WDAV Dispatch from Spoleto: Westminster Choir & Waiting for Godot


There are few settings in Charleston more idyllic for a concert than the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul. Watching the late afternoon light as it slants through the windows on the west side of the sanctuary, with the stained glass behind the altar providing a dramatic backdrop to the Westminster Choir in their evening attire, you feel like you’re in for a special experience, and indeed, you are.

The Westminster Choir has been the Choir in Residence at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston for many years, since the days when the ensemble was led by the legendary Joseph Flummerfelt. Upon Flummerfelt’s retirement, Joe Miller assumed the role, and he continues the tradition of presenting sublime a cappella concerts in that special hour before a late spring evening gets underway. Miller has distinguished himself by programming especially thoughtful and inventive choral performances, and the concert I attended on Memorial Day is a perfect example of his approach.

Westminster Choir perform at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul.

The Westminster Choir at Charleston’s Cathedral Church of St. Luke & St. Paul at the Spoleto Festival USA. Photo by Julia Lynn Photography.

Contemporary settings of sacred texts in Latin formed the bookends of the first part of the concert. “Lux surgit aurea” – “See the golden sun arise” – by Bernat Vivancos harkens back to medieval chant and Renaissance polyphony at the opening and close, but in the middle enters an ethereal, contemporary realm. On the far side of the concert program, “Laudibus in Sanctis” – “Celebrate the Lord Most High” – by Ugis Praulins had dramatic shifts in mood propelled by driving rhythms reminiscent of Carl Orff.

In between there was an Abendstandschen, or Evensong, by Johannes Brahms that featured his characteristically rich choral writing, and a setting by Kile Smith of the words of the Apollo 8 astronauts on Christmas Eve of 1968 which was made otherworldly by the use of hand bells and the resonant droning of high soprano voices.

Spoleto Festival USA's Director of Choral Activities, Joe Miller.

Spoleto Festival USA’s Director of Choral Activities, Joe Miller.
Photo by Julia Lynn Photography.

There was also an infectious pair of folk hymns, sung in the distinctive, American 18th century shape note style of singing. These were sung by a subset of the choir separating from the group and assembling in the crossing between the transepts of the cathedral; and a stirring spiritual, “Yonder Come Day,” with alto soloists Taria Mitchell and Pauline Taumalolo, as well as percussion provided by choir members using a tambourine and a broom handle. Paul Crabtree’s “Death and Resurrection” brought us back to the present day. It concludes with a haunting Shaker text: “Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live/And as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.”

The second part of the program consisted of the American folk tunes in choral arrangements that have become a signature of the Westminster Choir, including the nostalgic “Shenandoah.” I have never been to concert by this choir at the festival that hasn’t received a standing ovation at the end, and this one was no exception. In exchange, we were rewarded with two encores, one of them an apt and exquisite setting of the standard, “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The choir repeats the program on Saturday, June 3rd.

Druid's Aaron Monaghan, Garrett Lombard, and Marty Rea in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

Druid’s Aaron Monaghan, Garrett Lombard, and Marty Rea in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Photo by Matthew Thompson.

Playwright Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot has attracted legendary performers, from familiar movie character actors Tom Ewell and Burt Lahr in the first U.S. production, to comic icons Steve Martin and the late Robin Williams, and more recently distinguished knighted thespians Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. No doubt the attraction for performers is the challenge of keeping an audience engaged over two and a half hours of theater where the meaning can be elusive, though the rewards are plentiful. By turns bawdy and poetic, and frequently hilarious, in one sense the play isn’t all that mystifying when taken at face value as a rumination on existence.

The cast of this production from Ireland’s Druid Theater is more than up to the challenge. In their tattered costumes, and with their distinct physical types, they have some of the pathos of silent film comedians, but with their broad physical humor, exaggerated stances, heightened gestures and manic expressions, they seem like Warner Brothers cartoon characters come to life. The team of director Garry Hynes and designer Francis O’Connnor, who worked such magic with the Festival production of the Vivaldi opera Farnace, deliver another visually rich experience with this play. To borrow a recurring bit of dialogue between Vladimir and Estragon: “Is this a good thing?” “It will pass the time.” To which I would add, “It will pass it very well.”

Waiting for Godot has numerous performances through the end of the festival at the Dock Street Theatre. Check the schedule at spoletousa.org for show dates and times.

