Photo courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA

The stage was set at Festival Hall on May 29 with a small percussion set, many cymbals, a laptop and a bassoon — not the typical setup for a classical concert. Curious voices hypothesized over what they might see as they browsed the program while waiting for the show to start. Then the lights dimmed, the room got quiet and John Kennedy, Spoleto Festival USA’s resident conductor and director of orchestral activities, walked onto the stage to introduce the evening.

“I’m so glad you brought your open ears and minds to this program,” he said.

All of the composers for this show contributed to the greater conversation at Spoleto Festival USA this year in raising Black voices. For example, Alongside a Chorus of Voices, metaphorically explores migration and displacement, themes that are also portrayed in operas Omar and Unholy Wars.

Selections from Radical Acceptance

Joy Guidry played selections from their latest album Radical Acceptance. (Guidry uses non-binary pronouns.) Using their bassoon as well as mixed media through their laptop and fellow composer Jessie Cox on percussion, the audience was immersed in the soundscape that is their journey toward radical acceptance.

What made this section of the show effective was Guidry’s control of every aspect. They would alter the color of the lights to match the mood of the piece moving from comforting warm red to deep, dark purple. They used their computer to loop the bassoon and add in sounds phone calls and cars driving down a busy street to add depth to the piece. They explained their story at the beginning and the end giving the audience a vulnerable retelling of their powerful journey as a Black, fat, queer, nonbinary person toward radical acceptance.

Evil’s Peak

A devil’s dance was depicted in Mikhail Johnson’s piece “Evil’s Peak.” It was expertly performed by the Departure Duo: Nina Guo, a soprano singer, and Eddi Kass, on double bass. The two were enthralling in the song and gave life to Johnson’s story.

Guo depicted the devil and sang Johnson’s lyrics, written in Jamaican patois, with vigor and a darkness that brought the lyrics to life, calling all to her dance. Each movement called out a different group: the church, the state, the rich man and ending with everyone. Kass portrayed the victims as they danced with the devil and used his instrument in creative ways to not only tell the story, but to show off the range of the double bass. He slid his bow effortlessly through the notes, plucked at the strings in a  jazz-like manner, and drummed on his instrument to create the beat for the song. He ended with an effect that can only be explained as the sound of breathing.

The two brought the audience through the nuances of the dance, clearly executing Johnson’s story.

Alongside a Chorus of Voices

The program booklet describes Cox, the composer of Alongside a Chorus of Voices, as someone who steps into the unknown (and to quote a man in the audience, that unknown was a “wild time”).

Horns and woodwind players from the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra were placed around the audience, while the strings, piano and percussion were on stage and the oboe, clarinet and flute players stomped in circles as they honked their instruments. While the soundscape was interesting, after a while it got repetitive and woodwind-heavy, making the immersive experience of  the horns  less effective.

Kennedy described the piece as a metaphor that explores themes of migration and displacement. But that would not have been clear had it not been said given the generic name and abstract music. It sounded like a piece that would be used in a horror film right before the ‘jump scare,’ only the tension was never released.

These three pieces did indeed introduce new and important music that explored powerful themes like identity, displacement and religion. While it was tough in moments to listen to or understand because the composers were creating challenging and unconventional music, there is much to be said about the power of experimentation and the courage to try something new.

  • The Music in Time series will continue with two more performances throughout the festival. Tyshawn Sorey, for Orchestra will be on June 6 at 7 p.m. in the Sottile Theatre and The Street will perform at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church on June 7 at 5 p.m.

Riley Utley is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.

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