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24th Piccolo Spoleto Festival: A Cornucopia of Living American Composers

June 6, 2002 - Charleston, SC:


Attendees of the Spoleto Festival USA ought not overlook the bargains to be found on the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. With a goal of broad arts access for those of modest means, it was designed and launched in 1979 by the City of Charleston's Office of Cultural Affairs and a group of volunteers from the local arts community. From the beginning it has been directed by Ellen Dressler Moryl, who is also a cellist in the Charleston Symphony. It presents some 700 events in 17 days, running the gamut from free pre-school activities to fairly-moderately-priced musical events featuring regional artists that can rival the international festival. When founded, all events were free but nominal charges were soon imposed and the rates have grown over the decades. In compensation, the artistic quality has kept ahead of the cost.

For a decade, the presence of the Baltimore Consort on the Early Music Series guided my choice of the second week of the Spoleto Festival. This year this popular Piccolo series, directed by Steve Rosenberg, noted recorder player, was held in the intimate acoustic of the French Huguenot Church, across from Dock Street Theatre. Three concerts were sampled, beginning with one on June 3 that featured a new ensemble, Galileo's Daughters (soprano Sarah Pillow, harpsichordist Jennifer Peterson and viola da gambist Mary Anne Ballard), in an intelligent program that wove letters from dowry-poor daughters in nunneries with 16th- and 17th-century music. Highlights were Monteverdi's dramatic "Lamento d'Arianna," well paced with great care for the words, three wonderful Barbara Strozzi ariettes, which exploited a wide variety of characterization, and the tour-de-force motet "Non Plangete" by Rosa Giancinta Badalla. Choice arias for countertenor were the heart of the June 4 program, "A Baroque Oratorio and Opera Recital," that featured the sweet-honeyed voice of José Lemos with harpsichordist Wayne Foster, gambist Ballard and baroque violinist Heili Powell. Lemos had superb diction, even vocal registers and excellent trills, held notes and high notes. A series of arias from Handel's operas Agrippina , and Giulio Cesar e and Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea displayed vengeance, conflicted emotions and bravura martial moods, and made this event a winner! Justly expecting a sellout, the program "Viva Vivaldi" was given twice, once each week; the one heard June 6 wore its scholarship lightly. A concerto for two mandolins was given in an arrangement for three guitars. Mark Gainer was the outstanding oboe soloist and Rosenberg was irresistible on a soprano recorder. The "La Folia" variations were enticing. While I liked the program well enough, I liked it better last year when the exact same program was done. The early Ryom numbers (below 100) encompass a plethora of works for recorder and small ensemble that would provide a rich vein to be mined for many programs.

Since its debut with two performances at the 2000 Festival, the Carolina Chamber Chorale's concerts have been "musts" for cognoscenti. That first program, preserved on the group's initial CD (Albany 452), featured Menotti's The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore . Last season's concert involved settings of DeBose Heyward's poetry. As a memorial to the 9/11 attacks, this year's theme was "Be Glad Then America," the title of the opening piece by William Billings. The choir, directed by Timothy Koch, consists of 26 world-class singers chosen by audition from the Carolinas and throughout North America. One member is Linda Lister (of Elon University's voice faculty), reviewed by CVNC earlier this season. A full house was on hand for the June 2 concert, the second of four this year, given in the Circular Congregational Church. In addition to the Billings, James Mulholland's "Keramos," Randall Thompson's "Alleluia," and "Make Our Garden Grow," from Bernstein's Candide, were heard. The high points were the world premieres of three works composed with 9/11 in mind, all of whose composers were present. Arlen Clarke, composer of "An American Triptych," stepped from within the choir to acknowledge applause for his work, the three movements of which are "The Golden Door," sung a cappella; "My Childhood Home," a setting of Lincoln's poem, accompanied by chamber orchestra; and "The American Flag," also a cappella. The second was very moving and the scoring was individual, reflecting an American version of English pastoral music. College of Charleston professor Trevor Weston's "Ashes" was arresting; he made antiphonal use of an octet from the Charleston School of the Arts whose members were placed behind the audience in the organ loft. In the spirit of Venetian baroque practice, he used "Hear my prayer" (from Psalm 102) as an antiphon. TV images of ash-covered survivors led him to allot the line "For I have eaten ashes" to the men. Some of the scoring for chamber orchestra seemed aleatory or atonal and I was sometimes reminded of Ligeti. Weston said that "the semi-chorus represent(ed) the direct inner thoughts of isolation that (were) amplified by the larger chorus. Within the drama of this work, the chorus (built) a 'tall' chord consisting of two notes for each part, symbolically the two towers, and then dissolv(ed) them with individual expressions of sorrow."

