Spoleto's going for less craziness and more greatness 

Smaller Risks, Bigger Rewards

click to enlarge City Lights  was a visual-musical home run


City Lights was a visual-musical home run

With the headiness of Spoleto's opening weekend over and done, the festival and I have settled into a groove. I admit that I miss, every now and then, the frenetic energy of those first few days, when all you hear at the theaters is talk of what people are seeing next, and which shows blew people's minds, and which ones they wanted, but couldn't get tickets for.

There's still a certain excitement in the air, of course, but I've been seeing unmistakable signs that festival fatigue is beginning to set in. Starting around Thursday, at the concerts in particular, I've seen more than a few patrons sitting up with their eyes closed — and I don't think it's all been in order to better listen to the music. Whether or not I've been tempted to do the same, I won't say.

Fatigue aside, I'm still of the belief that this is one of the best festival lineups we've had in a few years, and a big part of that is because this year's program includes a few risks. Sure, Spoleto always goes for unique or even bizarre shows; in 2013, for example, there was Intergalactic Nemesis, which ended up giving us the worst of both the graphic novel and radio drama forms that it combined. Last year we had the opera El Nino, which used, among other things, puppets and a drab, zombie-esque aesthetic to tell the story of Mary and Jesus.

So yeah, risk-taking is nothing new. What's different this year, however, is that the risks are smaller and more calculated, yet offer a much bigger payoff.

The first of these was the showing of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights with the Spoleto Festival USA performing the soundtrack. Initially, this seems like the safest of safe bets, right? Spoleto audiences are the perfect demographic to appreciate both the orchestra and a silent film classic, and to pay festival ticket prices to see them together. But as best I can find out, Spoleto's never included film in their lineup, and this year they've got two (I'm seeing the second film, Decasia, on Monday, so I can't say yet how that one will succeed. After what I've heard and seen of this experimental film, I admit I'm really not looking forward to it.). And neither one is new: City Lights, of course, is from 1931, and Decasia is from 2002, so this programming is a departure from the festival's general focus on newly created or newly interpreted productions.

City Lights, as you know if you were there, was a home run. Watching the orchestra on stage and hearing them play Chaplin's lively, beautiful score added so much to the film that I sincerely hope this orchestra-silent film pairing becomes something that happens much more often. I could easily see the Charleston Symphony Orchestra adding one of these to their season, or the Charleston International Film Festival hosting a film showing with an orchestra as a kind of extra event or fundraising effort. And if Spoleto decides to go the film route again, I think they'll make a lot of people happy.

The other risky-ish show I saw this week was What Moves You, the collaboration between cellist Ashley Bathgate and jookin' dancer Charles "Lil' Buck" Riley. The risk here was more behind the scenes, as Bathgate and Lil' Buck hadn't even met until a month or so before Spoleto started. It was a planned collaboration, in other words, rather than one that developed organically out of friendship or a professional relationship. Since chemistry is vital to any collaborative performance — especially one as intimate as a single cellist and a single dancer working together — this might have been a huge flop.

But it wasn't. It was, instead, a fascinating experience with an innovative cellist and a skilled dancer. Although I'd gone in expecting Lil' Buck to be the main attraction, he and Bathgate shared that role fairly equally. He danced to only a few pieces, whereas Bathgate opened the show with a solo piece, "Arches" by Jacob Cooper, and played several other pieces on her own throughout the performance.

Argentine pianist Carlos Aguirre left an impression on us - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Argentine pianist Carlos Aguirre left an impression on us

Bathgate boldly embraces the use of technology in music, and every contemporary piece she played used looping, delays, and other technological tools to turn her single cello into several — she'd play and record a phrase, then keep playing live while that phrase played behind her, and continue in that same pattern, or even use pre-recorded tracks that she'd play over.

Neither she nor Lil' Buck was shy about sharing their artistic processes and enthusiasm for what they do, both separately and together. They even went so far as to give a brief glimpse into how they came up with their show: Bathgate played a snippet of Bach, and Lil' Buck danced, then she played it again and he danced differently. It was a nice idea, but it didn't quite communicate the way I think they wanted it to.

The one piece of the show during which I felt they both tapped into something special, something neither of them could have done alone, was "Dance for Me, Wallis," from the Madonna-directed movie W./E. It's a beautiful piece that takes full advantage of the cello's pure, bittersweet sound. As Bathgate played, Lil' Buck seemed to pluck the music out of her head, moving it through the air with his hands while reacting to it with his body. It was extremely intimate, and an example of true partnership.

Besides that one artistic moment, the feel of the show was very informal, almost like an educational showcase. It was not, as I've said in my blog posts, my favorite performance of the festival, but it did give me a great deal to think about — questions of technology and music and how the two fit together, and what it means if one instrument can be cloned into two or three or more, for example.

So what has been my favorite performance? Well, it's tied with the Scottish Ballet's A Streetcar Named Desire, and will come as no surprise: Romeo and Juliet. Based on what I've been hearing from festival-goers, it's got a pretty solid place as this year's favorite, at least in the non-music category. The entire show is outstanding, but there are a few actors who really gave me a new understanding of their characters. Steffan Donnelly, who played Mercutio, is one; by giving Mercutio just the slightest hesitancy and a momentarily wounded look at some key points, Donnelly endowed this larger-than-life, fantastical talker with real vulnerability. It succeeded in making Mercutio more of a three-dimensional character, rather than just the fascinating fool.

Steven Elder as Juliet's father, Lord Capulet, is another. He's strong throughout, but the scene that displayed his artistry to the fullest was the one in which he — who formerly seemed a kind and loving father — tells Juliet that she will either marry Paris or "hang, beg, starve, die in the streets." Fueled by anger and grief over Tybalt's death at Romeo's hand, Capulet is transformed into a tyrant who screams at his beloved daughter with such rage that I, along with Juliet, believed that pretending death was truly her only way out. And that is an important accomplishment in this play, for no matter how one feels about this masterpiece, the idea that no one could come up with a better way for Romeo and Juliet to be together is almost always a hard sell. Not so in the Globe's production.

Dianne Reeves lit up the Cistern last week - JULIA LYNN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Julia Lynn Photography
  • Dianne Reeves lit up the Cistern last week

As for Cassie Layton's Juliet and Sam Valentine's Romeo, these two actors play the couple as the sweet, inexperienced, lovestruck youths that they are, and it's completely winning. What's more, as their story begin to unravel with Tybalt killing Mercutio, then Romeo killing Tybalt, both Valentine and Layton take their characters to deeper places. They grow up quickly and believably, and in their final scenes together they are nothing short of heartbreaking.

And then there's the concerts. Spoleto offers so much great music, and of so many different types, that it could easily split into two festivals, with one devoted to the performing arts and the other to all the singers and musicians it brings in from around the world. This week I saw two country greats (Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell); an Argentine pianist (Carlos Aguirre); the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra; a piano-accordion duo (Marcotulli and Biondini); a Grammy Award-winning jazz singer (Dianne Reeves); and a pianist who's a darling of the new music world (Conor Hanick). Of all of these, the orchestra and Aguirre are the two that left their imprint on me — I'm now looking for all of Aguirre's albums, and I'll remember the orchestra's exhilarating performance of Tan Dun's Concerto for Orchestra for a very long time.

In the death, decay, and rebirth race, I think rebirth is currently winning, though that might be partially due to the festival high that I'm still riding — even though it's leveled out quite a bit from where it was opening weekend. Give me a little time and distance on that one. I'll get back to you on it next week.


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