Thursday, July 17, 2014

Charleston Garden Featured on HGTV Website

Home and Garden Madness

Posted by Ashley Sprouse on Thu, Jul 17, 2014 at 1:24 PM

We personally don’t have much of a green thumb — we can’t even keep our artificial plants alive. But luckily here in Charleston we can visually reap the benefits of those more blessed than us, like Patti McGee, a founding member of the Charleston Horticultural Society. McGee’s shade garden is featured on HGTV Gardens site this week. (McGees’ garden is considered a shade garden because it does not receive a lot of direct sunlight throughout the day and is primarily for ornamental purposes instead of for growing produce.)

McGee showed her garden around to editor Felicia Feaster during her visit for the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Directory garden tours during Spoleto. Feaster received a private tour of the gardens with Charleston Horticultural Society Executive Director Kyle Barnette and Charleston Horticultural Society tours manager Susan Epstein and is now sharing photos that she took with home and garden enthusiasts throughout the world. In her slideshow, Feaster notes the garden’s aesthetically pleasing touches from a whimsical tree that appears to have a face to small water ponds that create a tranquil space. See for yourself at

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Monday, June 9, 2014

Strong Finishes for Intermezzi and Music in Time Series

Trumpeting the end

Posted by Lindsay Koob on Mon, Jun 9, 2014 at 10:02 AM

Two of Spoleto USA’s signature music series — Intermezzi and Music in Time — finished up this week with classy and memorable events that fully upheld the lofty standards we’ve come to expect from them. Sadly, the events reminded me that this year’s festival is over, leaving us with a mental treasure-trove that (after I’ve recovered from my usual case of “festival fatigue”) will soon have me counting the days until next year’s festival.

Monday’s Intermezzi III event was a very different sort of vocal affair. German composer Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden, a melodrama for piano and speaker on a narrative poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Doing the performance honors were distinguished actor Stephen Brennan of this year’s acclaimed Spoleto run of Daphne du Maurier’s play My Cousin Rachel. At the Steinway was Lydia Brown, a Spoleto veteran who is a highly esteemed modern music specialist. I’ve often marveled at her playing.

Tennyson’s classic narrative poem tells the emotionally charged story of the title character, a happily married fisherman forced by financial problems to take employment as a merchant seaman. Shipwrecked and stranded on a desert island for 10 years, he finally returns home, only to find that his beloved wife, believing him dead, has married his childhood friend and borne his child. Enoch resolves never to disrupt her happiness by telling her that he is alive, and his sacrifice emerges only after his death.

Brennan rendered a vocally powerful and touching reading of the poem, with bits of his native Irish brogue apparent. Brown delivered the carefully crafted piano part expertly, enhancing the poetry’s considerable dramatic and emotional impact throughout. It smacked strongly of “the German Strauss,” with plenty of his hallmark harmonics and stylistic devices. The only problem was that the concert grand piano’s lid was fully raised — and, despite Brennan’s vocal strength, the music’s louder dramatic passages drowned out his words several times. I was driven to look up the poem and read it for myself after I got home. Still, it was quite a worthwhile experience and I’m glad I had my hanky handy to dab a tear or two away.

Tuesday’s final Intermezzi III program was a vocal offering of a more conventional sort, being the series’ traditional recital showcasing singers from the festival’s opera productions performing a mix of arias, art songs, and cherished popular standards. This particular concert’s repertoire, however, was unusual in that it came almost exclusively from living composers. Of the two featured singers, only soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird (a Spoleto veteran) had a lead role in one of this year’s operas, namely Facing Goya. Baritone Matthew Burns was apparently brought in just for this Intermezzi appearance. Accomplished pianist Keun-A Lee presided at the Steinway.

The artists took turns performing sets of solo numbers, but emerged together at the end to deliver some choice duets. While there were a few serious moments among the pieces offered, the bulk of them were blatantly humorous — even downright hilarious, something of a departure from the old art song tradition. For example, in Tom Cipullo’s “Another reason I keep a gun in the house,” Bird produced some actual barking noises as she complained furiously about a neighbor’s exasperatingly noisy dog.

