Showcasing arts and culture: South Hadley introduces a new festival to highlight music, dance, and more 

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 09-14-2023 10:48 AM

Several years ago, South Hadley created a community block party, FallsFest, that was designed to bring people together in the Falls area, the oldest neighborhood in town, with the long-range goal of revitalizing the area, home to many businesses, and building neighborhood spirit.

The annual get-together proved popular enough that it morphed into a large, all-day music festival at Beachgrounds Park with two stages. And then the pandemic arrived and shut the music down.

Now, though, a number of groups have combined forces to stage a new and expanded festival, one that will encompass music, visual art, dance and more, all designed to celebrate the town’s diversity and history, introduce visitors to its charms, and to have a good time.

Showcase South Hadley! will take place Oct. 6-8 — Columbus Day weekend — in a range of locations across town, from churches to libraries to restaurants and businesses, as well as on the South Hadley Town Common and in the Falls section of town. Events will be free for all.

It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort, with support from town government, the South Hadley Cultural Council, the nonprofit group Music and Arts South Hadley (MASH), the Mass Cultural Council, and volunteers.

The schools are also connected, in that Elizabeth Wood, a co-chair of the festival’s steering committee, is the principal of South Hadley High School.

Meanwhile, Laudable Productions, the local music production company, is also helping with marketing, website development, and some music booking.

Ira Brezinsky, also a steering committee member, says music will be offered in a number of locales, including Center Church and All Saints Church near Mount Holyoke College, with the Young@Heart Chorus and the South Hadley Chorale two of the groups on tap for the event.

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“We want to have a full range of activities that will support the cultural community and by extension the business community,” said Brezinsky, who’s served at several levels in town government over the years, including as a selectman.

“The idea is to bring people from throughout the Valley to South Hadley to see what the town has to offer,” he said. “We’d like to make South Hadley a cultural destination and build on what we did with FallsFest.”

Lisa Wong, the town administrator, notes that organizers have looked at other communities, such as Easthampton with its annual “Cultural Chaos” festival, as models for how arts and culture have been used to boost economic vitality.

Wong says she’s been involved with that kind of work before and has seen how effective it can be. Among her positions before coming to South Hadley in late 2021 was mayor of Fitchburg, where she says assisting the arts community also boosted business activity in town.

In fact, Wong says she once joined other Fitchburg officials for a tour of towns in western Massachusetts to see how they had integrated the arts into their planning and overall administration.

“The arts can really jump-start business activity,” she said, noting that this could be particularly beneficial for the Falls region of town.

Brezinsky credits Wong with approaching South Hadley’s Cultural Council in 2021 to suggest applying for federal ARPA funding for cultural activities.

Building on that funding, the town has won a Mass Cultural Council grant for Showcase South Hadley! and is seeking additional funding from private donations, corporate sponsors, and other potential partners, Brezinsky noted.

“We have about $35,000 in hand,” he said, adding that organizers are looking to raise an additional $15,000 to $20,000 for the long weekend.

The festival schedule is still being finalized, Brezinsky said, but the aim is to have local restaurants host live music on the evening on Oct. 6, a Friday. On Saturday, Oct. 7, events will be centered all day around the Town Common and other locales near Mount Holyoke College, including on stage by the common.

On Sunday, Oct. 8, a range of events and concerts will take place in the Falls region, including a “jazz brunch” at Iona’s Kitchen, and a local history walk that begins near the town library.

Organizers plan to offer a range of music both days, Brezinsky said, including folk, jazz, classical, rock, and some cover bands. Food trucks will also be on hand. Some panel discussions on varied subjects are also being planned.

Among the names on the musical roster are Eavesdrop, the Valley folk-country group (playing as a trio); the Kevin Sharpe Group, which mixes jazz, funk, R&B, rock, and gospel; and the Pioneer Valley Community Band, led by guest conductor Tom Bergeron, playing a mix of jazz and pop.

Brezinsky joked that South Hadley already is known as “the place to go” on Columbus Day weekend for tag sales, “so we’re hoping people can discover a little more here this time.”

Organizers have have already dealt with one small hiccup: The initial title chosen for the festival was “South by South Hadley,” but Brezinsky says they discovered the phrase “South by” is copyrighted and thus switched to the current title.

Over 20 or more people are currently involved in planning Showcase South Hadley! but Brezinsky anticipates 75 to 100 people will ultimately be involved in staging the event. “I think we have a dedicated group of volunteers in town.”

And hopefully Showcase South Hadley! can become an annual event, as FallsFest previously was, he added: Organizers have already secured Mass Cultural Council funding for the next two years.

Anyone interested in getting involved can visit southhadleyarts.org to volunteer.

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