Piccolo Spoleto Festival's 25th Anniversary
by William Thomas Walker
While I missed the first two seasons of the Spoleto Festival USA, I have attended some of the offerings of every season of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival since its beginning, in 1979. Ellen Dressler Moryl, Charleston's Director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, founded the city-funded festival and still directs it. Intended as a less expensive alternative to the main Spoleto Festival and meant to appeal to a broader community, this year's edition presented some 700 events, ranging from classical concerts and jazz to theatre and programs for children. Groups from North Carolina have appeared from time to time, and this seemed to be a record year for our state's artists.
Competition is keen for the Choral Artists series. Only nine of fifty choirs made this year's cut; among them was the Chamber Chorus of the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte. Since their first Piccolo appearance in the 1980s under their founder, the late Mary Nell Saunders, they have been a hit with festival audiences and critics. Their June 5 concert in St. Philip's Episcopal Church was my first opportunity to hear them; it happened to be the last performance conducted by David Tang, who ended his eight-year tenure in Charleston. Rachmaninov's sonorous All Night Vigil ( Vespers ) was given a nearly complete performance; numbers IX and XII were omitted. Balances were even and the diction was outstanding; thanks to a fine transliteration of the Russian text, the words could be easily followed. The dynamics were wide, each section of the choir had a good tone, and the unidentified soloists, particularly a low-ranging mezzo-soprano, were fully up to their tasks. The most outstanding solo occurred in number V when a chorister beat time while Tang himself revealed an ample tenor voice of superior quality. The bass section did reasonably well with the low notes, so only once did I long for the richer sonority found in choirs from Bulgaria and further east.
The Charleston Renaissance Ensemble's program, "Cathedral Music by Candlelight," is always a treat. On June 5, the a cappella ensemble made maximum use of the spacious acoustics of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, shifting groupings within the chancel. The purity of their tone was a constant delight. A Missa Brevis by Palestrina was the longest work on the program, which ranged from Gregorian Chant to Dufay, De Lassus, Victoria, and the prolific Anon.!
Charleston's Master Blacksmith, Philip Simmons, 92, was honored by two special concerts in the intimate acoustics of St. John's Reformed Episcopal Church on June 6 and 7. The church has the most comfortable pews in the city!
The June 6 concert featured I Solisti Vivaldi, fifteen skilled string players ranging in age from 12 to 22. All are members of violinist Sarah Johnson's summer music program at the NC School of the Arts. Each of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" featured a different violin soloist. Katherine Thomas and Carolyn Brotherton acquitted themselves well in "Spring" and "Summer," respectively. Playing from memory, Gentry Lasater brought even more virtuosity to bear in "Fall." Best of all was the fully-plumbed performance of "Winter" by Stefani Collins. CVNC reviewed her winning performance during last season's EMF concerto competition, and she will be appearing with the NC Symphony this fall. A single movement from Vivaldi's G Minor Concerto for Two Cellos revealed solid intonation and technical control by Paul Blimling and Cameron "CJ" Collins, Stefani's 12-year-old brother.
The June 7 Concert featured violinist Sarah Johnson, cellist Alan Black, and pianist Dmitri Vorobiev in an eclectic program. From William Grant Still's Suite for Violin and Piano, Johnson and Vorobiev played "Mother and Child," with its tender blues-like flowing melody. Even with the piano lid fully up, the balances were perfect, and Johnson's intonation was immaculate.
Joaquin Turina's "Circulo" is a three-movement tone painting for piano trio. "Amanecer" portrays dawn with a sweet violin melody and a suggestion of birdcalls. "Melodia" features a bright piano part and a rich variety of pizzicatos. "Crepusulo," with its muted strings, portrays the onset of dusk.
To end the program, Johnson and her colleagues turned in a rich-textured and spirited performance of Brahms' Trio No. 2 in C. Johnson is a member of the NCSA faculty and has had a long association with Charleston dating back to the 1980s. The Russian-born Vorobiev won the 1994 Casagrande International Piano Competition and received his B.A. from the NCSA in 1996 and his Masters in Piano Performance from the Manhattan School of Music in 1998. Black has been Principal Cellist of the Charlotte Symphony since 1986.
Mid-morning organ recitals on the series called L'Organo are among the few free Piccolo concerts. Two of the three recitals I attended had NC connections.
The June 8 concert featured Charleston native and recent Furman graduate Justin Thomas Blackwell playing the organ of St. Michael's Episcopal Church. The 1767 organ case has been restored to its original style, but it houses a 1994 organ made by Kenneth Jones and Associates of Bray, Ireland. He chose a wide-ranging program encompassing Franck's "Pièce Héroïque," single movements from Widor's Symphony No. 5 and Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur , Frescobaldi's Toccata Quinta and Bach's Prelude and Fugue in G, S.541. The clear textures of the North German works made a fine contrast with the plush Romanticism of the French scores. Everything was cleanly articulated, but I'm not sure the registrations brought out the instrument's full potential. In retrospect, the sound of the old 1911 organ, made by the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, Connecticut, was preferable. Many Charleston church organs were lost during Hurricane Hugo.
