Conductor Steven Sloane has spent 25 years with Spoleto and spared nothing from the one-night-only Spoleto 40th Season Celebration Concert. From his engaging and impressive conducting to the captivating performances he led, he made the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, Bank of America Chamber Music, Wells Fargo Jazz Series, and friends shine. The Gaillard Center acoustics were in full display, beginning with "Overture from The Queen of Spades," an acclaimed opera by Tchaikovsky, and the very first Spoleto performance back in 1977. This cinematic rendition served as a true preface to the night.
Former Mayor Joe Riley, who served from 1975 to 2016, was the fitting host of the evening, since he played a tremendous role in Spoleto since his inauguration. Riley talked about past performances and the influence of arts on the Charleston community past, present, and future. He also talked about the core tenants that hold Spoleto together: the passion to support, explore, invent, create, and achieve. At the end of his introductory speech, he asked the audience to close their eyes and imagine being lifted up on a magic carpet, leaving the future open and an exciting night of adventure ahead.
"Michele’s Aria from The Saint of Bleecker Street" by Gian Carlo Menotti was the second performance of the evening, featuring theatrical tenor Victor Ryan Robertson, who enthralled the audience with his passionate facial expressions and motions. "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Salome by Strauss was soft and mysterious, featuring chimes and interesting percussion, including some mystical cymbals. The oboe was the star of the show, however.
The first act of Part II was "Song to the Moon" from Rusalka by Antonin Dvorak, featuring soprano Jennifer Check. This emotional ballad drew the audience in, especially with Check’s stunning voice, which soared and then receded as her trembling hand reached out toward the crowd to end the performance with unbridled emotion.
“Hymn to the Eternal Flame” by Stephen Paulus was undeniably the most moving performance of the evening. The acclaimed Westminster Choir from Princeton, N.J., with Joe Miller as conductor, appeared like angels at the top left and right balconies, surrounding from above and cloaking the audience with a breathtaking hymn that gave me chills. The surprise appearance in the balconies was a stunning effect that was only accentuated through the range of haunting vocals that soared and echoed off the ceiling in an awe-inspiring display.
"Sinfonia Concertante" by Haydn was one of the most poignant moments of the night as well. Laced with the humor and talent of violinist Geoff Nuttall, he was joined by James Austin Smith on oboe, Peter Kolkay on bassoon, and Christopher Costanzo on cello in a chamber choir setting. This performance was quite entertaining with Nuttall’s quips and theatrics, but also notable for the impressive instrumentals that were still amazing in the smaller setting.
Part III began with “Rome and Alba” and “Dwell where the Dogs Dwell” from Surrogate Cities by Heiner Goebbels. Also Rene Marie made a surprise entrance and gave me tingles with her soulful, jazz vocals that paired powerfully with the standout bass, percussion, and horn sections. Marie got a standing ovation for this one. Following was the Flower Duet by Leo Delibes, featuring Jennifer Check again, along with mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy. Their harmonious performance was touching and complimentary, and the song ended with an instrumental segment during which the two vocalists walked to the back of the stage to sing a final note. It was something I had never seen before or expected.
"Blessing the Boats" with the Westminster Choir was a world premiere performance by John Kennedy, who has been a huge part of the Spoleto Festival for 33 years. The moving composition was dedicated to Mayor Riley, and the commissioned piece included a stunning recreation of the sounds of water and church bells, ending with an innovative reproduction of seagull calls from the string section.
Part IV was noted by a full-length performance of "Firebird Suite" by Stravinsky, which took the listeners through a variety of emotions and atmospheres, from a dark corner to a vibrant meadow, before drifting into a soft trance and then exploding into a terrifying frenzy before ending in absolute joy. At this point, the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra and all the other performers from the evening received a standing ovation before joining in together for a final performance or “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” from La traviata by Verdi. The moment was heartwarming and ended the evening on an uplifting note. The well-produced display was rousing, energetic, emotional, and impressive, leaving an excitement for Spoleto events to come.