Festival soars with its music programming, flops on most everything else 

Wrapping up Spoleto

This year's heralded production of Oedipus didn't quite live up to the hype

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This year's heralded production of Oedipus didn't quite live up to the hype

When I used to regularly travel around the state to cover the arts, people in the places I was visiting would say, "We wish you were here writing about the arts all the time." That was nice of them.

I'd reply, "You wouldn't want me around all the time examining every single thing you do. That's what I do in Columbia and they don't think I'm so wonderful." I'd remind them that I had come to their fair city (usually Charleston or Greenville) to see an important exhibition, performance, or festival that wouldn't waste my time or that of my readers, who were mostly in Columbia.

For the past couple of weeks I played a local at the Spoleto Festival USA, going to not only what promised to be biggest and best, but nearly everything (and a few Piccolo events.) What I learned is that the festivals' music is even better than I thought and that in other areas it wasn't such a great festival.

Yes, Spoleto is primarily a music festival, but we've come to depend on it for the most exciting and challenging and crazy dance and theater, too. And it let us down.

My verdict on theater and dance wasn't affected much by spending the entire festival in Charleston instead of just taking in two long weekends, as I have since 1990. I'd have seen most of the plays: the wonderful Mayday, Mayday; the good, but not great Oedipus; and the mess that was A Midsummer Night's Dream. I might have avoided the amateurish Bullet Catch and the not-quite-theater-not-quite-dance-not-very-good The Better Half by Lucky Plush, and the train wreck of multimedia and universal dimensions that was Intergalactic Nemesis. Ballet Flamenco, the Indian dancer Shantala Shivalingappa, and the Brazilian urban dance of Compagnie Käfig were good, but didn't feel that special. I might have skipped Le Grand C by the acrobatic team Compagnie XY, which was a heck of a lot more than acrobatics and one of the best things I saw. I would have missed the superb local productions Clybourne Park and Venus in Fur.

I also would have missed some incredible music.

I'm sure there was something wrong with some of the 11 chamber music concerts I attended, but I didn't notice. I heard a few amazing performances, including the entire third concert, a weirdly perfect mash up of Bottesini, John Cage, and Chausson; a string quartet by Schubert with the Brentano Quartet and cellist Alisa Weilerstein; a scattering of delightful duos; and a new work by Samuel Adams for the St. Lawrence Quartet. OK, I wasn't crazy about the Bruch octet the audience gave a standing ovation.

Chamber music organizer and host Geoff Nuttall gets credit for his creative picks of programs and players and his insightful and amusing introductions.

The Music in Time contemporary concerts have always been a priority for me and this was an exceptionally good year, especially with concerts spotlighting individuals and small groups from the festival orchestra. The second Intermezzo concert, with several 20th century works, felt like part of Music in Time too.

Both the festival orchestra concerts were incredible, powerful, and perfectly played. The concerts often include warhorses that the festival orchestra resuscitates, but this year we got amazing Bartók, a tiny Ravel, and a huge John Adams.

The operas were big hits. While I found the staging confusing for Matzukaze, the new opera by Toshio Hosokawa, the music was astounding and most who saw it liked it. Everyone I talked to loved the double bill of Mese Mariano and Le Villi and so did I — beautiful music, amazing singing and acting, stunning staging.

Verdi's Requiem, with an orchestra and choir of 226 conducted by Joseph Flummerfelt in his last job before retiring, was an uplifting (not to say perfect) performance that turned the TD Arena into a sacred space.

With the Gaillard Auditorium being rebuilt, TD filled in adequately. It was really too big for the Brazilian dance group Compagnie Käfig (which they overcame), but worked fine for Requiem, Ballet Flamenco, Punch Brothers, and Rosanne Cash. Punch Brothers were amazing as always, but I found Cash's renderings of well-known songs, including her own, misguided. Johnnyswim was adorable and limited.

I stick to my guns in saying that the pop-oriented groups are not well integrated into the festival and aren't unique enough. A couple of cases in point: The day after J.D. McPherson performed at the festival, he played at a bar a mile from my house in Columbia. This doesn't mean he isn't good, and probably the only reason he played Columbia is because of the Spoleto gigs. Chris Thile of Punch Brothers is playing with Yo-Yo Ma at Tanglewood in Massachusetts this summer — why can't he play with the St. Lawrence Quartet or the Spoleto Festival Orchestra in Charleston?

The few Piccolo music events I attended ranged from magnificent surprises (Charleston Chamber Opera) to good to strictly local. Piccolo is problematic, as it long has been. Most of the city's efforts go into classical concerts with other events handled by outside coordinators and individual venues, sometimes well, often badly (especially the visual arts.)

Visual art isn't a priority for either festival. Exhibitions at the Gibbes Museum (The Spoleto Watercolors of Stephen Mueller and Carl Palazzolo) and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art (Rebound: Dissections and Excavations in Book Art) were listed as part of the festival, but they're really independent and get no funding from the festival, although being under the Spoleto umbrella probably doesn't hurt. And it doesn't hurt Spoleto to say a world-class exhibition like Rebound is part of its program.

Now I'll go out on a limb and make a few stabs at what went wrong with Spoleto.

Putting it together is sometimes a crap shoot. The festival had to sign on to Midsummer before it opened at the Bristol Old Vic theater across the pond — where it received almost unanimously bad reviews — but that's only one show.

Near the festival end I ran into Nunnally Kersh, the Spoleto festival producer who came along with Nigel Redden when he returned as general director in 1996. She was especially good at ferreting out off-beat and smaller dance and theater. She left just before the 2012 festival and has not been replaced.

"You are very badly missed," I told her. Then Redden walked up so I shut up.

Kersh's picks weren't flawless, but I can't recall a year since she arrived when theater and dance were so uninspired. There needs to be another body, with a really good mind, in the festival leadership to keep up the level of theater and dance. Maybe this person, in conjunction with other leadership, can also figure out a solution to the pop/ jazz/ Americana/ blues disconnect.

Now the festival hasn't had a director of orchestral and opera since Emmanuel Villaume left two years back and wasn't replaced. But John Kennedy, who has been with the festival in some capacity for two decades and is now resident conductor and orchestral activities director, was already handling many details. He, Nuttall, and new(ish) Westminster Choir director Joe Miller have reinvigorated the festival's music offerings.

While the music achieves excellence, it isn't doing so hot on engagement. The concerts, even those with lots of new music, are filled with people who are even older than I. Tickets aren't cheap, but at $25 to $45 are reasonable; it just doesn't feel like anyone is trying to sell them to younger people. Most people between 25 and 55 have jobs, which makes an 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. chamber concert unworkable (only six of the 17 are on weekends). During the past couple of years a Music in Time concert has been moved to Sunday afternoon, making those concerts more accessible (the Sunday concert this year was packed) and one took place at 9 p.m. rather than 5 p.m., but the latter wasn't one of the more interesting and there was no big push to sell it. Logistically, it would be a headache, but I think the non-traditional classical music audience needs some concerts outside the concert hall. I don't expect the St. Lawrence Quartet to perform at the Blind Tiger, but wouldn't it be cool to hear orchestra members play at Redux?

I'm not a kid any longer, but I'd been encouraged in recent years by the excitement among young people for things like Addicted to Bad Ideas, Taylor Mac, and 1927, even when I thought their taste sucked. Things like Midsummer and Intergalactic would have been the hot tickets, but even the inexperienced recognized that those sucked.

If Spoleto was a music festival, then 2013 was a huge success among a too limited audience. But if the festival insists on calling itself a performing arts festival, it was a flop. Let's hope it's a wake-up call as well.


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