Classically Hip

By Helena Touhey

Newport Classical presents summer music festival and year-round programming with something for everyone

Images courtesy of Newport Classical

The Knights closed out the 2023 Music Festival. They are a New York-based orchestral collective of adventurous musicians dedicated to transforming the concert experience and eliminating barriers between audiences and music. The group performed at The Breakers.

Throughout the month of July, Newport Classical will host its annual summer music festival, and some of the highlights include 27 concerts, 12 distinct venues, five musicians-in-residence and one commissioned art piece. Patrons can expect to hear traditional classical music, as well as more contemporary works by lesser-known composers — part of an effort to expand the reach and draw of classical music in the modern world.

“I truly believe classical music continues to be relevant and exciting,” says Gillian Friedman Fox, executive director of Newport Classical, who’s keen on keeping classical music relatable and relevant. This has involved working with a “rising generation of musicians, and early career musicians, [who have]a fresh take on repertoire.”

Friedman Fox joined the organization in 2021; this will be her third festival, but her first at full capacity after the pandemic.

Newport Classical is a relatively new name for a longstanding organization — it was founded in 1969 as Rhode Island Arts Foundation at Newport and previously known as Newport Music Festival — it underwent a rebrand in 2021 and became “Newport Classical.”

Gillian Friedman Fox, director of Newport Classical.

Under Friedman Fox’s direction, the organization is expanding its year-round programming, as well as its approach to classical music, while still focusing on presenting “chamber music in historic and intimate venues.”

Throughout the festival, musicians will perform works from the traditional classical music canon, as well as new works from living composers.

The idea, she says, is to “expand the definition and understanding of what classical music is,” noting this approach is “additive — it’s not in place of.” The classics, she says, still inform what is being written today and, at the same time, individual experiences within certain cultural groups also inform new works.

One way Newport Classical is nurturing a rising generation of composers is through an initiative to commission a new work each year from a BIPOC and/or woman composer. This helps composers expand their respective canons — and gives them a platform to present their work each summer at the festival.

This July, the commissioned artist is Curtis Stewart, a three-time Grammy-nominated violinist/composer who has written “The Gilded Cage,” which is inspired by the people who have worked at properties, such as The Breakers, over the last century, as well as by a personal connection to Newport — Stewart’s father lived in the city for a time and was associated with the Baptist AME Church.

“It’s a beautiful way to think about living history here in Newport,” says Friedman Fox of Stewart’s work, which will have its world premiere at The Breakers on July 22.

Stewart will be in Newport for an entire residency, and part of his stay will include a composer’s talk, open rehearsal at Emmanual Church ahead of the premiere, and a master class with students in partnership with the Bristol Community String Project.

“The Gilded Cage” will feature the Festival Artists, a group of five musicians-in-residence, who will live together during July and perform nine concerts. All are early in their careers and “really exceptional,” says Friedman Fox. This group includes violinist Ariel Horowitz, violinist Lun Li, violaist Edwin Kaplan, cellist Titilayo Ayangade, and pianist Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner. This program also reflects another initiative to support the next generation of classical performers.

Eldbjørg Hemsing, a violinist from Norway.

Who is Friedman Fox especially looking forward to this summer?

Eldbjørg Hemsing from Norway, a violinist who will perform at The Breakers on July 14. The day before, Hemsing will be featured in “Forte,” a documentary about female musicians, screened for free by newportFILM in Aquidneck Park (by the Newport Public Library). Hemsing will also be part of a post-film artist talk and Q&A with the producer. And, before the film, festival artist Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner will perform.

“It’s a full-circle collaboration,” says Friedman Fox, who hopes the events draw a “younger, hipper audience — going to both would be a really cool experience.”

Once the summer festival wraps, Newport Classical will pivot to its year-round offerings, which includes a monthly concert series held from September to June at its headquarters — Emmanual Church on Dearborn Street, where there is a concert hall and offices. The hall, officially called the Newport Classical Recital Hall, seats 182 patrons.

Newport Classical also offers educational programming, often in the form of sending its chamber series musicians from the monthly concerts into the public schools, which so far have included Pell Elementary, Thompson Middle School, Rogers High School, Little Compton schools, and the EBCAP Head Start program, which involves instructing three-year-olds. About 1,000 students were reached during the 2022-2023 school year.

As for this summer — and next summer, which is already in the planning stages — “We want to make sure that every festival feels fresh,” says Friedman Fox. “Come for the experience, come for the camaraderie, and for something different to do.”

Curtis Stewart, Newport Classical’s commissioned artist for 2023, who composed “The Gilded Cage.”

For more information about Newport Classical and its upcoming schedule, visit