The beautiful (and borderline ugly) music of Spoleto 2011 

Tearing Up

As we head into the final weekend of Spoleto, the parade of Chamber masterpieces has been relentless. Highlights include two meaty works by Argentinian master Osvaldo Golijov. I think the Yiddishbuk, which series director Geoff Nutall described as "borderline ugly," is still the most effective piece of Holocaust memorial music out there (who says great music always has to be beautiful?). And Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind was a klezmer (or clarinet) junkie's dream. The Beethoven cello sonata in Chamber III made me cry, while program five delivered a super-spiffy Bach cantata for solo baritone. I still haven't gotten over program VI's Chausson piano quartet.

Golijov — and Kaija Saariaho — weren't the only big-name composers to pay us visits this year. Thanks to John Kennedy and his ever-fresh Music in Time (MIT) series, two other new music notables were on hand to hear their works played. Paul Dresher was at MIT II to help us understand the fascinating rhythmic cross-currents of his beguiling piano piece, Two Entwined (a world premiere, no less), and Paul Moravec came to MIT III to guide us through his evocative and often very beautiful concert-length chamber work, The Time Gallery.

The simple fact that so many modern composers have joined us at Spoleto stands as potent testimony to the immense respect Kennedy has earned in the world of new music (though Chamber guru Nuttall had a lot to do with getting Golijov here).

While on the subject of MIT, Kennedy has managed to bring us some extra-choice material this year. MIT II's program, entitled A Sweeter Music, offered five pieces that Sarah Cahill commissioned from leading composers. My faves were the aforementioned Dresher piece (played to perfection by pianist Lydia Brown), and Be Kind to One Another, a sweet and affecting piece by minimalist pioneer Terry Riley. Moravec's work is my major new music discovery thus far, with its magical musical musings on the nature of time and how we measure it. The final movement — treating time in terms of human memory — was especially deep and worthwhile.

The Intermezzo I opener on May 30 was a distinct winner, thanks in part to Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings that ended the concert. It's one of that composer's most universally beloved works — and the Spoleto Festival Orchestra's silky strings sounded better than ever.

Speaking of the SFO, the entire "orchestra of virtuosos" (recruited from the nation's top conservatories) sounded at least as good (if not better) as they ever have in last Wednesday's festival concert. Under the deft baton of emerging American maestro James Gaffigan, their renditions of Richard Strauss' Dance of the Seven Veils and Sergei Prokofiev's magnificent Symphony No. 5 were absolutely stunning. SFO members were also in the pit for last Thursday's performance of festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti's opera The Medium, a surreally staged and emotionally charged production that paid powerful tribute to the man who brought Spoleto to Charleston. Then there was last Friday's fabulous first performance by the fabled Westminster Choir. As usual, they gave us an authoritative lesson as to how to do choral music right.

I'm still looking forward to a few performances as the festival winds down. By the time you read this, Joseph Flummerfelt's big choral-orchestral concert — a perennial must-see for me — will be history. Otherwise, the chamber series is in the midst of its promised "mini-Mozart festival," including several of his finest chamber works. Don't miss Chamber IX's Piano Quarter No. 1, or program X's Kreutzer Sonata by Beethoven. The final chamber program (June 11, 1 p.m.) will send the series out with a real bang, thanks to the irrepressibly joyous and bubbly Trout Quintet by Franz Schubert. And a herd of wild horses couldn't keep me away from Thursday's MIT program, to be devoted to five of Saariaho's shorter works.

Sleep-deprived and Spoleto-weary or not, I can hardly wait to unplug my laptop and drag my weary bones to my next event. My motto these days is the old Chinese proverb: "Enjoy yourself — it's later than you think."

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