On June 10, the lively and exciting sound of Grace Episcopal Church's Opus 994 Reuter Organ made a pleasing impression. Robert Poovey, Director of Music Ministries at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Atlanta, chose a showy program that he introduced with a few informal words and musical examples. In several pieces he made full use of the antiphonal possibilities provided by the trumpets located above the narthex. Most fascinating was Franck's Choral No. 1 in E, which has three themes but "no definable hymn." Gigout's "Grand Choeur Dialogué," with its antiphonal "call and response" between the trumpets at the rear of the nave and the main organ at the front, was spectacular. Roger-Ducasse's "Pastorale" is a tone poem with shepherd's pipings and a thunderstorm. Mozart's Adagio and Allegro is an arrangement of a work composed for a mechanical device. Poovey attended Greensboro's Grimsley High School and played organ in a local church.
A June 11 recital and featured John Mitchener, Kenan Professor of Organ at the NCSA, playing the Jones organ in St. Michael's Episcopal Church. I regret missing his 15-recital Winston-Salem traversal of the complete organ works of Bach, completed last May. His performance of Bach's "St. Anne" Prelude and Fugue, S.532, featured huge waves of sound, resonant bass, clear articulation of the fugue, and magisterial pedaling. Sweelinck's "Ballo del granduca" featured a wide range of woodwind-like sounds. With quiet portions contrasted with huge waves of sound and its spectacular finish, Ropartz's "Introduction et Allegro Moderato" ought to be programmed more often. It was a real treat to hear two pieces by Margaret Vardell Sandresky, daughter of composer Charles Vardell; both were long associated with Salem College. One of her Five Sacred Dances and the Gloria from her organ mass, L'homme armé , were played. Her scores are colorful and chromatic. Mendelssohn's Sonata was given with great flair and a superb flourish.
I was able to attend only one of the Spotlight Chamber Music concerts, presented in First (Scots) Presbyterian Church. The June 8 concert featured the St. Petersburg String Quartet, returning to Charleston for the fifth year and performing in the Triangle this fall. With the great care the ensemble gave to color and rhythm, Ravel's well-known Quartet in F sounded newly minted. Smetana's Quartet No. 1 in E Minor was equally accomplished, and full value was given to its Slavic qualities.
Composer Donald Harris was present for a performance of his Quartet No. 2 (2002) and gave a few comments that helped prepare the audience for the challenging four-movement work. The opening movement features considerable dissonance and a repeated pattern. The scherzo displays a wide range of pizzicatos and unusual bowings along with cello meowings. The slow movement is the most melodic of the four, and the finale begins with short phrases rapidly tossed among the players before melodic figures come to dominate and are repeated.
The Early Music Series, now held in the Circular Congregational Church, is very popular. It is directed by virtuoso recorder player Steve Rosenberg, who was a frequent guest with Chapel Hill's defunct original instrument ensemble.
The small chamber group Brio is drawn from the Charleston Renaissance Ensemble, and on June 8 the artists included guests from the Baltimore Consort. Mary Anne Ballard played viols, Danny Mallon used a plethora of percussion instruments, Rosenberg played guitar and recorders, and the vocalist was countertenor José Lemos. Mallon has to be seen to be believed: he had sticks strapped to his feet and looked for all the world like a "one man band" from the Depression Era. Lemos is one of the three or four finest countertenors that I have heard; his voice is seamless and even throughout its range, and his enunciation in several Spanish dialects, English, and French, was excellent. Outstanding selections were "Sephardic Rant," "L'amour de moi," "Lord Rendall," and "A la una."
Lemos joined the full Charleston Renaissance Ensemble for the June 9 concert, an informal event in which Rosenberg briefly introduced each piece and demonstrated some of the instruments. He forgot to identify the rest of the ensemble, so a fine soprano with a clear pure voice remains unknown. The instrumental sets alternated with vocal solos and duets. Lemos has a very expressive face, and his subtle combination of a knowing look and feigned innocence during "The Foggy Dew" was priceless. There were recorder trills and thrills aplenty when Rosenberg played Jacob Van Eyck's "The English Nightingale."
As a tribute to the Baltimore Consort, Rosenberg played his own freely-arranged version of an anonymous Scot's "Joy to the Person," which is basically the ensemble's signature tune. As encores, Lemos sang Paul Robeson's version of "This Little Light of Mine" and the soprano sang a simple, unadorned version of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come No More."