Maestro Peter Bay, who is full-time music director and conductor for the Austin Symphony Orchestra in Texas, will leave Britt at the end of the 2012 classical season. - Photo courtesy of Britt Festivals

Britt opens its 50th Classical Festival

Maestro Peter Bay says he feels a high level of anticipation when he visits Jacksonville to conduct Britt's Classical Music Festival, a post he's held since 1992.

"I feel the same as when I first came there," Bay says. "I look forward to it each year, and I revel in the orchestra's playing and its hard work."

Bay leaves his position with Britt after the festival's end in August. This season marks his 20th year and Britt's 50th.

"Over the past years, my level of exhaustion has increased exponentially," he says with a laugh. "That's the primary reason I've decided to step down. Twenty years ago, I wasn't married, and I didn't have a young son. I need to be more of a family man."

Bay, who is full-time music director and conductor for the Austin Symphony Orchestra in Texas, says he suspects that next summer, he will go through a miserable withdrawal.

"I may have to go to some kind of rehab for music directors," he says. "I do plan to visit the festival as a spectator."

The classical festival kicks off at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3, when violinist Sarah Chang and the Britt Festival Orchestra perform works by Stravinsky, Berlioz, Bruch and Prokofiev. The Opening Night Gala and Champagne Picnic is set for 6 p.m., and tickets cost $32. Prior to each concert, there will be informational conversations at 7 p.m. in the lower garden area.

Reserved seats cost $47, $45 for seniors 60 and older; lawn seating is $32, $30 for seniors and $10 for ages 12 and younger.

Tickets and the classical festival's lineup are available at www.brittfest.org, by calling 541-773-6077 or visiting the box office at 216 W. Main St., Medford.

The classical festival is a whirlwind of music compared with Bay's day job in Austin, he says.

"Most orchestras have a seven-service week, and a service could be a rehearsal or a concert," Bay says. "At Britt, there are 10 services per week for three weeks.

"Having said that, there's no better place to do 30 services in three weeks than at Britt. It's a beautiful place to work, the musicians enjoy a high level of camaraderie, the audiences are the best ... and it's only three weeks."

Bay was splitting his time between the Rochester Philharmonic in New York and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota, with summers at the Breckenridge Music Festival in Colorado, when his predecessor, James DePreist, asked him to audition for the job at Britt.

"I immediately said 'of course.' "

Bay had never been to Oregon. After the first three weeks, he was in love with it, he says.

"I felt dumbstruck and happy to be selected for the position," he says. "It was an honor to succeed Jim. It was an extraordinary event in my career."

Bay and the orchestra's musicians are housed by host families in the area each year.

"We are grateful for the support," Bay says. "They feed us and let the musicians rehearse in their homes. I've stayed with the same host family, John and Tommi Retzlaff, for 17 years. They are my son's godparents, and they've visited us here in Austin. That tells you how much of a family we've become."

One of Bay's earliest goals was to make the festival better known to musicians across the country.

"At that time, most of the orchestra members came from the western states," he says. "It's a nationally known festival now. I think we have representatives from as far as the East Coast and Canada.

"I can't say there have been any disappointments. In the 20 years, only one concert was truncated because of rain. There was light rain or drizzle at one or two others, and many times the local fire siren would interrupt the playing. Outside of that, there's nothing disappointing."

The festival's highlights outweigh any downpour or drizzle.

"Once we played Mahler's Fifth, a monumental symphony," Bay says. "It's extraordinarily difficult, and the orchestra's stellar performance of that piece was one of the many highlights I can recall.

"Another was the time when opera singer Marilyn Horne was performing with us, and for an encore, she sang 'Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead!' She is an international opera legend who has performed at the Metropolitan in New York City and La Scala in Milan. The audience's reaction went from stunned disbelief to outrageous laughter and boisterous applause."

Bay's "farewell concert" will be Sunday, Aug. 19.

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