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Festival harmonizes with Florida island vibe

By Patricia Borns
Globe Correspondent / May 18, 2008
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FERNANDINA BEACH, Amelia Island, Fla. - On a typical May afternoon downtown, three girls peer through plate glass windows as fudge is paddled on a marble slab. My fiancé and I watch from a sidewalk table, our hair damp from body surfing, our ice cream cones melting in the sun.

"Boomer!" the girls squeal as a white Percheron draft horse draws a white carriage along Centre Street, and a white-aproned restaurateur appears with a carrot in his outstretched hand.

Few people have heard of this town of 11,000, though the island on which it resides is well known. But it is the town - with its streetscapes of eclectic Victoriana and residents who set out water dishes for visiting dogs - that draws the brightest stars of chamber music to perform each year.

"I was at my shop when a man came in to buy furniture," Eileen Moore, owner of Eileen's Art & Antiques, recalls of her first meeting with Christopher Rex, principal cellist of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Rex, who vacations in the area, said he wanted to bring chamber music to the island.

That was enough to rouse Moore and other local women to action, and the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival opened in 2002 against a backdrop of shrimp trawlers and yacht masts on the waterfront lawn.

Scheduled this year for May 30-June 15, the series under Rex's direction plays in intimate indoor and outdoor spaces ranging from a Civil War fort to a ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton. Inside a white-domed county courthouse where William Jennings Bryan delivered a campaign speech, we sat in the jury box while the venerable Guarneri Quartet played beneath the judge's bench.

"What makes the festival special is its home-grown quality. Even the lack of a conventional concert hall has been turned into a plus," says Michael Tree, the quartet's violist.

On another evening last year college students and the pungent scent of beer wafted through the swinging doors of the Palace, Florida's oldest saloon, while through another set of doors, concertgoers filled a back room. The event mischievously titled "Beer and G-strings" was carried off with an ingenuity that earns Rex praise from fellow musicians. He might pair Antonio Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" with the "Four Seasons" of Argentine tango composer Ástor Piazzolla - complete with dancers. Before they retire next year, the Guarneri String Quartet will perform this season at St. Peter's Episcopal Church.

Whether they have come to listen or to play, visitors feel welcomed into a close-knit community. "It's so pleasurable because people interact with one another," says Ann Moore, who with her husband, Tom, travels from central Florida in a well-appointed Airstream to attend the festival. The couple stays at Fort Clinch State Park, where candlelight concerts are sometimes held in the historic barracks. The park's pristine quartz sand beach and forested trails together with Egans Creek Greenway, a home to gators and great blue herons, are minutes from downtown.

Like the Berkshires of yesteryear when actors and theatergoers mingled at the Williamstown Ho-Jo's, opportunities to hobnob with the chamber equivalents of the Rolling Stones come easily. "Everybody's welcome to join us at . . ." is a common post-concert invitation. One night, the crowd segued to the Bonito Grill for sake. Another time it might be the Green Turtle, a local contractors' hangout, for a brew. On and off Centre Street, tucked-away bistros strung with festive lights serve a surprising variety of cuisines.

At Fairbanks House, a regal bed-and-breakfast set in an acre of gardens, Lynn Harrell descends the stairs with a 1673 Antonio Stradivarius cello on one shoulder and his golf clubs on the other. The area's golf courses, including the Golf Club of Amelia Island where Harrell takes lessons with renowned instructor Anne Cain, are the best in northeast Florida according to local Tommy Purvis, who plays them all.

Happiness for us non-golfers is hiking on a nine-hole Donald Ross course that's slowly reverting to nature on Fort George Island. The state park and Cumberland Island National Seashore sit like bookends south and north of Fernandina - extraordinary places evoking the pathos of north Florida's plantation and recreation years. On an EcoMotion tour of Fort George ($85 a person), visitors can ride cross-terrain Segways as Maren and Greg Arnett peel away layers of civilization: Timucuan middens, the great house and slave huts of Sea Island cotton planter Zephaniah Kingsley, a mansion of Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, governor from 1905-09, and the Ribault Club, established in 1928 as a playground for the affluent.

Departing from Fernandina Harbor Marina, the Greyfield Inn's private ferry ($95 a person) brings a limited number of day trippers to Cumberland Island, where the mansion built by Thomas Carnegie's widow, Lucy, rises above grandly gesticulating oaks. Provisioned with box lunches and a barn-full of bikes, we were given the run of the place to read, ramble, or picnic beside Dungeness, the colossal ruin of the Carnegies' 59-room turreted castle. And of course, to gather sand dollars on the beach stretching emptily for 17 miles.

The music festival traditionally culminates in a gala at the Ritz. While a five-diamond hotel isn't our usual venue for a night out, I have to admit that martinis do taste better at the bar of the Ritz's new restaurant, Salt. On one evening our dinner table for two looked onto the kitchen of chef Richard Gras, whose mentors left Providence's Al Forno to found the Empire Restaurant there. Between mouthfuls of peekytoe crab, Hawaiian miro, and Arctic char, I took dictation from Gras on everything from making heirloom tomato jelly to rhubarb pillows - because after this bender (eight entrees, wines, dessert, $220 a person), I would be cooking at home for many nights to come.

There's a moment in Allan Miller's documentary about the Guarneri String Quartet, "High Fidelity," when Arnold Steinhardt, the first violinist, wants to play a quartet by Fritz Kreisler, the Austrian violinist and composer, and his fellow members hoot him down. Inviting Steinhardt to play Kreisler this year is Rex's playful reference to that moment: a musical insider's joke.

"The camera zooms in on me looking like I'm about to cry," says Steinhardt of the movie moment.

Steinhardt enjoys spending time on Amelia Island after the festivals when he can. "My idea of heaven is doing nothing," he sighs, "just eat, sleep, and swim. It's the beach bum life for me."

Although Fernandina, like many places, is taking that life to up-market heights, its chamber music festival is remarkably democratic. Seats to the priciest performances cost about a third of more renowned festivals like Tanglewood. And the miles of sloping Atlantic beach strewn with olive shells and sharks teeth are free.

Patricia Borns can be reached at patriciaborns@comcast.net.

If You Go

Where to stay

ameliaislandinns.com
Bed-and-breakfasts in Fernandina's 55-block historic district start at $139.

Elizabeth Pointe Lodge
98 South Fletcher Ave.

800-772-3359

elizabethpointelodge.com

A B&B on the beach, from $210.

Where to eat

La Bodega
19 South 3rd St.

904-321-1922

Set in a gorgeous courtyard. Lunch $6.95-$8.95, dinner $16-$23.

Salt
4750 Amelia Island Parkway

904-277-1100

Ultra-romantic, unabashedly high end. Dinner from $50.

Joe's 2nd Street Bistro
14 South 2nd St.

904-321-2558
joesbistro.com

Creations from Cajun to Asian prepared with old-school perfection and served in casual white linen ambience. Dinner $13-$32.

What to do

Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival
aicmf.com

May 30-June 15

Fort Clinch State Park
2601 Atlantic Ave.

904-277-7274

floridastateparks.org/fortclinch/

Cumberland Island National Seashore
912-882-4336, ext. 254

nps.gov/cuis/

Cumberland is accessible by rented boat from Ocean Outboard Marine, 1619 North 14th St., 904-321-1422, oceanoutboard marine.com.

Fort George Island
Kingsley Plantation and Ribault Club

12157 Heckscher Drive

Jacksonville
floridastateparks.org

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