The concert ended with "Restless Mourning" by internationally-known composer Anthony Davis. In addition to Psalm 102, his complex texts were drawn from "Blue" and "Things Would Never Be the Same," poetry by Quincy Troupe from 9/11: An Emergency Call, and from the provocative poem "The Pilot of a 767" by Allan Havis. The later begins by evoking the thoughts of the dead pilot and merges disturbingly into those of the dead fanatic. Effective use was made of a tape track with morning traffic sounds as well as the growing rush of the approaching jet. This complex and eclectic setting will need several hearings to begin to get a handle on it. Even with one hearing it was moving and impressive. Indeed, this was the only time I have ever found the use of a recorded tape musically effective.

For the past two years the presence of the outstanding Caramoor Virtuosi on the Spotlight Chamber Music Series has determined my Spoleto scheduling but this year I learned of their shift to the first week too late to change my travel plans. Nonetheless, the series, held in First (Scotts) Presbyterian Church, still proved rewarding. The June 3 concert featured the International String Quartet in a pleasing program. Brahms' seldom-heard Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor was well-balanced and conventional. The "Primavera Porteña," a tango, by Piazzolla, went well, although a little tango goes a very long way and Piazzolla may well replace the Pachelbel Canon as the "bête noir" of critics. I couldn't clearly catch how the two were able to share cues with their excellent, blind pianist Jeff Juan Choque. Kodaly's wonderful Duo was played by violinist Biliana Voutchkova and cellist Aron Zelkowicz. Although well done, it didn't displace memories of Triangle performances by Thayer and Thron.

This series' special focus, "Spotlight on New Music by American Composers," which consisted of three concerts on June 4-6, was a wonderful gift for music lovers. A joint project with the Charles Ives Center for American Music directed by Richard Moryl, both the dress rehearsals and the formal concerts were free to the public. Rehearsals were so well prepared that most of the music was played straight through with only brief stops to clear up questions. Many composers were present to answer questions. Only by taking in both presentations of each program could one begin to grasp the outlines of new works. Members of the Charleston Symphony were under the effective direction of guest conductor Donald Portnoy.

The most outwardly aggressive works on the June 4 concert were by the only two women composers in the series. Joelle Wallach's "Tiger's Tail" was rhythmic with brilliant scoring for woodwinds and brass and with shrill lines for the flutes. CVNC reviewed works by Stacy Garrop on an April 3 UNC-G concert but those challenging works hardly prepared me for the thrilling sounds of her "Thunder Walker." Handel-like, she had raided her doctoral thesis; the extensive percussion included a thunder sheet. The first movement was a fugue-like ritual with a pulsing and driving rhythm. She said that the broken passacaglia in the second movement invoked the gods. The composer plucked piano strings as part of the orchestra. Soprano Amberleigh Aller clearly projected the love poetry of composer Robert Kritz's sister in his Echoes of Lost Love, and Kenneth Goldsmith was the able violin soloist in Arthur Gottshalk's "Fantasy Variations," which featured jazz drums.

For the June 5 concert, D. Wilson Ochoa reconstructed the score of John Barnes Chance's "Introduction and Capriccio," lost due to the dominance of atonal music during the '50s and '60s. Rich tonal string writing with woodwinds was not unlike Vaughan-Williams. Iowa-born Ching-Chu Hu's "In Frozen Distance" was inspired by his father's coma. The spare scoring, with a prominent cello, evoked the sense of unconnected timelessness. Ladislav Kubik's spouse Joanna Sobkowska-Kubik was the piano soloist in his "Concerto Breve." Episodes pitting the orchestra against the piano alternated with lyrical scoring. John Fitz Rogers's aptly-named "Still" was very calm, with a lovely English Horn solo. In the lineage of French "homages," Charles Bestor's In Memoriam Bill Evans had jazz-style scoring.

Opening the June 6 concert, composer Jeffrey Jacob was the ceaseless piano soloist in his own work, The Persistence of Memory. The inventive score sometimes suggested a gamelan orchestra. The first two movements were filled with nostalgia and sadness. Robert Weller was remarkably successful in creating a sound world analogous to the painting style of his subject in "Homage to Jackson Pollack." He said that the strings were treated as the primer coat and the keyboard was the paint while the brass represented the sticks Pollack used to streak the coats of paint. Weller played an electronic keyboard. There was a prominent double bass part, often plucked in jazz fashion, played by long-time CSO Principal Bass Charles Barr, who will move to another orchestra next season. The second movement was a jazz-like session between Barr, Weller and a xylophonist. Trevor Weston's "Bleue" was inspired by the Miró painting, "L'etoile Bleue." The first movement had wavering high string writing, horn calls and brass chords, the second, eerie high notes, a chirping string figure set against pizzicato basses, and finally, jazzy percussion joined by muted horns. The four sections of Robert Hutchinson's Jeux Des Enfants were influenced by post-9/11 emotions. Believing great art timeless, he was inspired by the resilience of children to tragedy and hence, children at play. A single musical idea was treated playfully, mysteriously and finally in a celebratory manner. The full orchestra was used and a driving rhythm was dominant.