Sunday, May 31, 2009

Let's rank 'em up

The first round of the best and worst of the 2009 Spoleto Festival

Posted by John Stoehr on Sun, May 31, 2009 at 5:24 PM


It's the half-way point of the Spoleto Festival, so it's time to rank 'em. I'm already past due on this. So here's my view of the best thus far. There are no Piccolo events here. Sorry. That might be a separate list. I regretfully didn't see jazz singer Tierney Sutton, so she's absent. Not everything is here. Mostly the high-profile stuff.

1. Story of a Rabbit
A show by Shon Dale-Jones about a man coming to terms with the death of his father by way of talking about the death of a rabbit (among other things). Pitch-perfect theater that marvelously reinvents the old saw "show-don't-tell."

2. Don John
Presented by Cornwall's Kneehigh Theatre, this is a great story with incredibly physical acting that leaves you breathless. Seriously. Don John's execution is so entertaining you don't realize 'til later the deeper implications of the play — about the nature of men, the mystery of women, and the need for human morality.

3. Dogugaeshi
I don't believe in magic, but if you can fool me just for a moment, I'm yours forever. That's what Basil Twist's Dogugaeshi did. In the most quiet, unassuming way, this traditional form of Japanese puppet theater invites you to sit peacefully and let its beautiful matrix of slides transport you to another world. And you were happy to, even if you didn't know where that world was. Puppet theater is almost a misnomer. The only puppet per se is a playful silver fox. Dogugaeshi is all about the slides, how they move side to side, up and down, open and close. There was even a slide with rabbits bowing to each other. Just magical. There's no story and no characters, the experience is concrete nonetheless. And if you can get good seats, all the better. Spoleto hasn't really figured out how to present dogugaeshi, but that shouldn't deter you from experiencing it.

4. Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
A dramatic performance by a ballet company whose mission is to make ballet new again. And it did. Smashingly. Friday's performance was a spectacle of poetic movement, mixed genres, theatrical mastery, and even humor. Best of all, everything was new. Freshness alone isn't enough. Dance has to be riveting, too. This was.

5. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
It's hard to imagine a time when Alvin Ailey's choreography will stale. After 50 years of performance, his namesake company still feels new and vital. That's largely because of the high caliber of these dancers. That and they are nearly perfect specimens of human physiology. Hard to top that.

6. Louise
Gustave Charpentier's enormous fin de siecle opera (there are some 40 characters) about a young girl who falls in love with a billowy-sleeved poet much to the displeasure of her working-class parents, especially her mother. She's just nasty. Director Sam Helfrich smartly tweaked the libretto to reflect the more lasting theme of inter-generational conflict, but the opera's fixation on the disreputable behavior of artists still feels quaint. Even so, the principal singers are lovely, clear, and convincing while the set design is staggering in its achievement. A gorgeous replica of Basilique du Sacré-Coeur looms over the stage, and though it serves to underscore the story's dated conflict between bohemian and traditional values, it's still pretty awesome to behold.

7. Michael Harrison
Harrison performed his solo work for piano, Revelations, which employs a new system of tonality that the composer calls "just" intonation. The idea is that Western instruments made tonality more rigid than it was prior to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Other countries, like India and Japan, enjoy less fixed systems. Harrison's Revelation loosened up that structure and the result was enlightening. In fact, Harrison's is the only recital that can boast cyclone-like harmonic overtones as a prominent feature and the only recital that fueled a desire deep within me to butt my forehead against the crook of the piano, so I could feel those swirling overtones throughout my body. A little dramatic? Sure. Still, that's what I wanted to do.

8. Punch Brothers
A rock-solid performance with frequent bolts of brilliance from Chris Thile's new band. Thile, of course, is formerly of Nickel Creek, and some, like himself, believed this concert was a risky move for Spoleto. Not in terms of ticket sales. Those went well. In terms of artistic integrity. But if Thile is overestimated as a celebrity (he is), he's also underestimated as a composer and sure-as-hell as a mandolist. While Thile's composition The Blind Leaving the Blind, the centerpiece to the band's performance, was overly eager in my view, it nonetheless secured Thile's position as one who's serious about pushing boundaries. Hence, a good choice for Spoleto.

9. Florin Niculescu
A fiery performance by the inheritor of Stephan Grappelli's gypsy-jazz mantle. Niculescu was matched only by his band, a terrific assemblage of grace (piano), timing (drums), and poetry (bass). Though the breadth of styles was narrow, the showmanship was deep and the music burned with an intensity one expects from a student of Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. The only snag (for this fan) was the clamor from next door. Even so, noise can only compete for so long with heartfelt music. Especially from the big-hearted Niculescu.

