Spoleto celebrates 40 years in style with a massive anniversary concert 

The BIG 4-0

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Julia Lynn

A 40-year run is pretty impressive for anything, so the Spoleto Festival USA's General Director Nigel Redden knew that the 40th anniversary edition of the festival was going to be big. What he didn't know was that the newly improved and refurbished Gaillard Center would be finished and open to the public by the time the 2016 edition of the festival rolled around. Those two factors were important when the festival began creating the program for their 40th Season Celebration Concert.

"We've talked about this year's program for quite some time," Redden says. "But we hadn't expected to have the 40th anniversary coincide with the opening of the Galliard. And when it became clear that it would, we thought we should celebrate in some special way."

So for this concert, Spoleto has pulled out all the stops. The show will feature the full Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, the Westminster Choir, and musicians from the Bank of America Chamber Music and Wells Fargo Jazz series, among other guests. Opening with the overture to Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades" — performed at the inaugural opera in 1977 — the program includes works by composer and Festival Founder Gian Carlo Menotti; Haydn's "Sinfonia Concertante," performed by Chamber Music Director Geoff Nuttall and his roster of musicians; selections from choral and operatic performances by the Westminster Choir; and the premiere of "Blessing the Boats," a new work by Resident Conductor and Director of Orchestral Activities John Kennedy.

The program will be conducted by former Festival Music Director Steven Sloane, while former Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., whose enthusiasm for Spoleto Festival USA helped make it a reality in Charleston, will narrate.

"We wanted to celebrate how Joe Riley has been such a presence and a force for the festival over the last four decades," Redden says. "While he's no longer the mayor, he was the mayor for 39 of our 40 festivals. And we wouldn't be here were it not for him. So we asked him to be the MC for the evening. We also wanted to celebrate the history of the festival in a variety of different ways. We didn't want it to be completely about the stars. We wanted it to be a celebration where the festival itself would be the star. It's about specific productions that many of us remember or were a part of that have lived on in people's memories, but at the same time it would be equally attractive to people who don't necessarily know that that is our past."

Kennedy's piece looks at a darker moment in the city's past, however. "It became an elegy for Charleston and an elegy for what happened on June 17 of last year at Emanuel AME Church," Redden says. "We don't want it to be a downer, as it were, but we also want to remember Ethel Lance, who was killed that night. She worked at the Gaillard for many, many years, so a lot of us knew her. There's a very personal aspect to that horrible night for us. But we wanted to remember what happened after that night. It became a moment of grace, a moment of this community being very different from other communities, the fact that we're tied together in a way that's pretty singular and wonderful."

Bringing the city's history into the 40th anniversary concert wasn't a minor concern for Spoleto. "I think that in one moment in Spoleto's history, it might've been moved to Savannah or somewhere else, but of course it can't be moved," Redden says. "This is a festival that has Charleston in its DNA. What we've learned to do is explore Charleston's history. It's been an inspiration for the festival, and I hope the festival has been an inspiration to Charleston. This is a city that's wonderfully rich in history."

Ultimately, though, Redden keeps coming back to the new Gaillard Center when talking about the concert program. "It's been absolutely key," he says. "We would've had a very different program if the Gaillard Center had not been open. It has repercussions throughout the entire program. There were ways we wanted to celebrate that particular theatre. So that part of the concert we will be able to listen to the acoustics of the space, which are absolutely terrific. We want to relive some moments that were particularly central at various times in the old Galliard, beginning with the Tchaikovsky piece, the overture of 'Queen of Spades,' which opened the festival in 1977. These are all productions that were very significant to people who remember the triumphs that happened in the old Gaillard."

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