The Sewanee Summer Music Festival is one of the nation's premier orchestra and chamber music training festivals. Its predecessor was the remarkable, though short-lived, Cumberland Forest Festival of 1950-51. The Cumberland Festival was directed by the distinguished American composer Roy Harris, and was a joint venture with George Peabody College in Nashville (absorbed a quarter century later by Vanderbilt University). The Festival was intimate in size, but was arguably the most exceptional gathering of musical talent the Mountain has ever seen: in addition to Harris, violinist Josef Gingold, violist Walter Trampler, and the old Viennese conductor Richard Lert (who as a child had met Brahms) were on hand, as well as—perhaps most notably—the brilliant young conductor Lorin Maazel. The Festival seemed to have a bright future. A radio contract with CBS was in the offing. But Harris abruptly cancelled the Festival shortly before the 1952 season was to begin. According to Harris, he was unwilling to work under the auspices of what was then a segregated institution. (Documents in the University’s Archives show that University officials at the time believed this was a pretext and that Harris had grown tired of the venture.)
After a six-year stillness on the Mountain, University Vice-Chancellor Edward McCrady stepped forward to restore the program. Edward McCrady had a Jeffersonian range of interests. He was a scientist, an architect of considerable skill, an administrator; and, like Jefferson, an amateur violinist. McCrady had visions of creating a musical utopia in Sewanee when he resurrected the idea of a summer festival in 1957, the first season of the present Sewanee Summer Music Festival. Known then as the Sewanee Summer Music Center, the institute was closely allied with the Chattanooga Symphony. Julius Hegyi, then conductor of the Chattanooga Symphony, was the first director of SSMC.
Present at the creation was a young cellist of extraordinary capacities named Martha McCrory. In the early years, McCrory filled many roles: faculty cellist, business manager, and recruiter, barnstorming her way across back roads in Alabama and Georgia in search of students.
McCrory became executive director of the center in 1963, and remained at this post for a remarkable tenure, retiring in 1998. By the end of that decade, the festival featured two student orchestras and a festival orchestra composed of faculty and advanced students. This basic structure continues to the present day.
In 2000, McCrory was succeeded by Steven Shrader, professor of music at the University, in the office of Artistic Director. Pianist, conductor, and musicologist, Shrader renamed the program the Sewanee Summer Music Festival, emphasizing the great breadth of performances and high musical standards he upheld for the institution. Following Shrader, two notable conductors held terms as Artistic Director: Victor Yampolsky, conductor at Northwestern University (2005), and James Paul, of the Oregon Festival of American Music and Oregon Coast Festival, (2006-09).
The present Festival carries elements of both McCrady’s musical utopia and McCrory’s focus on student development. Since 2010, the leadership structure has consisted of the director and an artistic advisory committee made up of SSMF faculty. Katherine Lehman, violinist and University of the South instructor, held the position of director from 2010-2016. Currently, leadership is provided by Director Evelyn Loehrlein and Artistic Advisory Committee members Chad Burrow, Lin He, and Paul York.