10. Ramberto Ciammarughi
It's not everyday a pianist asks his audience to hold the applause. Such was the moxy of this inspired Italian pianist, who offered his audience a solo recital of arrangements based on the unheralded exploits of unknown Hollywood pianists who over the decades performed on many a movie soundtrack. Think Keith Jarrett, only bald and a fan of AMC. And like a good audience, we did what we were told. We waited. And then clapped. A lot.

11. Westminster Choir No. 1
Good church music should scare the bejesus out of you and that's what we got from the first a cappella performance by the famed Westminster Choir. The best pieces (the ones that inspired a bit of dread, anyway) were in the beginning: Ave Maria, Gratia Plena by Desprez and a kyrie by Louis Martin. That's the one with organ accompaniment and that's the one that shook the rafters. And by coincidence, I heard those bowel-rattling notes just as my eyes landed on a prayer etched on the wall that recounted Christ's journey to hell. Can you say a frisson of genuine awe?

12. Jake Shimabukuro
It would be easy to present Shimabukuro (pictured above) as a phenom and leave it at that. His natural gifts and amazing skill at this traditional Hawaiian instrument are alone worth the price of admission. Fortunately for his career, he's more than that. Fortunately for us, he's more than a side-show spectacle of ukulele mastery. During a solo recital Saturday at the Cistern, he demonstrated not just virtuosity but a breadth of emotion, showmanship, and storytelling that will make him a much sought-after composer, collaborator, and headliner for years to come.

13. Music in Time No. 1
A brief encounter with music by contemporary composers Gavin Bryars and Julia Wolfe. Wolfe is also a co-founder of the Ban on a Can Festival. One was a kind of sonic version of an Ansel Adams photograph (you can imagine Copland giving his approval, too) and one that was a satisfying exercise on texture, dynamics, and mathematics. Especially lovely was the promising young soloist Heather Wittels. Sadly, her colleagues in the chamber orchestra didn't step up as well. They often sounded like a student orchestra. Probably because they are.

14. Yumiko Tanaka
An out-of-this-world recital by a master of the shamisen who did double duty as accompanist for Basil Twist's Dogugaeshi. There were three premieres, including one by Tanaka herself, which was either the most abstract music I've heard in a long time (a lot of scratching, rubbing, and tapping) or the cleverest theater I've seen in a long time (all that scratching can be seen as the musician exploring and then mastering her instrument). A bonus was the accidental humor: John Kennedy's remark about sperm whales. You had to be there.

15. Hiroaki Umeda
The best thing I can say about Hiroaki Umeda's performance is that I wanted to see more. The worst thing is that it felt like a lot of foreplay and no payoff. This might be a matter of good concept, bad execution. Or bad concept, good execution. It's hard to tell. What's certain is that despite the awesome sound effects and bedazzling lighting tricks, I waited to be engaged and never did. I wanted to warm up to the experience, but left feeling oddly cold.

16. Addicted to Bad Ideas
Sound and fury signifying nothing. That's the sad summary of this project by the World/Inferno Friendship Society. Addicted to Bad Ideas might have been ideal for CD (which it was), but it didn't translate to the stage no matter how many video effects you put into it and no matter how great Jack Terricloth's impersonation of Peter Lorre was (and it was). Director Jay Scheib's montage of live video feed and film clips (mostly of Lorre's M) didn't do much that I could see to enhance the experience. I gather the concept is mediation and identity. Who is the real Peter Lorre, the man himself or the man he wanted you to see? And by extension, who is the real Lorre on stage — the man in the film clips, the man on stage impersonating Lorre, or the live feed of the mirrored image of the man on stage impersonating Peter Lorre? Amid the mash ups of sight and sound, that Escher thing was frustratingly lost. Which was disappointing. We were hoping for more.

17. Beverly Watkins
This was a great advertisement for the Music Maker Relief Foundation but a piss-poor concert. It never got rolling. It was too short. And we heard more from Watkins' band than we did from her. Apologies to fans. No disrespect intended to her many contributions to the blues canon. Anyone could see Watkins was just phoning this in. She played maybe a handful of songs. We kept hearing about how old she is (70) and that she survived cancer. Fine, but didn't we come to hear the blues from a legend? Moreover, the sound was awful and the last tune was merely an extended dance riff over which Watkins kept haranguing us to come on and dance. And many did. And the tunes she did play were quality. But seriously, Miss Bev. You can't just do the behind-the-head guitar trick, a novelty many decades ago, and expect us to leave satisfied with having seen you do the behind-the-head guitar trick. We still needed to hear the legend and we didn't.

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