Program books ready and posters lining the shop windows, Spoleto Festival USA begins its annual 17-day siege of Charleston today - heaped up as high as ever with events sure to challenge and excite performing arts gluttons from around the globe. The most prestigious and substantial arts festival in the Western Hemisphere comes at us for the first time in 37 seasons without its kingpin venue, Gaillard Auditorium.
Not to worry, Dock Street Theatre and Sottile Theatre will take up the slack for theater and opera, while a new hall, the TD Arena at the College of Charleston, will enter the rotation, freshly outfitted for concert and dance presentations. Through torrential rains and torrid heat, we've been covering Spoleto for the past 20 years, as charmed by the city and its cuisine as we've been by the performers.
Of course, the global convergence on Charleston is about the artists as much as it is about the tourists. Whether it's jazz, opera, theater, classical music, or dance, the international variety of the fare is as impressive as the artistry. There is more of a pop flavoring to the concert lineup these days - perhaps because that music has achieved classic status after 37 years! - and sufferings of ticketholders have been greatly alleviated with the renovation of the quaint Dock Street venue. Now the workhorse of the festival is air-conditioned!
We'll be down in Charleston, sampling about 25 of the 160 performances, keeping you posted on the CLog. Here are the highlights:
New twists on the classics will be grabbing the most attention. A new take on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream moves into Dock Street for the duration of the festival (May 24-June 9), presented by the Bristol Old Vic in cahoots with the Handspring Puppet Company. Maybe you want to see War Horse here in Charlotte to be convinced - but the same artistic team, Vic's Tom Morris and Handspring's Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, are behind this US premiere.
Late in the festival, the legendary Steven Berkoff directs his own new adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus (June 4-8) at Memminger Auditorium. He'll be in town for an interview with Martha Teichner two days before opening night - and acting the role of Creon. Even later comes the pioneering Intergalactic Nemesis (June 5-9) a two-part graphic novel epic presented by three live actors voicing dozens of characters, a Foley artist creating live sound effects, and more than 1,250 comic book images projected on a two-story-high screen.
Of the two one-man shows, Bullet Catch (June 5-9) seems to be the most intriguing, with Rob Drummond chronicling the history of the most notorious - and lethal - trick in the magician's art. At the other extreme, Compagnie XY brings back the family-friendly circus tradition to Spoleto with Le Grand C (May 22-June 1) at Memminger.
Anybody with a keen appreciation for modern or classical dance who regularly attends Spoleto will tell you that this is the category with the strongest international lineup year after year. It will be quite the feather for the troupe designated to be the first to perform at the renovated Gaillard Auditorium at Spoleto in 2015.
Meanwhile, the 2013 lineup is neither shabby nor parochial, topped by Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía (May 31-June 2), performing Metáfora. The TD Arena dance floor will take a pounding from 18 dancers amid an onslaught of castanets, fans, traditional costumes, and bravura soloists.
Or are the younger, grittier hip-hoppers from Brazil, Compagnie Käfig (May 24-26), the true lords of the 2013 lineup? Their Correia and Agwa at the TD will combine samba, hip-hop, and capoeira in their first Spoleto appearance since their sensational 2002 debut. In closer quarters at the Emmett Robinson, Jared Grimes (May 24-27) carries on the tradition of Mr. Bojangles, Fred Astaire, and Sammy Davis Jr. with an ensemble of tap-dancers who mix the old-style hoofing into a hybrid that includes hip-hop and street jazz.
No load-'em-in imports here. In terms of manpower and production costs, opera continues to be the soul of Spoleto Festival USA. A process of nationwide auditions beginning in January yields a Festival Orchestra of young professionals that performs all of Spoleto's operas and six different orchestral concerts - arguably the best ensemble of its kind on the planet.
I'll try to wrap my arms around the American premiere of Toshio Hosokawa's Matsukaze (May 24-June 8) at the renovated Sottile. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, who brought Peony Pavilion and Monkey to Spoleto in years past, this story centers around two ghostly sisters, Matsukaze and Murasame, doomed to wander the earth until they find release from their mortal lover who left them centuries earlier. But in German? Go figure.
