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  • Writer's picturePenny Neef

Virginia Arts Festival's 26th Season

Spotlight's Penny Neef highlights VAF's Season Announcement

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Jacquelin Harris. Photo by Dario Calmese.

Words by Penny Neef. Images courtesy of Virginia Arts Festival as credited.

The Virginia Arts Festival begins its 26th season on April 14, 2023 with Philadelphia Ballet’s full production of Swan Lake accompanied by Virginia Symphony Orchestra at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk.

What started as the 18-day Waterside Arts Festival in 1997 to draw tourists to Norfolk during the spring “shoulder season”, has turned into the months long Virginia Arts Festival with over 250 performances in venues from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach. With an annual attendance of over 110,000, VAF offers free community events, student matinees and workshops at area schools. Over 32% of ticket sales come from outside Hampton Roads, bringing in thousands of visitors and millions of dollars to local museums, attractions, restaurants and hotels.

Philadelphia Ballet's Swan Lake by Iziliaev

This is all thanks to Rob Cross, Executive Director and Perry Artistic Director, who was tasked to start the whole thing in 1997, Scott Jackson, General Manager and Producer/Director of the Virginia International Tattoo, the dedicated staff of VAF, and the patrons.

Sometimes I want to yell from the rooftop of the Hilton Hotel, “YOU FOLKS DON’T KNOW HOW LUCKY YOU ARE!!” Norfolk is a medium size city at best. The 2020 census ranks it at number 94. The Virginia Arts Festival is disproportionally large in comparison. I come from Detroit, Michigan, a much larger city by population. There is nothing like VAF in the whole state of Michigan.

Besides Cross and the staff of the VAF, I give credit to the arts patrons of Hampton Roads. The arts are valued here. The patrons put their money where their mouths are. That includes private patrons, like the Perry Family, who donated money during Covid to build the Perry Pavilion, an outdoor venue in downtown Norfolk where the shows could go on, to large corporate sponsors.

Virginia Arts Festival has turned into an arts behemoth, and I mean that in the best way possible. It is recognized around the country and around the world as one of the premiere performing arts festivals. VAF is presenting a world premiere by MacArthur fellow and Grammy Award-winning mandolinist and singer/songwriter Chris Thile and Virginia Symphony Orchestra on May 19 – 21.

Virginia Arts Festival co-commissioned an original piece with Jessie Montgomery that will be presented at historic Attucks Theatre on June 14 with soprano Julia Bullock and Virginia Symphony Orchestra – Five Freedom Songs. Co-commissioners included Sun Valley Music Festival, San Francisco Symphony, Boston Symphony, Grand Teton Music Festival, Kansas City Symphony, New Haven Symphony, and our own Virginia Arts Festival. Cross and his team have connections throughout the performing arts world.

VAF partners with local arts organizations as well. This year there are partnerships with Norfolk State University, Old Dominion University, Virginia Symphony Orchestra, Tidewater Classical Guitar, Tidewater Chapter of The American Guild of Organists, North Shore Point House Concerts and so many more.

You are lucky, people of Hampton Roads. There will be world-class performances by top artists right in your backyard. There is something for everyone, from Swan Lake with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra

to banjo master Béla Fleck, from Kodo playing Japanese taiko drums to illusion and magic with Scott Silvan.

Here are just a few of the performances I’m excited about –

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis on Saturday, February 25 at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk. Jazz does not get any better than this, but I love the unique collaboration this season. Marsalis and his band will be holding a three-day residency before the concert, inviting jazz ensembles from Historically Black Colleges and Universities around the country. The top performing HBC’s will be the opening act for this concert.

Chicago the Musical – In Concert on Saturday, May 6 at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk. Rob Fisher, Norfolk native and music director/conductor for the original production of Chicago on Broadway, brings a concert version of Chicago to the stage. Virginia Symphony Orchestra will be conducted by Fisher with a cast of soloists from Broadway, to play and sing the music of this Tony Award winning musical.

The one, the only, be still my heart, Smokey Robinson on Sunday, May 21 at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk. I was born and raised in Detroit. Motown is the soundtrack of my youth. Robinson is now 82 years old. I can’t wait to hear him sing.

Maurice Jones, chairman of VAF’s Board of Directors, puts it simply when asked what his favorite performance of the season might be. “Asking what my favorite performance might be is asking me who is your favorite child. I love them all.”

Rob Cross, VAF Executive Director and Perry Artistic Director, “hopes we will keep you busy from April to June”. He says this season “reflects the diversity of our community. You are never too young or too old to appreciate the beauty and power of the performing arts.”

For the full schedule and tickets for Virginia Arts Festival events, go to

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