No matter what brings people to the Spoleto Festival, it’s hard to deny that music’s the main draw. And from May 25-June 10, I covered all of it this year — from the Big Festival’s major sounds to many of Piccolo Spoleto’s top music events — at the new City Paper classical music blog Eargasms. Even four days after the festival’s over, my brain’s still fried. But this year’s festival proved to be one of the most enjoyable yet.
In Philip Glass’ latest multimedia creation, the big festival premiere Book of Longing, there wasn’t much new to the minimalist composer’s (I’ll say it) predictable music, but the overall experience, with its pack of solid vocalists and players backing up the poetry of Leonard Cohen, was well worth the ticket. The semi-choreographed action, creative staging, a running slideshow of Cohen’s remarkable drawings and sketches, and theatrical lighting gave the senses plenty to chew on.
Then there were the three operas. C.W. Gluck’s L’ile de Merlin is a frothy confection that’ll never top the operatic charts, but it was prime festival fodder: a lighthearted satirical romp that took nothing seriously. (Though some saw deeper meaning in the “utopian” theme). Conductor Harry Bicket, the crack Spoleto Festival Orchestra, and a troupe of gifted singers saw to some serious musical quality. Christopher Alden’s wacky modern staging followed an oblique incarnation of Beavis and Butthead as they dealt with cult messiah Merlin and his upside-down utopian society.
A contrasting dystopian vision came in the festival’s magnum operatic opus: Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. But its anti-capitalistic antics were presented more as a surreally fatalistic morality play than a comedy. Maestro Emmanuel Villaume and friends brought the unique and engaging music to sturdy life; I loved it, despite its nihilistic outlook.
Talk about nihilism: Pascal Dusapin’s operatic premiere Faustus, the Last Night was something of a waking nightmare for me. It was like when you’re sick in bed, suffering one of those miserable feverish dreams where you’re stuck in some surreal dilemma. It can be seriously revolting — but therein lies its genius. Conductor John Kennedy and his superb cast kept the tricky but effective score on track. This was easily the festival’s riskiest and most controversial musical event, and though not all agreed, this critic found it a whopping, if discomfiting, success.
Giuseppe Verdi’s bigger-than-life Requiem isn’t an opera per se, but it sure comes across like one. This magnificent piece can wring you dry. And under Joseph Flummerfelt, the marauding SFO and a mighty hybrid chorus did just that. My only quibbles were some decidedly fragile moments from the solo tenor, and the rich-voiced mezzo was occasionally flat. She also lagged behind the beat, and dragged the vocal ensemble along with her.
The festival’s two big orchestral concerts were both smash hits. Ravel’s Mother Goose and Brahms’ Fourth Symphony led off the pair at the Sottile Theatre. Ravel’s warm, sophisticated whimsy was the perfect foil to the deep feeling and brash excitement of the Brahms. The brilliant SFO fairly crackled under Villaume’s baton. A brawnier orchestra was onstage the following week for virtuoso tone poems by Richard Strauss and Paul Dukas, before getting down to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. It’s his smallest and meekest symphony, but it’s still Mahler, with the odd flash of power and grandeur tempering its gently rustic overall aura. Soprano Monica Yunus neatly evoked a child’s impression of heaven. The orchestra sounded absolutely spectacular.
The Westminster Choir, under their new director, Joe Miller, sounded as spiffy as ever in their two programs: one each for women’s voices and full choir. But their singing had a fresh interpretive edge and some new sorts of collective sound that I’d never heard from them before — as you’d expect from a new boss who’s worth his salt. Their foray into Nordic music was a treat, especially a big tribal piece from Veljo Tormis.
Speaking of classy choral music, there was Antioch, an amazing 10-voice mini-choir from New York that’s made up mostly of Westminster Choir alums. Their Piccolo Spotlight concert was an afternoon to remember.
How to cover all eight of the 11 Chamber Series events (roughly 25 works) that I made it to? There’s no room to list everybody, but I was happy to help welcome back soprano Courtenay Budd and pianist Stephen Prutsman after a couple of Spoletos away. And it was great to have harp hottie Catrin Finch back again, especially for a transcription of The Moldau for solo harp. (!) Glittering newbies were cellist Edward Arron and Scott St. John, the St. Lawrence Quartet’s new second violin.
Highlights? Program II’s magical Debussy string quartet and Amy Beach’s lush Chanson d’Amour were hard to beat. Concert V sported Schubert’s cherry-studded Piano Trio in B-Flat, and No. VI offered Brahms’ elegiac G Major string sextet. For sheer fun, you couldn’t beat program X’s Sherlock Junior, by pianist-composer Prutsman — backing up an old Buster Keaton silent film. The SLSQ joined him for a spell of hilarious musical mayhem. And finally, the grand finale, Schubert’s stupefying Cello Quintet — perhaps the greatest piece of chamber music we have. The St. Lawrence plus cellist Arron paid final tear-jerking tribute to Menotti in this one, and I’ll claim it as my own searing, supreme festival moment.
Real chamber music came from some of our own, too, via Piccolo’s Spotlight Concert series. The Charleston Symphony’s new concertmaster, Yuriy Bekker (plus Andrew Armstrong on piano), delivered a superb recital; so did departing CSO leaders Megan Julyan-Holland (second violin) and her husband James Holland (cello), in their farewell recital. The College of Charleston’s classy strings professors, Lee-Chin Siow (violin) and Natalia Khoma (cello), plus piano whiz Volodymyr Vynnytsky, also blew us away with a program of showpieces.
I wasn’t there for as many of the cutting-edge Music in Time programs, nor the always-rewarding Intermezzi events as I wanted. Still, I got to MiT’s beguiling first program, starring Stephen Scott’s mind-blowing Bowed Piano Ensemble, who played the interior of a piano like surgeons working on a patient in an ICU. I also made it to the first three Intermezzo programs; highlights included Beethoven’s sparkly Piano Concerto No. 1 from the opener — deftly played (and conducted, though others disagreed with me) by pianist Andrew von Oeyen. Program II’s Grand Duo Concertante, by Giovanni Bottesini, offered jaw-dropping double bass acrobatics, and the third program, by Ernest Chausson, was a cherished discovery.
It’s almost impossible to measure the relative quality of a cultural cornucopia that, year after year, offers more world-class artistic riches than any human being can possibly keep up with. Though it’s a futile effort, that doesn’t stop us from trying — or from looking forward to doing it again next year.
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