Burns, in a deranged ditty by Gabriel Kahane (“Opera Scene,” from Craigslistlieder), sang of a strange compulsion to drop ice cubes down people’s shirts and proceeded to whip out a baggie full of them and slip one down down the back of accompanist Lee’s dress as the song ended. She was a good sport about it, and contributed vocally to several numbers as well. In “Marriage Tango,” one of their duets, the couple acted out the actual dance, while singing salaciously about getting it on after the kids go to bed. It had everybody laughing (and a few grannies blushing). Other choice songs in the program came from composers Libby Larsen, William Bolcom, and Ned Rorem, among others. Mayhaps more people would listen to contemporary composers if they knew how downright funny they can sometimes be.

At Thursday’s final MIT program, John Kennedy spoke of “festival fatigue” and the “melancholy of farewell” as Spoleto 2014 winds down. Then came four choice works, all by contemporary composers. Two of them were by Louis Andriessen, whose “The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven” opened the Spoleto Festival Orchestra’s (SFO) big “Beethoven Transformed” concert. His brief Shared Memory, for violin and oboe, came across as a bittersweet lament, embodying the forlorn feeling many of us get whenever Spoleto goes away. By the way, all the evening’s instrumental honors were done by incredibly accomplished SFO members — big, fat kudos to all of them.

Clarinetist-composer extraordinaire Gleb Kanasevich’s Installazion/Moduli/Versi was up next, a rather strange but engaging piece for cello and piano. Both musicians delivered simple figurations and textures that included natural diatonic dissonances, some of which gained an additional sense of edgy and chilling discord when the cellist intentionally played long, drawn-out notes that were ever so slightly off-pitch … Brrr! We then heard György Kurtág’s Hommage à R. Schumann, a highly expressive piece for clarinet, viola, and piano that consisted of five very brief dance-like episodes preceding a protracted final movement that again expressed the bereft emotions of farewell.

The concert and the series came to a resounding close with the second Andriessen piece and it was nothing like his poignant first piece. The English title is Perseverance, and the raucous music certainly lived up to that. Scored for piano with three trumpets, three trombones, and three saxophones, the ensemble — in distinctly minimalist fashion — made a LOT of noise. Dynamics were mostly restricted to various levels of LOUD, with individual instruments or sections coming in at random intervals, such that the piece never sounded quite the same twice. Just getting through the piece’s duration of around 20 minutes was a true feat of endurance (especially on the part of the brasses), hence the title. Several players were looking exhausted, or even in pain, by the time it ended. And it was quite the interactive experience, as (per the composer’s specific instructions) the audience was encouraged to cheer the musicians on as they played. And cheer them on we did, with loud bravos, whistles, and clapping, as well as yelling things like “GO, you trumpets!” or “You can DO it!”

We all had a real blast. What a way to end a program.

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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Chamber finale pays tribute to clarinetist Todd Palmer

Charming chamber confections

Posted by Lindsay Koob on Sun, Jun 8, 2014 at 6:16 PM

Saturday’s Chamber XI program offered yet another choice array of chamber delights, emphasizing works that feature clarinet. The reason for that was that the concert was planned as a tribute to Todd Palmer in celebration of his 20 years of distinguished service as resident clarinet virtuoso in Spoleto’s vaunted Chamber Music series. Having covered much of this series for 15 years now, I recall no edition of the festival when Todd wasn’t there to delight our collective ears with charming chamber confections for his instrument, as well as some of the greatest works ever created in the chamber genre. And this program gave us marvelous examples of both.

Chamber series director Geoff Nuttall - JULIA LYNN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Julia Lynn Photography
  • Chamber series director Geoff Nuttall
But before I get to those, let me make brief mention of the other selections we were treated to. First up was Richard Strauss’ glowing single-movement string sextet that begins his opera Capriccio, serving as a sort of prelude to the stage action. As series director Geoff Nuttall told us, it’s essentially a work of autumnal nature, expressing bittersweet sentiments. But I also picked up on episodes of melodrama, excitement, melancholia, and tender romance. Delivering it to perfection was Nuttal’s St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ), reinforced by the viola-cello family team of Gabriela and Andrés Diaz. The program’s third selection was a perky rendition of Johannes Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1 for piano four hands, delivered in perky and virtuosic fashion by series regulars Stephen Prutsman and Pedja Musijevic.

