, will light up the Tyler Potterfield Bridge and a nearby train trestle Friday and Saturday evenings.
Hope Ginsburg, Paul Rucker and Marinella Senatore, three of the artists on display at Virginia Commonwealth University's Institute for Contemporary Art as part of the inaugural exhibit "Declaration," will have site-specific installations on the island Saturday. Ginsburg and her Land Dive Team will meditate in full scuba gear while classically trained woodwind musicians perform a new composition and several divers walk into the river broadcasting live audio. Rucker composed a new symphonic work incorporating audio reflections about racism and healing collected along the James River on a recent day in May. Senatore's "Richmond: Symphony of a City (2018)" will be a staged radio drama of sorts, pulling from audio stories collected from residents and performed live under the Big Tent.
From 3 p.m. on, staff from the James River Park System, the Valentine, the American Civil War Museum and Capital Trees will lead a variety of walking tours to the Low Line, the canal or Brown's Island, with the final event being a twilight walking tour of Belle Isle.
Volunteers are being sought for river cleanups on Belle Isle, the Pipeline and the Potterfield Bridge that will take place Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Beginning at 2, people are invited to Brown's Island where the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay will present Back to the Bay with more than 20 booths and hands-on activities such as bird watching with the Richmond Audubon Society, rock climbing and oyster shucking demonstrations. Food and beer trucks will be on hand throughout the day and evening.
The goal of Back to the Bay is to put more eyes on the cause by offering opportunities to explore the lands and stories that comprise the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
"We want to bring awareness to the natural history and culture of the Chesapeake Bay," says Shannon Johnson of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. "We want to unite the public and businesses on ways to keep the bay clean so they can leave having learned things they can do every day to make a difference."
Sunday, the festival holds a picnic that coincides with a family concert by the Richmond Symphony in the spirit of its Lollipop series. Picnic-goers are encouraged to bring old blankets that can be used by Art on Wheels to create a large-scale mosaic of the river that will be aerially photographed as part of the festival's legacy.
Friday's concert with the No BS Brass band, Rhiannon Giddens and the symphony is a ticketed event, but Saturday and Sunday's events are pay what you can, although tickets should be reserved in advance to help with planning. Community volunteers can sign up for a variety of jobs at the Hands On Greater Richmond site.
Pace says the band is excited about playing a rare daytime show.
"Richmond's a unique place with all this stuff at our fingertips because of the river," he says. "When we play, everybody in the audience is part of the band, so with the Festival of the River, everybody in Richmond will be in the band. It's going to be fun." S
The Festival of the River is June 8 -10 on Brown's Island. For a schedule and to buy or reserve tickets: richmondsymphony.com/community/festival-of-the-river.