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As soon as Paul Bertolani arrived in Southold from Rome, he began dreaming of classical music here. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

In July, Paolo Bartolani learned that his hard work creating a serious classical music program on the North Fork had begun to pay off. After a number of rejections from various nonprofits for funding, he received confirmation that his Rites of Spring Music Festival had received a $5,000 grant from the Joel Foundation.

That’s Joel, as in Billy Joel.

“I started from scratch,” says Bartolani, who emigrated with his family from Rome, Italy, to Southold. “I had no connections here or even knew the area. And my hope was to create a space, but something I was familiar with, and to be part of a community in this new landscape. It feels very good right now.”

In the beginning, he struggled to find his way as an acclaimed pianist. He asked himself, “What can I do here? How can I share classical music with my new community?”

Bartolani and his family arrived here in November 2015, and the winter was harsh. Then a North Fork spring arrived — and everything changed.

In the beauty of that first warm season came the idea for his Rites of Spring Festival. He drew inspiration from Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rites of Spring.” It came to Bartolani that here, in his new home, he could create something magnificent — and share his love of music with the North Fork.

His vision — which began with the festival’s first concert at Brecknock Hall in Greenport — was to combine classical music by acclaimed performers with local history. Music, like wine grown in rich soil, he believed, could have its own terroir.

Bartolani found multiple facilities for his performances, such as this one at Borghese Vineyards. (Photo credit: Michael Tillman courtesy of Rites of Spring)

Brecknock Hall was built in the 1850s by David Floyd, the grandson of William Floyd, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was also an owner of enslaved men and women. Another Rites of Spring Festival concert was performed at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, which dates to 1651 and is the largest intact former slaveholding plantation north of Virginia. It also sits on land once occupied by Indigenous people.

The festival has held concerts at local vineyards, but also historic buildings such as the Jamesport Meeting House, which was built in 1731, and the Custer Institute and Observatory in Southold. What the North Fork lacked in proper music halls, Bartolani found it more than made up for in its natural beauty.

With each concert, he strove to connect music to place, such as shows at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge and Landcraft Garden Foundation in Mattituck.

On Dec. 8, the festival ended a year of successful concerts with a “Holiday Weekend in Music” at Castello di Borghese Vineyard in Cutchogue. An enthusiastic crowd filled a handsome barn at the vineyard and Bartolani, seated at a Steinway grand piano, played selections from Mozart and Beethoven.

When it was over, the crowd gave him a standing ovation and an outpouring of enthusiastic comments.

Listening to Bartolani play, none of the concertgoers that night needed a reminder that the Rites of Spring Festival had come into its own. Its success was on full display.

As for 2024, Bartolani sees promise for more growth. After the success of the Dec. 8 concert, which also featured two up-and-coming opera singers that weekend, he is creating a fund to support young professional artists. And he’s planning for 11 festival concerts in the spring and summer, and four more in the fall and winter, all while developing musical partnerships with Stony Brook University.

For sharing his vision, passion and talent, and bringing The Rites of Spring Festival to life, Paolo Bartolani is our 2023 Northforker of the Year. Auguri, Paolo!