Between those pieces came Palmer’s first chance to shine, in opera master Gioachino Rossini’s mostly bright and bubbly Introduction, Theme, and Variations for Clarinet and Orchestra. Composed when Rossini was only 18, this showpiece is a kind of “coloratura aria” for clarinet in the Bel Canto style of his day. The work — presented here in Todd’s own arrangement for 10 supporting chamber players instead of an orchestra — was every bit as delightful as the original. Todd got to strut his virtuoso stuff repeatedly in the piece’s five variations: glittering runs, scampering arpeggios, fearsome leaps, and staccato execution. And that’s not all. We got passages of surpassing sweetness and ardent sentiment, too. There’s hardly a clarinet trick in the book that was missing here, and Todd more than mastered every last one of them. For fear of filling up another paragraph, I won’t list all of the 10 other players; suffice it to say that all of them were supremely accomplished series regulars.

Finishing the program in profound and heavenly fashion was one of the all-time smash hits of the entire chamber music repertoire: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s deep and radiant Clarinet Quintet in A Major. It was inspired by (and written for) Anton Stadler, who was probably the greatest living clarinetist of his era. This and Mozart’s marvelous Clarinet Concerto (also written for Stadler) are among his final works; they stand among the Austrian master’s greatest masterpieces in any genre.

I’ve heard this one at Spoleto (also from Todd) before, back in 2009. In the middle of the second movement, his instrument’s single reed broke (an occupational hazard), bringing the performance to a halt while he replaced it. No such bad luck today; the piece came off with nary a hitch. Todd and the SLSQ, his trusty collaborators, took their fortunate Dock Street audience on one of the most blissful and enchanting musical rides to be found in Mozart’s rich cornucopia of amazing music.

I can’t think of a better way to bring the 2014 edition of Spoleto USA to a happy close. Speaking for all of Charleston’s chamber music nuts (and countless Spoleto-goers): Thank you, Todd, for all of the unforgettable musical blessings you have brought us over the years. We love you dearly. Here’s hoping that you will continue to grace our cherished festival for many more years to come.  

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Friday, June 6, 2014

A look at last weekend's Music in Time Chamber Series

Time Out

Posted by Lindsay Koob on Fri, Jun 6, 2014 at 3:58 PM

With Spoleto 2014 now reaching its end, it’s time to catch you up on the smaller-scale classical events of the festival’s regular series. I caught three such concerts over last weekend: two outings of the ever-adventurous Music in Time (MIT) series, and one spiffy chamber event.

Let’s begin with last Friday’s MIT II concert, held, as usual, at the College of Charleston’s Simons Center Recital Hall. You may recall from my review of the series opener the advice I got from director John Kennedy that, of MIT’s four events, this was the one not to miss. It offered a single extended work by notable Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen entitled Schnee (German for snow), skillfully delivered by an ensemble of nine instrumentalists drawn from the formidable Spoleto Festival Orchestra.
We heard 10 varied “Canon” movements, with three short “Intermezzo” passages scattered in between. As the first few movements unfolded, I struggled to follow the pieces’ contrapuntal canonic structures. But the music’s lack of discernible tonic references made this nearly impossible, even for a musician like me. So I soon gave up on trying to analyze what was going on, sat back, and let it all simply wash over me — and that’s when the music’s bleak and icy tonal textures began to speak to me.

Snow? Behind closed eyelids, I “heard” it, and in just about every conceivable way one can experience that wintry phenomenon. My mind’s ear suggested gentle snow flurries, swirling eddies of snowflakes, wind-driven blizzards, and even pristine snow-covered landscapes glistening in the moonlight. I further witnessed frozen cascades of dangling, shattering icicles. Despite Charleston’s summery temps, I felt like I was about to shiver in the sonic cold. It was totally, unforgettably magical. If you weren’t there, I’m sorry.

Saturday’s Chamber series outing at the Dock Street Theatre (program No. 6 of 11) was a fascinating mix of old and not-so-old music. BTW, pardon me for not listing all the musicians in this concert; it would make for yet another paragraph.
The oldest work was a virtuosic partita for strings and continuo by Heinrich von Biber (with a bunch of middle names thrown in). He’s a largely neglected early Baroque master who experimented with “scordatura,” or alternative tuning methods. The piece was an exhilarating suite of perky short dances followed by a longer final movement; the unusual tuning scheme made it sound a little “off” harmonically, but that didn’t keep the crowd from enjoying it thoroughly.

