Umbria hosts over 20 music festivals each year, an astonishing number given this region’s tiny size and population (Ikea hasn’t even deemed it worthy of a store yet). Even more surprising, however, is the world-class quality of the music festival scene–belying the otherwise sleepy, provincial character of these bucolic rolling hills and medieval stone villages.
The height of the festival season is the summer, of course, as organizers take advantage of the warm evenings to hold concerts and events in the stunning piazze and gardens across the region, but good listening is to be had even in the dead of winter.
Here are some of the best annual music festivals, and why you should take the time to stop by for a listen:
Why: Umbria Jazz is the king of Umbria’s music festivals; a juggernaut of an international event which stretches over two weeks and attracts some of the biggest names in jazz (and beyond—I’ve seen R.E.M., Alicia Keys, and Eric Clapton here, as well). The lively feel in Perugia during UJ is irresistible—take a walk down the main Corso and pop in at one of the free outdoor concerts if you don’t want to spring for tickets at one of the headlining concerts. If you are driving into town for a mainstage event, give yourself plenty of time to park and get settled before the set starts—traffic is notoriously a gnarled mess the evenings of sold-out shows. I get to town early, take a fun stroll downtown, and then head to the venue (usually the Santa Giuliana stadium) about an hour ahead of time, where I buy a beer and sandwich from the stands inside, dine on the lawn, people-watch in leisure.
If you can’t make it to Perugia for Umbria Jazz, don’t despair. Umbria Jazz Winter is held every December in Orvieto, and Jazz Club Perugia’s season runs from November to March, featuring Italian and international musicians plunking out some of the best jazz around.
If you are curious about the Italian jazz scene, try Gubbio No Borders Italian Jazz Festival in August. These are the heppest cats in the Boot.
Festival dei Due Mondi
Why: If Umbria Jazz is the king of Umbria’s music festivals, the Spoleto Festival—as it is colloquially known—is the queen. UJ powers through with the sheer force of its size and star power, where the Spoleto Festival finesses the fine arts with grace and dignity, bringing the lovely city of Spoleto to life along with it. More of an arts than strictly a music festival, the program is rich with opera, classical music, dance, theater, and cinema events attracting both the biggest names in art and theater (Isabella Rossellini and Baryshnikov were guests this year) and promising young performers. If you are looking for an excuse to visit Spoleto (which, by the way, you don’t need. This stately hill town is worth a visit on its own.), this is a great one.
Where: the towns surrounding Lake Trasimeno
Why: I’m from Chicago, so nothing says “summer” to me like an outdoor blues show on a lake shore. Yes, I realize the venue, crowd, and lake are all about 1/100th of what I’m used to, but the vibe at Trasimeno Blues is regardless big fun (and, given that public drunken antics are rare and frowned upon in Italy, this is one great blues show that you won’t risk vomit-splattered shoes at.). The concerts are held at a number of locations around Lake Trasimeno, but I am especially partial to those at Castiglione del Lago’s romantic medieval fortress.
Trasimeno grooves all year long, so if you won’t be around in July try Bianco Rosso & Blues (concerts with dinner and wine tasting from local vintners) from August through October, or Soul Christmas during the month of December.
Sagra Musicale Umbra
Why: Location, location, location. Yes, the classical music at the Sagra Musicale Umbra is fabulous, but I would be a big fat liar if I didn’t admit that usually the main reason I attend these concerts is the venue. SMU’s events are often held in churches, abbeys, and palazzi generally closed to the public, and I have been known to sit through an entire harpsichord concerto (an instrument I can usually tollerate for a maximum of 12 minutes. 13, tops.) if it will get me into a mysterious monument I have passed a million times but never managed to find open—in fact, I did just that last year and finally saw the elegant Romanesque interior of Spello’s delightful 11th century San Claudio church. If you are picking through the program trying to decide on a concert, I suggest you give heavy weight to its location. The music may fade with time, but these heart-stopping historic halls certainly won’t.
Perugia’s Classical Music Foundation season program runs from October to May and equals the SMU in quality of music, if not eccentricity of venue. Concerts are held in Perugia’s Sala dei Notari, Morlacchi Theater, and San Pietro Basilica—three stunning settings, but not much cloak and dagger-ing has to go on to visit any of the three on your own.
Umbria Folk Festival
Why: If you’re wondering what else is out there on the contemporary Italian music scene besides winners of X-Factor and Tiziano Ferro, the Umbria Folk Festival is the perfect opportunity to find out. Many of these artists put a hipster spin on historic regional Italian musical traditions or instruments, so expect to hear echoes of the Tarantella and lots of guitar and accordian. Fun stuff (and many of the concerts are free).
Assisi Cambio Festival
Where: Palazzo di Assisi
Why: This nano-festival (last year Assisi Cambio Festival hosted a sum total of four concerts) is near and dear to my heart. One, because I think it is a shame and a scandal and a mystery that the powers that be in Assisi can’t pull their shit together enough to put on a decent music festival during the year (I mean, come on, Narni has a music festival. Narni. Really, people.). Two, because this little bon bon of a festival was the brainchild of a group of locals who decided to throw it together a few years ago, and they’ve done a damned fine job of keeping their momentum going. And three, because Palazzo (a hamlet right outside of Assisi) has a fetching little castle courtyard which is the perfect place to pop in for a concert on a summer night, and is exactly 43 meters from The. Best. Gelato. In. Assisi. So, to recap: Medieval castle courtyard, summer night, live jazz, best gelato. Need I say more?
Umbria World Fest (previously Canti e Discanti)
Why: I know there are a lot of Umbriaphiles out there who are feeling very blindsided by the left field choice of Umbria World Fest right now. Stay calm….I’ll walk you through it. Foligno often gets a bad rap, largely undeservedly. Located on the Umbrian plain, you won’t get any stunning views from this industrial town, but that doesn’t mean it lacks a pretty historic center which offers some of the best shopping, most authentic trattorias, and warmest people in the region. Foligno is Umbria’s friendly “Hi there, can I help ya?” Midwest to Perugia’s formal “Ahem, may I assist you?” East Coast, and is going through a cultural renaissance right now—of which this light-hearted arts festival is testimony. Last year I caught a Tarantella performance from a group of Pugliese musicians…there was much singing and dancing in the streets, despite the fact that 99% of the crowd couldn’t penetrate the thick Puglia dialect. Music is, after all, the universal language.
Festival delle Nazioni (Città di Castello in August/September): Classical music festival focusing on one guest country each year.
Preggio Music Festival (Preggio in July/August): If you’re hankering for opera, this is one of the few music festivals which feature it. (The other safe bet is Spoleto.)
Festival Pianistico (Spoleto in April): Classical music festival for piano.
Trasimeno Music Festival (Magione in June/July): This upscale classical music festival is the pet project of Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt and is held in the dramatic courtyard of Magione’s Castle of the Knights of Malta.