The Columbia Festival of the Arts kicks off tomorrow and, according to those in the know, this year's affair will feature more events than ever before.
"The festival is much bigger this year. We're celebrating our 20th anniversary against the backdrop of the 40th anniversary of Columbia, so we have a lot of exciting events planned," says Nichole Hickey, executive director of the festival.
The festival will begin with LakeFest, a free three-day outdoor event at Columbia Town Center, which will feature live music from more than 20 bands, a kinetic art parade, a craft mart and fireworks displays.
Also performing at LakeFest will be Strange Fruit, a Melbourne, Australia-based performing arts company that combines theater, dance and circus acts in its performances atop 13-foot poles, which are based on the image of wheat swaying in the wind. LakeFest marks the start of the group's first North American tour.
"People have said that our trademark is that we always bring something new and fresh," Hickey said. "There's always something for everyone."
Aside from Strange Fruit, other acts new to the festival include illusionists the Spencers, blues rockers the Millers, the Hampton "Rock" String Quartet and the Minnesota Dance Theatre, which will be accompanied by Columbia Pro Cantare.
Returning to the festival this year is jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis who, with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Yacub Addy and Odadaa, will be performing Congo Square, a composition that he and Addy wrote in celebration of jazz and traditional African music.
Also returning is illusionist dance troupe MOMIX, which will bring the desert landscapes of the American Southwest to life with lights, props, shadows and their bodies.
The festival will close with Columbia: The Opera, a show created and presented by the Squonk Opera.
Fiddler, violinist and composer Mark O'Connor is also coming back to the festival.
"My very first performance ever as the soloist with an orchestra was at the Columbia Festival 15 years ago," O'Connor said. "I'm really excited to be back because it had such an impact on my orchestral career."
At the moment, O'Connor is working on his first symphony. As it happens, Marin Alsop, conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the premiere of the piece, at the Cabrillo Festival in California.
At the Columbia Festival, O'Connor will go back into his repertoire to perform two pieces, Fiddle Concerto and Fanfare for the Volunteer, which he wrote after his first appearance at the event.
After 20 years, the people behind the Festival of the Arts are still working hard to bring a variety of performers to Maryland.
"Our goal has always been two-fold," Hickey said. "We work to present to the region an array of arts through a combination of free and ticketed events so that in one way or another, we're making the arts available to everyone. Also, we seek to bring arts and artists that you won't see anywhere else in the region."
If you go
Prices vary; available at tickets.com.
Call 410--715-3089 or go to columbiafestival.com.