Next up was a pair of lovely art songs by German romantic master Johannes Brahms for alto soloist, viola, and piano that demonstrated the composer’s penchant for warm lower sonorities. Mezzo Charlotte Hellekant’s rich and glowing voice made something truly special of them. On to the 20th Century with Czech master Bohuslav Martinu’s Serenade No. 3 for seven varied instruments that turned out to be quite a saucy and charming piece, full of bouncy good spirits and profuse touches of humor. The crowd loved it.

Bringing the program to a resounding close was a true rarity by 20th-Century English icon Ralph Vaughan Williams: his almost unknown Piano Quintet in C minor, an early work that he withdrew from publication. It turned out that this lush, beautiful, and highly romantic work was very much at odds with the often pastoral, folk-based style that the composer later adopted. From the audience’s reaction, it was obvious that everybody was glad this piece was rediscovered after the Williams’s death.
My weekend odyssey ended with Sunday’s MIT III program, an astonishing array of mostly contemporary works for either mixed percussion or solo piano. Delivering the musical goods were two of the same fabulous artists who made the opening MIT I program memorable, percussionist George Nickson and pianist Conor Hanick.

Nickson wowed the crowd with two real workouts involving arrays of up to about 25 different single-percussion instruments that took up considerable stage space. The first, Nico Muhly’s It’s about Time, offered a smorgasbord of varied sounds based on common harmonies developed in a theme-and-variations format. The second was Janissary Music, a particularly virtuosic number by Charles Wuorinen that was universally declared as “unplayable” when it was created in 1966. But that was before Nickson came along to make the first-ever recording of it nearly half a century after it was written. It was an absolutely spectacular piece, calling for almost as much athletic as musical ability, with Nickson moving almost faster than the eye could follow to get all the notes and mallet-strikes in.

In between, Hanick delivered the world premiere of Whose Fingers Brush the Sky, a brand-new piece (completed just weeks ago) by David Fulmer. With its profuse application of the sustain pedal, the work seemed to be as much about the lingering overtones and resonances between notes as it was about the notes themselves. He later delivered Tristan Murail’s Territoires de l’oubli, in which sonic textures and effects (echoes, musically sympathetic vibrations, etc.) are (again) often more important than the original notes themselves.

Late additions to the program were two pieces (The White-browed Robin and The Polyglot Mockingbird) by the French mystic Olivier Messiaen, much of whose music had to do with birdcalls. In both pieces, striking evocations of varied birdsong are heard, usually amid lingering resonances from various other parts of the keyboard. The second piece was particularly impressive, with what the pianist described as “avian insanity” prevailing. Amazing stuff! 

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The Streets of Spoleto

Random quotes from the week that was

Posted by Jon Santiago on Fri, Jun 6, 2014 at 2:02 PM

Impromptu BFF fashion shoot - JON SANTIAGO
  • Jon Santiago
  • Impromptu BFF fashion shoot

Part of the fun of the Festival is the way is spreads out in all directions. Like springtime itself, it livens up everything, including those bits of conversation you happen to catch in passing. A representative sampling, verbatim:

It’s tough all over
Man: (sadly shaking his head) "I'm going to have to raise the price of my pizza eight cents each to get all my employees health insurance."

Mis-underestimated, much?
Young woman to her date: "Oh, I'm on hydrocodone. It makes me kinda sleepy. But I'm getting used to it. Wait. What did you say?"

Art appreciation
He: No. On the Francis Marion. Andre the Giant. What's the story behind that?
She: Some artist...

Aren’t we all?
She: (giddily) That's my church! (points to St Matthews Lutheran just up the street on King)
He: That? It's all covered up in tarp!
She: (stops in her tracks, fixes on him with a stare, in disbelief) But it's so beautiful ... underneath.

Some jokes? Better off keeping 'em to yourself.
Middle aged man telling his double-date companions a joke: "They told me the South will rise again. And I said, 'Well, if it does, all the..." (the remainder of this sentence drowned out by the sound of Tommy Hilfiger boat shoes and Gucci loafers pounding the pavement toward him)
Man with a bicycle greets man on the sidewalk
Bicycle Man: As-Salaam-Alaikum, brother.
(met with a blank stare)
You're not Muslim?
Sidewalk Man: (watching intently for the "walk" signal to blink on, shakes his head) No.
Bicycle Man: You look Muslim. (shrugs) I'm trying to raise money for the homeless shelter. Could you...

Heard a good snippet of Spoleto conversation? Share it in the Comments below.

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