My first Spoleto Festival was heavy on percussion — the sounds of rebuilding after Hurricane Hugo. In the 23 years since then, a lot has changed both in Charleston and at Spoleto. The Spoleto Festival is both cleaner — more consistent quality and original productions — and dirtier, with a richer, more diverse lineup.
Before Charleston City Paper invited me to be their overview critic, my strategy was to tackle the festival the way I have for years (especially since I became unwillingly self-employed): cram in as much new, original, and unusual with a core curriculum of classical music in as little time as possible. My original five-day plan was five chamber music concerts, circus Le Grand C, dance company Compagnie Käfig, the opera double-bill Mese Mariano and Le Villi, the Rite of Spring Music in Time concert, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, new opera Matsukaze, Oedipus, The Intergalactic Nemesis, and various art exhibitions.
When City Paper came calling, I started adding to my must-see list. First up were the festival orchestra concerts featuring Béla Bartók, John Adams, Peteris Vasks and Pierre Boulez’s arrangement of Ravel. I also wanted more Music in Time and chamber concerts. At the other end of the spectrum was the Punch Brothers, who blew me away a few years back, and Rosanne Cash, who I’ve been a fan of since she moved out of Johnny’s house.
Now I’ll go to almost everything — that’s the job — starting with Matsukaze, based on a Noh play about two ghost sisters. The opera, making its U.S. premiere at the festival, is by Toshio Hosokawa, one of Japan’s most prominent composers, and is directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, who led the 18-hour Peony Pavilion (2004) and the wildly eclectic and electric Monkey: Journey to the West (2008).
The other operatic offering is a double bill of rarely performed turn-of-the-20th-century one-acts by Giacomo Puccini and Umberto Giordano. It too has ghosts. Both Puccini’s Le Villi and Giordano’s Mese Mariano are about women who have suffered a loss. Nearly everyone working on the operas — director, conductor, designer, and the soprano singing the lead in both operas — are festival first-timers. I’m looking forward to seeing how they transform the operas for today’s audiences and how the singer transforms herself.
Opera at the festival nearly always promises something new even when it’s something old. My most extensive, eclectic, and excellent experiences have been at Spoleto with favorites Die Vögel, I’ile de Merlin (a lost Gluck piece staged like an Austin Powers movie) Émilie, Ariadne Auf Naxos, Hydrogen Jukebox, Don Giovanni, Flora, Love’s Fowl (the Chicken Little story acted out with puppets and sung in Italian), and The Peony Pavilion (I attended 15 of the 18 hours.) It’s been incredible to have a front row seat at opera’s unfolding history in a state with almost no opera.
Chamber music is a foundation of the festival with high-level performances and a decent mix of old and new. The series has become quite risk-taking under the direction of Geoff Nuttall, violinist with long-time festival residents the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Some people will be shocked that St. Lawrence won’t even appear until the second weekend, but the excellent Brentano Quartet will be filling in. They’ll team up with cellist Alisa Weilerstein for a Franz Schubert quintet, piano quintets by Dvorák with Pedja Muzijevic, and Brahms with newcomer Pavel Kolesnikov. Nuttall met Kolesnikov, 24, just six months ago at a Canadian piano competition which Kolesnikov won. He, Nuttall, and Weilerstein will perform Ernest Chausson’s Trio in G minor, Op. 3 and he and Muzijevic will tag-team Ravel’s two-piano La Valse.
Nuttall is continuing to expand the series’ sonic range with percussionist Steven Schick, a founder of Bang on a Can All-Stars. Schnick and Weilerstein will play Mariel by Osvaldo Golijov and I’m trying to imagine how amazing that might be. The series ends on a celebratory but sad note: the final public performances of series founder Charles Wadsworth. We shall not see his like again.
Which brings us to Shakespeare and the theater. I’ve seen the same Shakespeare plays repeatedly, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but that’s one reason I’m charged up about seeing what the War Horse team brings to it. And it has puppets. I’m a sucker for puppets.
At my first festival I had one of my first great theater experiences — the beautiful and terrifying Salome by the Gate Theatre. The director of that magnificent production, Steven Berkoff, is finally back leading his own adaptation of the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus.
The wild card and what looks like a wild time should be the two-part, multimedia, comic book- and pulp-inspired The Intergalactic Nemesis. The adventure story has giant projections of comic book images, three actors performing dozens of roles, live music, extraterrestrials, and a Foley artist creating all the sound effects on stage.
Spoleto theater got a bad rap for years, but I’ve seen some amazing works — Peter and Wendy, A Doll’s House, MedEia, Battle of Stalingrad, The Great War, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Mamba’s Daughters, Tristan & Yseult — and I’ve sat through some dogs. Among the latter have been many of the one-person theatrical pieces often (badly) written by the performer about (boring) personal trials. I hope Tristan Sturrock’s Mayday, Mayday, about an accident that left him paralyzed for a time, will not be.
The small dance companies have always been one of my festival favorites. Compagnie Käfig, which mines the music and dance of Brazil as well as hip-hop, was one of those small delights, and after a decade they’re back, but no longer small. They’ve been a huge success and it’s always good to see groups and individuals that got a start at Spoleto make a triumphant return.
The festival still has some small groups this year covering a wide range of styles, from tap dancer Jared Grimes to classical Indian dancer Shantala Shivalingappa, and the film noir-inspired The Better Half by Lucky Plush Productions.
Jazz at Spoleto seems like it’s part of a different festival, and jazz isn’t my strong point. I’ve never been interested in the mainstream acts nor do I keep abreast of Catalonian bassists and Norwegian pianists. But this year I’m intrigued by the percussion and bass duo Andre Mehmari and the guitar and clarinet duo from Brazil. I’ll hit the first and regret not getting to the second. How I wish for more 10 p.m. shows.
The Americana/roots music/bluegrass/country/blues concerts also have a tacked-on aura, although this is a genre I know and like better. These concerts do diversify the audience, but they make Spoleto too much like other festivals such as the Savannah Music Festival. And many of these musicians or others like them perform in Charleston outside the festival. Still, it’s hard to go wrong with Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers. And if two of my favorite songwriter/performers, Tom Waits and Nick Lowe, dig J.D. McPherson, that’s good enough for me.
What I’d really like to see is a collaboration between this series and the classical side of things. I want to hear Punch Brothers and the St. Lawrence String Quartet together. And I’d like Thile or someone like him running the series.
I’ve never done much Piccolo-ing; so many Piccolo shows overlap with Spoleto events and I’ve often been burned by Piccolo performances. I know quality has improved and hope to attend several concerts, although I’ve always thought that Piccolo’s classical music emphasis was misguided, since that’s the strength of the big festival. What I’ll attempt: the Spotlight Classical to Contemporary, some early music and Jewish music concerts, the Charleston Chamber Opera’s L’Enfant Prodigue, and plays The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Venus in Fur, and Clybourne Park.
And of course there’s the wonderful city of Charleston too, which I will see at a fast clip dashing from performance to performance. I’ll try to take a dip at Folly to wash off the concert-hall smell. I eat to live — if I get to eat at all — during the festival although I usually get shrimp and grits at the Marion Square farmer’s market and lunch at the chef’s table at SNOB. I’ll duck into the Second Presbyterian Church Tea Room for coffee and dessert and a dessert to go. I appreciate that the Spoleto press room offers the ink-stained (or Word weary) wrenches wine, but I’m bringing a coffee maker..