Music Review



Piccolo Spoleto

June 8, 2001 - Charleson, SC:


While 2001 was the 25th anniversary of the Spoleto Festival USA, it was the 23rd for the concurrent Piccolo Spoleto, designed and launched in 1979 by the City of Charleston's Office of Cultural Affairs. The official outreach program of the Spoleto Festival was intended to provide a showcase for gifted local and regional artists. While most events were originally free, as both economic reality set in and artistic standards were raised, a nominal charge was added to many events, but a number are still free with baskets for donations at the entrances. The City's festival provides an excellent resource for those on tight budgets or who are seeking something different. In recent seasons, some of its presentations have equaled the quality of regular Spoleto events. Piccolo performances can run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. For example, this season the Caramoor Virtuosi were the equal of the prestigious chamber music series at Dock Street while in a small theater the curious could watch Ninja dolls--the tiny plastic ones found in vending machines--enact a heavily-edited version of Shakespeare's Macbeth !

During the two weeks of the Spoleto Festival USA, Piccolo Spoleto presented nearly 700 events ranging from special programs in the parks for children to art shows, dance, jazz and blues programs, drama and several classical series that I have always found well worth considering.

Still free with donations welcome is the midmorning L'Organo Series of organ recitals held in several of Charleston's finest churches and played on a choice variety of instruments at 10:00 a.m. weekdays. I attended four of the ten given. One of the most interesting was an all-John Knowles Paine recital on May 28, played on the fine Kenneth Jones Pipe Organ (1994) at St. Michael's Episcopal Church. This is one of several newer organs that were installed in Hurricane Hugo's wake. The organist was Murray Forbes Somerville, University Organist and Choirmaster at Harvard University and sixth in succession since composer Paine himself. Somerville has made a specialty of his predecessor's music and a Gothic label CD was on sale after the concert. I particularly enjoyed the Variations and Fugue on "The Star-Spangled Banner." The rest of the program--two preludes and two fantasias, including an effective one on "Ein feste Burg"--was good.

Even more interesting and closely tied to works on the Spoleto Festival was Mark Thomas's June 5 program of music by Philip Glass, played on the delightful Bedient Opus 22 Pipe Organ in the Catholic Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist. Soprano Suzanne Fleming-Atwood joined for an aria from Act IV, Scene 2, of the opera Einstein on the Beach . Also played were Music in Fifths (1969), Dance IV (1979), the finale of Satyagraha (1980) and Mad Rush (1979). While my interest in Glass' music will always be minimal, I have developed a taste for the seven-minute "Mad Rush," composed in honor of the Dali Lama's first New York City public address. My major complaint is that. in all his music that I have heard, very little happens for a very LONG time. Post and Courier critic Robert Jones, a Glass advocate, complained that the church's acoustics tended to swamp the musical line. I confess I didn't notice it. Spoleto Festival USA General Director Nigel Redden has long been a Glass advocate at both the Charleston festival and at his Lincoln Center Festival in New York City.

On May 30, I heard the duo team of trumpeter Michael Miller and organist David Lowry at Grace Episcopal Church on Wentworth Street in a program of mostly 20th-century American music. I recognized only composer Leo Sowerby, whose Prelude on Deus tuorum militum was played.

A fine program of mostly French organ music was well played by Marijim Thoene on the Bedient Organ of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist on May 31. Highlights were Charles Tournemire's "Improvisation sur le 'Te Deum'" as reconstructed by Duruflé and the "Dieu Parmi Nous" from La Nativité of Olivier Messiaen.

On June 4, Richard Webba playedwidely eclectic recital on the Schantz Organ of St. John Lutheran Church on Archdale Street. I found Leo Sowerby's Theme and Variations ("Wa-Li-Ro"), H.472 (1968), the most memorable offering.