Make sure you receive each episode of our WDAV Dispatch from Spoleto podcast automatically to your computer or smartphone, visit the WDAV Dispatch from Spoleto page to subscribe.

WDAV Dispatch from Spoleto: Farnace & Yo, Carmen


This WDAV Dispatch from Spoleto reviews two productions from the 2017 festival: the US premiere of a once-celebrated, now obscure opera; and the return to Charleston of an internationally acclaimed flamenco dance company.

Antonio Vivaldi is one of my favorite composers, but like most classical music lovers, I know him primarily because of his instrumental concertos, with the set known as The Four Seasons his most familiar and ubiquitous. Yet during his career, Vivaldi enjoyed far more success as an opera composer, and of his more than forty operas, Farnace enjoyed the greatest popularity. So I really looked forward to seeing and hearing my first Vivaldi opera, and the Spoleto Festival USA production running at the Dock Street Theater did not disappoint, with a staging and performance that matched Vivaldi’s music in energy, invention and sheer beauty.

Scene from Farnace. Photo courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA/Leigh Webber Photography.

Scene from Farnace. Photo courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA/Leigh Webber Photography.

The libretto is the opera’s weakest point. The title character is the defeated King of Pontus, who orders his wife to kill their son and then herself rather than subject to humiliation and slavery at the hands of the Roman conquerors. So it’s hard to warm up to this character, to say the least. And his captured sister, the beautiful Selinda, seduces two enemy suitors in order to turn them against their leaders and win her freedom, as well as restore her brother to the throne. By the time all the conflict is resolved happily in the final act, the abruptness of the resolution drew laughter from the festival audience that I’m certain wasn’t the intent of librettist Antonio Lucchini.

But Vivaldi’s music helps you overlook the problems with the story. As in his concertos, the composer finds seemingly infinite variety within the strict formulas of Baroque opera, and his writing, for both voices and orchestra, conveys drama and atmosphere magnificently. The exuberance of military victory; the heartbreak of a father’s grief when he believes his child is dead; and the exquisite longing of an unfulfilled lover; all of these situations and many more are vividly realized in the score.

Augusta Caso performs the role of Gilade in Vivaldi’s Farnace at the Spoleto Festival, USA. Photo courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA/Leigh Webber Photography.

Augusta Caso performs the role of Gilade in Vivaldi’s Farnace at the Spoleto Festival, USA. Photo courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA/Leigh Webber Photography.

Every element of this production serves the opera beautifully, beginning with the exceptional cast. The audience is treated to the rare spectacle (in modern times, at any rate) of two counter-tenor roles: Anthony Roth Costanzo as Farnace, and Nicholas Tamagna as the Roman general Pompeo. Both sing with startling brilliance, and Costanzo manages the near impossible by making us care about Farnace in the heart-rending aria that closes the first act. As the warrior queen Berenice, contralto Kiera Duffy has a stage presence to match her commanding voice, and she masterfully utilizes the flowing headdress given her by costumer Terese Wadden. And soprano Augusta Caso is sensuous and touching in the role of Berenice’s captain Gilade (a role originally written for a male castrato singer, but in this staging turned unambiguously into a female character).

All of the singers act as well as they vocalize, and often do it while sitting, on their knees, and at one point in Farnace’s case, lying face down in grief. Stage director Garry Hynes arranges stunning tableau, and the set design by Francis O’Connor uses spare, simple elements to great effect. A lamp flown down from the above the stage creates Selinda’s prison cell in its shaft of light; a suspended portrait of Farnace draped in black evokes his monument; and the backdrop of an ocean receding into the horizon that’s visible throughout the performance captures as many shades and colors as Vivaldi’s music.

The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra handles the particular demands of the Baroque score deftly under the direction of David Peter Bates, who conducts from the harpsichord. They fill the Dock Street Theater with sound when necessary, but never overpower the singers, and at other times quiet to a thrilling hush that lets the voices shine with subtler emotions.

Farnace has four more performance during the festival on June 2nd, 5th , 7th and 9th. Details are at spoletousa.org.

Regrettably, the presentation by the Maria Pagés Company performed on only two consecutive days early in the festival. But if you ever come across this ensemble again, it will be well worth your while to catch it.

