Sounds of Summer: Musicfest in Virginia's big little culture town

A nine-day music festival kicks off on August 17 in Staunton, Va. Photo: On stage at the Blackfriars Playhouse

WASHINGTON, July 24, 2012 – The Smithsonian Magazine recently ranked Staunton, Va. in its “The 20 Best Small Towns in America” feature about towns that offer “high concentrations of museums, historic sites” and resident performing arts groups.

But fans of this Shenandoah Valley town have known about its outsized cultural significance for a long while. With a population of just under 25,000, Staunton (Stan-tun) is only a half hour from both Charlottesville and Harrisonburg at the intersection of Interstates 64 and 81.

The upcoming 15th installment of “Summer Sounds” from August 17-25 is a nine-day celebration of vocal, choral and instrumental music which Jason Stell, the festival’s executive director, says is a draw for musicians from both Europe and America.

“Many of our performers who play in big-city orchestras in New York, Boston, and Chicago, forego larger and more lucrative festivals because they love the small community atmosphere here and they can play music they can’t play in other festivals,” said Stell. “They also enjoy being player-led without a conductor.”

Festival patrons have the choice of two concerts a day, plus some open rehearsals. Over the festival’s nine days, there are 18 concerts. Performances will be held in Staunton’s historic and unique venues including Trinity Episcopal Church with its elegant Tiffany stained-glass windows and the world-famous Blackfriars Playhouse. Noon concerts are free, and evening event prices range from $20 for general admission to free admissions for ages 16 and under.

The historic Stonewall Jackson Hotel downtown is offering festival overnight packages for the August 25 evening orchestra, chamber and vocal music concert at the Blackfrairs. The special offers a double room, two event tickets, breakfast and parking for $169. A double room rate of $99 is available for all festival dates.

A musical moment

Perfect Replica of London’s Blackfriars Theatre

Pairing the performance events with visits to the town’s considerable array of standing attractions is a good plan.

Shakespeare productions are plentiful from Florida to Oregon and Ontario, but bard followers don’t go to London or New York for authentic 16th century staging. It’s at the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater, The Blackfrairs Playhouse.

The original Blackfriars was built on the Thames River in 1596. Unlike public London theaters such as The Globe, it was private and had a roof. It catered back then to wealthy and educated classes of British society, so it was considered respectable, unlike some other theatrical venues. Admissions were five times that of The Globe, perhaps because it had artificial lighting and other amenities the sometimes maligned open air playhouses, frequented by the masses, didn’t offer. 

Staunton’s four million dollar re-incarnation with an interior of soaring carved oaken beams stands because one dedicated professor from Staunton’s Mary Baldwin College willed it so.  Dr. Ralph Cohen has been the leading light of a valley Shakespearean troupe for about several decades, and he heads The American Shakespeare Center which operates

The Blackfriars as well as a resident and touring company which travels the world. The Staunton theater is unique – and has been hailed by Shakespearean scholar Stephen Gurr of London’s Reading University “as one of the five most historically important theaters in the world.”

What Else?

Staunton not only preserves Shakespeare but its collection of about 200 Victorian-era buildings. It’s not uncommon to hear first-time visitors to the historic district downtown say they feel as if they have just stepped into a movie set. Preservation of several eras is definitely on the minds of Staunton’s residents and planners, and they have established restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques inside the architectural antiques.

Other don’t-miss sites in town include The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, the site of the 28th president’s birthplace and early life, which is open for visitors, as well as the Museum of American Frontier Culture,  an outdoor living history museum that portrays early immigrant valley life in rural buildings that were moved from Europe and re-assembled on site.

Some of Staunton’s ethnic and American dining choices are inside historic buildings. One such emporium is Mill Street Grill, where award-winning barbecued ribs and seafood winners get served inside what was an early 19th century four mill. Shopping along Beverley Street is another treat, as are art stops like Sunspots Studios where patrons acquire glass objects for the home and garden.

For trip planning, contact  800.342.7982 or

Read more of Ruth Hill’s travel columns in Contemporary Christian Travel in the Washington Times Communities.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Ruth Hill

Ruth Hill writes for magazines and newspapers about the business and pleasures of travel. Read more about her views and news of Christian heritage travel around the world at

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