The Early Music Series, directed by virtuoso recorder player Steve Rosenberg and frequently sold out, has been one of my favorite attractions for many years. After many seasons in the hoary main building of the College of Charleston, Randolf Hall, the series was moved to the intimate confines of the French Huguenot Church at the corner of Church and Queen Streets, opposite Dock Street Theatre. The time of the concerts was conveniently shifted from 5:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., which is less apt to conflict with regular Spoleto events. Until this year, I picked my Spoleto schedule in order to catch the yearly appearance of the Baltimore Consort on the Piccolo series. Their absence this year was filled by a group new to me, Chatham Baroque, named "Best New Classical Artist, 1999" by NPR. In past years, Chapel Hill's own early-music group, Ensemble Courant was a hit on this series, and Duke University's fortepianist Randall Love was also well received.

I caught Chatham Baroque's fourth program, "Bach and Back," on May 30. Three typical and unremarkable trio sonatas by Corelli, Handel and Purcell were played as well as the group's own arrangement of two movements from Bach's Partita in A Minor for two violins, viola de gamba and theorbo. I was not very impressed by this dubious effort. I much preferred the same instruments in Vivaldi's "La Folia" Variations. The rest of the program was light, enjoyable and very forgettable.

A twice-repeated "Viva Vivaldi" program featuring Rosenberg's own Charleston Baroque was more fully satisfying. I heard the June 8 repeat of the program, which appeared to be a sell out. Highlights were Rosenberg's seeming effortless performance of Il Gardellino on a flautino, and the Op. 1, No. 12, Trio Sonata in D Minor, "La Folia," which consists of twenty delightful variations on the well-worn tune, which are different from the version played earlier by Chatham Baroque.

In just the past two years, Piccolo Spoleto's Spotlight Chamber Music Series (originally called Musica da Camera) has leapfrogged from a good quality regional presentation to an artistic level that can fully equal the venerated regular Spoleto Dock Street series. The main reason for this has been a weeklong residency by the Caramoor Virtuosi from the festival in New York State. Conceived and funded by former Charlestonian Mela Haklisch, Mrs. John Hawk and several local corporations, the concerts are held in First (Scots) Presbyterian Church at 5:30 p.m., which doesn't conflict with most Spoleto events. Heavy subsidies keep the admission at $6.00 compared to the $22-27 of the Dock Street series. This brings great music within the reach of those on fixed incomes, on tight budgets, or those who, like me, are simply addicted to concerts. 

I attended eight of ten concerts presented over the two-week period. The first two concerts, on May 28 and 29, presented the local debut of the recently-formed Orchestra of St. Clare at Mepkin Abbey, described as "the Charleston area's first full-scale professional Baroque orchestra." The group's inaugural concert had taken place last April 8-9 at the well-known nearby abbey. Despite the "baroque" reference, modern instruments were used, as far as I could tell. These first two concerts were taken up by good performances of all six Brandenburg Concertos of Bach, an apt choice for a festival setting. The valve trumpet playing of Gregory Schoonover in the second concertos was fine and clarion. Virtuoso Steve Rosenberg led the recorders in the second and fourth concertos, their use being especially desirable for their color in the latter. I missed violas da gamba in the third and sixth concertos; modern strings make the sound too heavy in these. The fine solo cello in the sixth concerto was ably performed by Ellen Dressler Moryl, Director of the City's Office of Cultural Affairs. Luckily director and harpsichordist S. Wayne Foster's back was to the audience so that his concentration wasn't broken when, during his excellent execution of the great cadenza in the fifth concerto, a patron collapsed in the balcony. With a large percentage of classical audiences getting on in years, such things are always a worry.

The June 1 concert was held in Grace Episcopal Church on Wentworth Street. I was sorry that the scheduled opening work, Edward Varese's "Octandre," had to be dropped. A reduced Charleston Symphony Orchestra was very ably conducted by Bundit Ungrangsee. The concert opened with Ives' ambiguous and mysterious "The Unanswered Question." The highlight was a warm and unsentimental performance of Barber's lovely Violin Concerto, Op. 14, by rising virtuoso Jennifer Frautschi, a member of the Caramoor Virtuosi. Balances were fine and the oboe solo in the slow movement was good. Next came Ives' delightfully pungent "Three Places in New England." In keeping with Charleston's mature respect for the founder of both Spoleto Festivals, a suite of music from Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" ended the well-attended concert. This was an excellent example of creative festival programming, avoiding the repetition of well-worn repertory.