Flamenco luminary MarÍa Pagés brings her work, Yo, Carmen, to the Gaillard Center on May 27 and 28, 2017. Photo courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA / Davind Ruano

Flamenco luminary María Pagés brings her work, Yo, Carmen, to the Gaillard Center on May 27 and 28, 2017. Photo courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA/Davind Ruano

Their program Yo, Carmen – “I, Carmen” – is an ode to womanhood in the fiery language of the flamenco music and dance of the Spanish gypsies. The character from Bizet’s opera (and some of the more familiar parts of its score) serve as reference points for a series of dance vignettes that also employ poetry, song and even a quasi-rap, “Todas las mujeres” – “All the Women.” The production is at once authentic and sophisticated, with the traditional aspects of flamenco blended with elements of modern dance and performance art. The meticulously designed and executed choreography is viscerally stimulating and visually stunning. It’s a shame it couldn’t have a longer run at the festival.

Make sure you receive each episode of our WDAV Dispatch from Spoleto podcast automatically to your computer or smartphone, visit the WDAV Dispatch from Spoleto page to subscribe.

WDAV Dispatch from Spoleto


As WDAV embarks on another season visiting the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, it’s inevitable to look back and reminisce. As the writer and producer of our blog posts and podcasts this year, I can’t help but remember my first visit to Spoleto in 2009.

I had heard about the festival for years before that. My mother-in-law – a violinist and music teacher – made an annual pilgrimage to the Dock Street Theater for the chamber music series. But I had no idea about the breadth and scope of the festival until I began covering it for WDAV.

Frank Dominguez

Frank Dominguez

In those days we had an entire team of hosts, producers, audio engineers and support staff gathering interviews, recording performances, and otherwise exploring the varied offerings of the festival. As you might imagine, the enterprise was expensive and proved impossible to sustain, and the festival staff struggled to accommodate our requests to record.

So over time we scaled back our residency, and last year we didn’t visit at all, but continued to bring the festival to WDAV listeners through the excellent Spoleto Chamber Music Series produced by our colleagues at South Carolina Public Radio, and heard on WDAV Saturdays at 11 a.m. April through June.

This year, however, we’re back, and with a slightly different approach: a series of previews, reviews and interviews focused on the current festival season, and available through our blog Of Note, and also through our WDAV Dispatch from Spoleto podcasts. I’m looking forward to sharing the sights and sounds with you, and we’ll still bring you past Spoleto performances through highlights played during our weekday programming, as well as the Saturday radio series.

Let us know what you think about the new Spoleto Festival USA coverage on WDAV, visit our Contact Us page.

And make sure you receive each episode of our WDAV Dispatch from Spoleto podcast automatically to your computer or smartphone, visit the WDAV Dispatch from Spoleto page to subscribe.

WDAV Brings You Spoleto Festival USA

Mozart's "The Magic Flute"For 17 days every spring, music, dance, theater and visual art are as much a part of Charleston as church bells, wrought iron balconies and low country cuisine. Spoleto Festival USA returns to the Palmetto State beginning this week, and once again WDAV Classical Public Radio will be there to bring you the sights, smells and sounds of one the most extensive arts festivals in the world. Listen for our Spoleto Daily Dispatches. every weekday at 7:30 am, 12:30 pm and 6:00 pm starting this Thursday, May 26th!

Take a look at the Festival line-up!

WDAV Bids a Fond Farewell to Summer

This long Labor Day weekend, WDAV bids farewell to summer by sampling selections from the great Carolinas summer music festivals we”ve visited over the past few months.You”ll hear music from Piccolo Spoleto and Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, and the Brevard Music Center and Festival in the NC Blue Ridge Mountains. Stay tuned to WDAV 89.9 and wdav.org wherever you go this weekend – and celebrate summer one last time with us!


Spoleto Today’s New Marriage

Making eleven radio programs in 17 days with a group of strangers is like getting married without ever having met your spouse-to-be — except that there are four or five of them, and you have to figure things out pretty fast!
For 14 years, I created, produced and performed Spoleto Today by myself (for the most part). The show started in my kitchen in May 1995. I used the inexpensive (cheap) wireless telephone I had purchased from the big box discount store. I sounded like I was at the bottom of a deep and very damp well, but folks didn’t seem to care. They were just happy to have help making sense of the huge number of things to see and do in Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto. I was in Charleston, and the folks I knew were in Columbia; but, it was fun, and it answered a need.