At first blush, this year’s festival reveals just how sweet Spoleto is on its artists. When you perform in Charleston, it seems to say, our home is your home. For starters, last Monday the festival rolled out — or rather rolled in — a shiny new, donor-funded six-figure Steinway Hamburg “Model D” grand concert piano, the hands-down winner of the nine contenders tried out by Spoleto pianist Pedja Muzijevic. To do so, the pianist traveled to Hamburg with Festival General Director Nigel Redden and David Vail of Steinway Piano Gallery Charleston.
“It was surprising to me how much of a difference I could hear,” says Redden, while ruefully bidding farewell to the present Steinway & Sons grand piano, which, after 900 chamber concerts and more, had endured “a life of vicissitudes” — including surviving a Gaillard roof collapse, an unsanctioned shellacking of the keys, and a calamitous fall. For Redden, the acquisition does far more than make a joyful noise. “It is affirmation to the artists that we care about their performance.”
And on Thursday, the festival’s annual poster unveiling served as an artistic homecoming for artist Charles Gaines, a Charleston native whose work has shown at venerable spaces like The Whitney Museum American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. The 1988 work featured on the poster, Numbers and Trees IV, Tree 3, Spike
, features a tree on a grid that Redden connects with the blossoming each year of the festival in the city. It is the artists, he seems to say, that lend the vibrancy to the city. That vibrant tree gains all the more resonance with Gaines' homegrown roots.
For me, this artist-centricity hit home at Friday’s sixth annual Mary Ramsay Civic Award Luncheon. This year, at a merry yellow garden party at The Governor Thomas Bennett House, the festival celebrated Evelyn (Patti) and Joseph H. (Peter) McGee, whose civic contributions are legion and longstanding. At the behest of Mary Ramsay, the McGees nurtured the fledgling American go at the famed Italian festival in its crucial formative days. Gian Carlo Menotti asked them to host chamber music concert receptions in their Church Street garden neighboring the Dock Street Theatre. They did so for 16 years hence, throughout the 17-day run of the festival. “It was perhaps the most personal kind of philanthropy that one can offer,” says Redden.
Enlisting their teenage daughters, Madeleine and Evie, along with a cadre of friends, the McGees served up cheese biscuits and other Charleston staples to a revolving garden door of artists and arts enthusiasts of every stripe and stature. Evelyn McGee-Colbert, who was 14 at the time, also recalls The Today Show
using their home as a green room, where she passed biscuits to Tennessee Williams and Strom Thurmond. The garden spilled over with the likes of a baby-faced Joshua Bell and an emerging Yo-Yo Ma. (At the luncheon, Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley, Yo-Yo Ma, and Joshua Bell, among many others, sent videotaped messages of congrats to the McGees). For McGee-Colbert, this close range to working artists opened a new world, one where professional artists make a living by doing what they love to do most. As co-founder of the Montclair Film Festival
, those days inform her still. “An arts festival is only successful if it nurtures its artists,” she says. “To further their creative process, you need to make a home for them.”
So weeks before the banners rise up, the sets load in, and the artists splash that vibrancy, the connective tissue of Spoleto USA 2017 begins to reveal itself. At its best, an arts festival is a vital interplay between its artists and its community. That’s certainly hard-wired with ours. In 1977, the Spoleto Festival found its footing in a Charleston that was far quieter but no less grand. At the luncheon, flutist Paula Robison, former co-director of the chamber music concerts, likened the city in those days to a beautiful woman not yet dressed for the ball. Menotti’s vision was fueled by the civic scrap and tenacity of Mayor Joe Riley and the blind faith and warm embrace of Charlestonians like the Ramsays and the McGees. And that ball has been rolling with ever-accelerating momentum since.
When I was living in Dublin in 2003, I met an actor at a dinner party, who excitedly shared that he was heading to the festival with a role in The Gate Theatre’s Pride and Prejudice
. Most every Dublin actor, he told me, keenly vied for a spot in a Spoleto-bound show, as those who did so always returned home raving about their royal treatment in the city. Thus far, the 2017 churnings bode well for artists and audiences alike. It does so by investing time, talent and resources in the creative process — and by honoring the open home and outsize heart of Peter and Patti McGee, who set a tone that, 40 years hence, continues to set the stage. As we amp up for this year’s festival, I urge you to approach the coming festival with the same enthusiasm and individual commitment. You’ll not only be personally gratified by doing so, but you’ll contribute to the making of great art.
Spoleto Festival USA 2017 is hereby tuning up. The past week sounded a few stirring strains of the arts immersion to come, by way of events and announcements that the Spoleto savvy have come to heed as a heads-up. It’s time to nab the hot seats, brush up on performer buzz, secure a showstopper of a wide-brim hat, and start sleuthing out the over-the-top opening night do.