During the 2000 Piccolo Festival, word of mouth rapidly led to a full church as the reports of the high quality of the Caramoor Virtuosi's performances spread. With their reputation already well established, First (Scots) Presbyterian Church was copiously filled for all five concerts during the second week of the festival.

Their opening concert on June 4, the sixth in the Spotlight Chamber Music Series, featured the Caramoor's fine cellists, director Edward Arron and Alexis Pia Gerlach, who exhausted the possible blends and contrasts of color in Jean Barriere's Sonata in G Minor. Next came the unusual combination of Martinu's Serenade No. 2, for two violins and viola, played with extraordinary precision and warmth by Frautschi , Colin Jacobsen and Nicholas Cords. The second movement was striking with the viola sometimes taking the tenor line to the bass of the two violins. An unusually well balanced and vigorous reading of Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44, ended the concert. The splendid pianist, Andrew Armstrong, was joined by violinists Frautschi and Steven Copes, violist Max Mandel and cellist Gerlach. Triangle and Triad music lovers can hear both pianist Armstrong and cellist Arron as soloists on the new season of the Greensboro Symphony. Any member of the Caramoor Virtuosi would make a fine soloist--as would those on the Dock Street series.

The seventh Spotlight concert on June 5 was certainly diverse. It began with a light and pleasant Divertimento in A by Haydn, played by violinist Jacobsen, violist Cords and cellist Arron. The same players brought Beethoven's Serenade in D, Op. 8, to ebullient life. It is one of his most enjoyable lighter works and is filled with melody. The big hit of the afternoon--a surprise considering the age of most of the audience--was a breathtaking performance of Schönberg's Sextet Verklärte Nach. The passionate and polished players were violinists Copes and Jacobsen, violists Cords and Mandel, and cellists Gerlach and Arron. They received a spontaneous, prolonged and well-earned standing ovation. I have never heard a better performance. It had all the emotion missing from the last one that I had heard, a very professional performance by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on the Duke Artists Series. I overheard positive conversations about this at different concerts the rest of the week.

The eighth Spotlight concert on June 6 opened with Schubert's tuneful Five German Dances and Seven Trios with Coda, D.90, played by violinists Jacobsen and Copes, violist Mandel and cellist Gerlach. The same players evoked the seamy side of Buenos Aires in Piazzolla's Four, for Tango (1987)-hardly common fare for Calvinists! A richly romantic and carefully balanced performance of Franck's torrid Piano Quintet in F Minor, M.7, brought the concert to a searing end. Pianist Armstrong was joined by violinists Ayako Yoshida (his wife) and Jacobsen, violist Cords, and cellist Arron.

Russian music of the 20th century dominated the ninth Spotlight concert on June 7. Violinists Yoshida, Copes, Frautschi and Jacobsen, violists Cords and Mandel and cellists Gerlach and Arron joined for a rare performance of Shostakovich's Two Pieces for String Octet, Op. 11 (1924-25). Although it is an early work, many of the elements of his mature style were present, including wild and bitter undertones. There was a brilliant cadenza for the first violin and a memorable "ppp" pizzicato episode. Next came Alfred Schnittke"s "Musica Nostalgica" (1992) for cello and piano. This was the only concert at which pianist Armstrong lowered the piano lid. It began with the cellist Arron playing a Bach-like solo line, joined later by the pianist playing a simple-sounding melody, followed by a bittersweet dance. The piece lasted only three minutes. Plush and romantic melody dominated the final work performed by the same artists, Rachmaninoff's Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano.

