Week two proved that, at its core, Spoleto is a classical music festival 

Open Ears

Opening this week, "Oedipus" might just prove to be one of the best shows of the season

Jonathan Boncek

Opening this week, "Oedipus" might just prove to be one of the best shows of the season

The past seven festival days kicked off with a knock-out concert by the Spoleto Festival Orchestra and ended the same way. The big festival delivered a big explosion of good classical music — and a big zip for everything else.

The opening concert included electrifying works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Bartók, and Rachmaninoff. The second boasted Ravel and Peteris Vasks' Credo, both American premieres, and John Adams' Harmonielehre, which was even better. Those bookends and what happened in between remind us once again that Spoleto is a classical music festival. These two concerts along with a few chamber concerts and the one-act operas have been the high points of the festival so far.

The orchestral concerts presented two very different kinds of concerts and music, both equally excellent. As good as the first concert was, the Adams is such a musically and emotionally overwhelming work that it made the rest seem tame. This is a magnificent piece that feels very much about death and resurrection — of the individual and the universe — capturing the power of both.

The concert opened with the 1917 Ravel Frontispice (arranged for orchestra by Pierre Boulez in 2007) which is only two minutes long. When it was finished, I wished they'd play it again, and following comments by festival resident conductor John Kennedy, the orchestra did just that. I've heard only a handful of the orchestra concerts over the years (the mid-week placement always made it tough), but I won't be neglecting them again.

The orchestra members (most are recent graduates of top conservatories, and no, they aren't from around here) are usually seen in a big group or not at all because they're in the pit during an opera. The second Intermezzo concert put them in the spotlight as soloists, duos, or small groups playing music ranging from a Bach cello suite to important 20th century works and a traditional Afghan tune.

Violinist Haerim Elizabeth Lee and pianist Bénédicte Jourdois blew the audience away with Olivier Messiaen's Theme and Variation and viola player Allyson Goodman wasn't far behind them with Gyorgy Kurtág's Signs, Games, and Messages.

The Music in Time series started with a concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the riot-provoking work. Kennedy put together a seamless, perfectly performed compilation by those exploring similar musical themes including Debussy, Edgar Varese, and Steve Reich tied together with snatches from Rite.

The small Simons Center Recital Hall was packed, which is now standard for the contemporary music events that once attracted just a handful of weirdos (like me). This concert should have been in a bigger hall and given a bigger promotional push by the festival — it was a once-in-a-century event.

The Music in Time concert featuring composer/performer Nathan Davis was one that pushed even my limits. The opener, Bells, asked audience members to keep their cells phones on and make a call during the performance, but the phone sounds got lost. In Crawlspace, Davis used a telephone tap microphone to pick up the rather random sounds of a MacBook's churning innards — you may not want to know what your computer is doing when you're not listening this closely. On Speaking One Hundred Names was a tour de force for solo bassoon with processing to explore what the instrument can do and how one thing can be many different things and thus have many names. In Weather Rocks, violin, cello, and unusual percussion captured and redefined weather patterns. Davis explores the technology that ties us to one another by bouncing our words, thoughts, and sounds off satellites and back down to earth. It doesn't always work, but he's at the frontier of new music.

Geoff Nuttall has taken the chamber music series to a new level with adventuresome programming that in one concert can cover several centuries and styles and, mostly importantly, make it work. The excellence of the music and playing doesn't hurt either.

It was hard to top the first few concerts, which coupled old music and 20th century pieces (Schubert, Dvorak, Chausson with Cage, Golijov, and Xenakis) and having attended a chamber concert nearly every day, my ears became a little calloused toward the second weekend. The dazzling display of technical excellence on Program V of Bach, Schubert, Berio, and Ravel worked its way into my soul as did the world premiere of Sam Adams' string quartet written for the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The young composer, only 27, came up with something challenging and quirky, very much of today, but referring to composers of the past.

The concerts by the Westminster Choir are another thing, like the orchestra concerts, that I've missed most years. I'm glad I made it this year, because the concert — with music written between 1600 and 2011 — opened my ears. It also opened my eyes to Westminster's audience; I thought the chamber music series had fervent followers, but they're understated compared to the choir's fans.

The double bill operas Mese Mariano and Le Villi continued gathering accolades and ticket buyers during the past week, as they should. Everyone I talked to loved them, and so did I. There's one more chance to see them, and even if you don't know opera — especially if you don't know opera — you should go.

The big musical events — operas, premieres, orchestral concerts — are up and running or over. The chamber series will no doubt offer some gems, but most of the players are here or have been here and gone. Two upcoming music events mark the end of an era: Joseph Flummerfelt conducts Verdi's Requiem before he retires at festival end, and chamber music series founder Charles Wadsworth gives his final public performance at the last chamber music concert.

For those who really don't care much about classical music — sorry, but not much else happened during the past week.

I've seen the small mess of The Better Half by Lucky Plush (as opposed to the big mess that is A Midsummer Night's Dream) and the Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía with great music and dancing, the music being more compelling than the dancing. On the pop music side, Johnnyswim was musically limited and contrived and Rosanne Cash tragically misguided. (Please note that City Paper reviewers gave them both an "A.")

The last few days of the festival could hold the best of the non-musical: an adaptation of the Greek tragedy Oedipus (which opened Tuesday night) and pulp fiction- and comic book-inspired two-part multimedia extravaganza The Intergalactic Nemesis, and the one-person Bullet Catch, looking at the most famous and infamous magic trick.

Piccolo, or rather things that are under the Piccolo banner but really independent productions, has provided nice surprises. I haven't seen much, so I may have just made good choices like the plays Clybourne Park and Venus in Fur.

I was taken aback by how amateurish the Charleston Chamber Opera first looked (long community theater-type introduction, cheesy costumes and sets, no lights, an upright piano), but none of that mattered when the excellent singers got going on Debussy's small opera L'Enfant Prodigue, based on the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son. It grew into something that transcended the environment.

A concert of music from Baroque-era Spain, Guatemala, Mexico, and Cuba was wonderfully performed by the Chatham Baroque on period instruments, but it needed more context, as did a concert of Jewish music from Eastern Europe.

This week I also got around to a batch of art shows. I've already sung the praises of the book art exhibition Rebound: Dissections and Excavations in Book Art at the Halsey Institute and the connected installation by Long-Bin Chen at the College of Charleston's Addlestone Library. The Halsey has a long history of great, challenging, and often fun exhibitions, and this is one of the best ever.

Just a few blocks away at the Redux Contemporary Art Center, Andréa Stanislav's solo show/installation has furry animals (not real ones) disappearing into or balancing on mirrored sculptures, and glitter and epoxy paintings that fully occupy the small gallery space.

The Spoleto Watercolors of Stephen Mueller and Carl Palazzolo at the Gibbes Museum of Art is composed of nearly 40 watercolors created by two artists during visits to Charleston during the past 20 years. The small abstract paintings really capture the creative spirit of the festival, the color and textures of Charleston, but never in an obvious way. They feel like music made of paper, pigment, and water.

The museum also has many South Carolina- and Charleston-connected artworks on display during the festival, including excellent pieces by William Halsey, Manning Williams, Merton Simpson, West Fraser, Linda Fantuzzo, Alfred Hutty, and Chevis Clark. The City Gallery at Waterfront Park is dominated by Nathan Durfee's whimsical and well-done paintings.

But too many of the Piccolo shows are as usual ill-conceived, with work of poor quality or in the wrong spaces. There are too many great artists and places in Charleston to settle for shows like these.

A lot of good music, some major disappointments, and a few nice surprises — so far a typical festival.

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