Perhaps even more intriguing is the Le Villi/Mese Mariano (May 25-June 7) double bill at Dock Street of neglected works by major opera composers. Villi was Puccini's first hit, a two-act opera ballet revolving around a spurned lover who torments her man after she dies. Nine years younger than his fellow Italian verismo proponent, Umberto Giordano is best remembered for his Andrea Chenier and Fedora. Written after these triumphs, with a running time of just 35 minutes, the heroine of Mese Mariano is Carmela, a mother who revisits the orphanage where she gave up her child.
Bestselling author and Grammy Award winner Roseanne Cash (June 2) is clearly the leading attraction, coming to TD Arena on the heels of her recent CD tribute to her dad, The List. Her return engagement at Spoleto includes new songs about the South. Also returning to Spoleto are the Punch Brothers (May 27) and their personable mandolinist Chris Thile. Songs from the progressive bluegrass quintet's latest studio album, Who's Feeling Young Now? will likely spawn some live variants.
Hailing from Benin, world music diva Angelique Kidjo (May 30) makes her Spoleto debut at TD. She sings in four languages, has gigged with powerhouses such as Alicia Keys and Carlos Santana, and she'll likely toss in some jazz vocalese along the way. Blending honky-tonk, Cajun, and swing, The Red Stick Ramblers (June 9) headline the festival finale at beautiful Middleton Place.
Named Best Male Vocalist earlier this month by the esteemed Jazz Journalists Association in their annual award balloting, Gregory Porter (May 24-25) makes his Spoleto debut at Cistern Yard after just two CD releases - and one bodacious hit single, "Be Good (Lion's Song)." Also earning a debut in Spoleto's prime outdoor venue is Israeli saxophonist Eli Degibri (May 26), whose latest CD, Israeli Song, has all the swagger of an assured innovator.
Old or new, instrumental or vocal, whatever Wells Fargo Jazz director Michael Grofsorean books is worth a listen. The Alessandro Penezzi & Alexandre Ribeiro pairing (June 6-8) stems from the memorable 2010 performance by clarinetist/soprano saxophonist Nailor Azevado. Penezzi was the prime sideman on guitar that night, and Ribeiro is the clarinetist's protege. All three are steeped in Brazilian jazz, so expect some mellow musicmaking at the Simons Center Recital Hall.
Of the three major orchestral concerts, Verdi's Requiem Mass (June 6) at TD Arena will draw the most attention, since it represents Joseph Flummerfelt's valedictory performance after 30 years as the Festival's artistic director of choral activities. I'll be able to report on how well resident conductor John Kennedy and the Spoleto Festival Orchestra strut their stuff on a more progressive Adams/Ravel+Boulez/Vasks program (June 3), featuring two American premieres.
Both the afternoon orchestral concert series will feature at least one dip into Igor Stravinsky's oeuvre in honor of the 100th anniversary of his landmark Rite of Spring. The Intermezzi (May 27-June 5) series kicks off with a Copland and Stravinsky (May 27) program conducted by Aik Khai Pung at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul. Then Kennedy grabs the baton in his Music in Time (May 27-June 7) series at the Simons Center, throwing a 100th Birthday Party (May 29) that will feature a non-stop medley showcasing Stravinsky's masterwork and works that it influenced over the next century.
But how could I possibly fail to mention the most intriguing Music in Time coup, their Music of Nathan Davis (June 2) program, where audience members are encouraged to bring their cellphones and use them?! The speakers on your smartphones will become part of Davis's soundscape.
Life after Flummerfelt goes on with two Westminster Choir concerts (May 30+June 3) at Cathedral Church, and the musical bedrock of Spoleto, the Bank of America Chamber Music (May 24-June 9) series, cranks out two lunchtime concerts a day at Dock Street Theatre. Returning to the virtuoso lineup are Geoff Nuttall and his St. Lawrence String Quartet, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, flutist Tara Helen O'Connor, clarinetist Todd Palmer, oboist James Austin Smith, pianist Pedja Muzijevic, and violinist Livia Sohn.
Joining these frontliners for 2013 are pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, percussionist Steven Schick, the Brentano String Quartet, and composer-in-residence Samuel Carl Adams. I won't be able to engorge all the chamber delicacies, including the farewell performances of the beloved Charles Wadsworth (June 8-9), but I'll be able to report on the world premiere of Adams' String Quartet (June 2-3).
Thanks to Nuttall's enlightened custodianship, programs and players for the daily lunchtime concerts are no longer a mystery before you arrive. You can find the complete chamber music schedule - and much, much more - at www.spoletousa.org.