The final Spotlight concert, heard June 8, featured romantic and folk-like tunes. Schubert's Piano Trio Movement in E-Flat, D.897 ("Notturno"), was played stylishly by pianist Armstrong, violinist Yoshida and cellist Arron. Violinists Copes and Jacobsen then played a lively selection from Bartok's Duos for two violins that evoked rustic folk dances. The Caramoor Virtuosi's series ended with a carefully balanced and affectionately played rendition of Brahms Sextet No. 1 in B-Flat, with violinists Frautschi and Yoshida, violists Mandel and Cords and cellists Arron and Gerlach. It was announced that they would return for the 2002 festival; based on past patterns, they will be present during the second week of the festival. This would be well worth considering when planning Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto schedules for next season.

All of the Caramoor concerts opened with brief avuncular and cogent comments about the music by cellist and director Edward Arron. His communication skills reminded me of the similar style of Borromeo String Quartet leader, Nicholas Kitchen, long familiar to Triangle music lovers. I have found CD recordings by two of the players. Violinist Jennifer Frautschi has an intriguing one on Artekar 0006-2 that couples Ravel's Violin Sonata and "Tzigane" with Stravinsky's Duo Concertante and Divertimento. The dynamic and passionate cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach can be heard in sonatas of Rachmaninoff and Franck on an Encore Performance Recording (EPR 9714) and, as a member of the Clementi Piano Quartet, in all of the Brahms piano quartets (EPR 9611-9612). The EPRs can be found on the Tower Records site or ordered directly from http://www.eprgoldcds.com/.index.html. I found the Frautschi CD in the extensive Charleston Millennium Music store, which has an online service.

A major Piccolo Spoleto Festival event took place as part of the eleven concerts of the Choral Artists Series. A broken air conditioner helped me decide to attend the North American Premiere of the Easter Oratorio by Paul Spicer. The composer was present and spoke briefly before the performance. The text by N.T. Wright takes up the story of the Resurrection where Bach's St. John's Passion leaves off. By no means as tightly focused or succinct as the later, it consists of no less than sixty-seven numbers and consumed two hours. The performance took place in Grace Episcopal Church, which was generously filled for the well-publicized event. Using members of the Charleston Symphony and the Grace Church Choir, church organist Scott Bennett did a generally good job holding his forces together and balancing them. Skeptical of church acoustics, I sat within five pews of the front. I gather from others that much of the clarity that I experienced was lost farther back. The Evangelist, tenor Walter Cuttino, and Jesus, bass Anthony Offerle, were the strongest singers; both were very clear and projected well. Mary, sung by soprano Jennifer Canfield, was good, but she didn't project as strongly. Keith Jones, as (Doubting) Thomas and St. Peter, was very strained much of the time.

Up to No. 13, an Easter Hymn, the work seemed like a product of any of the English pastoral-style composers--pleasant and forgettable. Thereafter, however, greater rhythmic complexity and more colorful scoring increased interest. I enjoyed No. 18 (Hymn, "Now the Green Blade Riseth") and the unconventional No. 47 (Aria, "The same, and yet renewed"), with its dark, low strings and oddly high organ notes. Antiphonal organ and trumpet effects were featured in No. 50 (Easter Hymn "Alleluia! Alleluia! Hearts to Heaven and voices raise"). My impression that the work is much too long was not helped by having several numbers sung by the audience.

On Sundays during Spoleto, many of Charleston's churches put on a wide variety of concerts as part of the Festival of Churches and Synagogues of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. The are usually free and can range widely in quality. This year I sampled the series by attending an all-Dvorak program presented by the Aiken (Georgia) Choral Society under the direction of Antoine Cordahi in St. Patrick's Catholic Church on St. Philip's Street. Cordahi and Artemisa Thevaos played two pianos to accompany the small chamber choir for the Mass in D and Te Deum. The choir's diction seemed fine and it was well balanced. I imagine a larger choir would have been better. The small forces did make some folk-dance aspects of the music more clear than usual.