Festival USA 2008 Part III:
by William Thomas Walker
The festival concerts in Gaillard Municipal Auditorium involving full orchestra, or chorus and orchestra have always been popular and were near-sellouts this year. In contrast to these evening concerts, Spoleto's late afternoon Intermezzo Series presents enthusiastic young festival musicians in smaller chamber orchestras or features singers in recitals.
June 1, 2008: At St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, Intermezzo III featured two rarely-heard works by Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958) followed by a recent work commissioned for and premiered by the famed Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2006.
The short and seraphic "The Lark Ascending," for violin and orchestra, epitomizes the best of Vaughan Williams in his pastoral mood. The violin hovers, soars, and dips aaround ethereal, shimmering pp strings. Violinist Brittany Boulding, a freelance musician and member of this season's Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, gave a breathtaking performance, giving every nuance to the lark's magical calls. Conductor John Kennedy directed, instantly adjusting the orchestra to every change in dynamics or phrasing.
This was only the third time in 30+ years I have heard the English master's boisterous Tuba Concerto in F Minor. This bucolic work is in three movements that alternately exploit the player's agility and his ability to spin a seamless, lyrical line. It was simply astounding to see and hear Aubrey Foard's seemingly effortless and nonchalant mastery of the tuba part. His breath control was fabulous, and his nimbleness in fast runs defied belief. He plunged through all three movements with hardly a break. (During all previous performances I have heard, the soloist had to stop to do "plumbing" work, turning valves and draining pipes, but Foard's robust and warm sound never gave a hint of water buildup.) Kennedy brought out all of the composer's hale-and-hearty quality from the orchestra.
According to composer Ingram Marshall (b.1942), Orphic Memories is "a modestly scaled 'tone poem' (that) obliquely follows Orpheus's harrowing trip to the Underworld." There are fleeting quotes and references to other composers throughout the work's five sections, played without pauses. The theme is "memory itself." The score is imaginative and inventive, giving every section of the orchestra a good workout.
June 3, 2008: Festival audiences always look forward to the choral concerts directed by Joseph Flummerfelt, Artistic Director for Choral Activities. He was director of the Westminster Choir until he retired and was succeeded by Joe Miller. In a welcome break from alternating requiems of Brahms and Verdi, Flummerfelt choose an imaginative program of rarities for a Gaillard Municipal Auditorium concert. The choral forces consisted of members of the Westminster Choir supplemented by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus, prepared by Robert Taylor. The alert young musicians of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra provided sensitive support.
The single movement Te Deum of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) frames a devotional C minor segment with joyful outer movements in the parallel major. Flummerfelt conjured up Haydn's rousing martial quality for the outer movements and coaxed reverential quality for the middle portion. Choral diction and balances were superb throughout the concert.
The Nänie of Johannes Brahms (1833-97), composed in 1881, commemorates the passing of the composer's friend Anselm Feurbach, a painter. Flummerfelt expertly welded the bittersweet and mournful choral part to the rich and warm orchestral sound.
The Mass in C, Op. 86, of Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) was given a stirring and vital performance by the full chorus and orchestra. The fine vocal soloists, drawn from the two festival opera productions, were soprano Jennifer Check, mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy, tenor Raúl Melo, and bass-baritone Stephen Morscheck.
June 4, 2008: The program for Intermezzo IV, presented in St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, was unannounced until the performance. It featured bass-baritone Gregg Baker and soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, both prominent stars of the revised production of Anthony Davis' Amistad. They were superbly accompanied by Michael Baitzer, piano. A full house warmly responded to the news they would present a concert of show songs by George Gershwin together with hits from Porgy and Bess. Among the songs were "Someone to watch over me," "Embraceable you," "The man I love," "Bla-bla-bla," "Love is here to stay," and "'S'wonderful." Baitzer credited Baker with a true (posthumous) Gershwin rarity, "Forever you, forever me, forevermore," used in the 1947 film, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim.
The solos and duets from Porgy and Bess were "Summertime," "A woman is a sometime thing," "I loves you Porgy," "My man is gone," "I got plenty o' nuttin," and "Bess, you is my woman now."
It was delightful to hear such firm-voiced opera singers deliver show tunes with such idiomatic ease. Bridge lines were given, leading into the songs or arias. The soloists were vividly in character as they sang or as they reacted to their singing colleague while sitting nearby. Stage experience accounted for the depth of the Porgy performances. Williams' wrenching "My man is gone" was heartbreaking, and her finish was tearful. Baker has enormous stage presence combined with a powerful and warm-toned voice. His Porgy is complex and sympathetic. I imagine he would be a terrifying Crown!
Over the years, I have been frequently asked one question about the Spoleto Festival: Why don't they do Porgy and Bess? This brilliant performance of an all-Gershwin program and the presence of so many fine African-American singers in Amistad bring this to mind. It would be a box office hit and could be a major artistic success as well.
June 5, 2008: Conductor Emmanuel Villaume chose two colorful orchestral scores, sandwiching a challenging twentieth century piano concerto, for the second orchestral concert of the festival, given in Gaillard Municipal Auditorium. In the early years of the festival, major orchestras visited, playing "safe and well-worn" repertory. Believe me, the enthusiasm of the festivals' young musicians, undimmed by years of daily routine, make the playing of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra more welcome than that of most big-name orchestras.
The eager musicians responded instantly to every refinement of orchestral timbre for which Villaume asked, creating a stirring and vivid interpretation of La Mer by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). The shimmering kaleidoscope of instrumental sounds surged, evoking the buildup of ocean waves.
This was the seventh festival appearance of California-born pianist Andrew van Oeyen, one of Villaume's favorite soloists. CVNC reviewed his January 11, 2008, performance as part of Villaume's guest appearance with the NC Symphony. Béla Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G (premiered in 1933) is not as technically challenging as the First Piano Concerto or as listener-friendly as the Third Piano Concerto. The first movement omits strings and is therefore dominated by winds, brass, and percussion. Eerie, muted strings are heard in the slow movement. Winds and percussion burst into this movement, forming a scherzo. The full orchestra joins for the last movement. Van Oeyen lacked neither agility nor power as he mastered every challenge of the work.
Villaume led a vivid performance of the 1919 edition of the Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). The five selections whetted the appetite for a playing the full score at some further date.