Dispatch from Spoleto (2019)

Dispatch from Spoleto: Hypnotic Movements

Pictured (above): The St. Lawrence String Quartet plays Haydn’s “Emperor” quartet during the Bank of America Chamber Music series. Photo by William Struhs.

By Lawrence Toppman

Every fine chamber musician plays with precision, intelligence, energy and taste. But the ones at Spoleto Festival USA also play with love, and that makes all the difference.

Violinist Geoff Nuttall, who programs the Bank of America Chamber Music series with wide-ranging inclinations, places no composer above Franz Josef Haydn. When he and the rest of the St. Lawrence String Quartet perform Haydn’s Emperor Quartet – the one with the Viennese national anthem in the slow movement – they tear into it like kids unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.

They may have been especially eager to rock Dock Street Theatre last weekend, because a PBS film crew came to Charleston to shoot footage of an episode of “Now Hear This.” Nuttall informed the audience that PBS would broadcast this series devoted to classical composers – reportedly the first in 50 years on prime-time TV – starting in September.

Yet the players gave the same intensity to “Closed Universe,” a dense and mysterious piece by composer-in-residence Paul Wiancko, or to a virtuosic, throwaway piccolo concerto by Vivaldi. Their joy shoots over the footlights and jolts the audience each time.

More than ever, this series offers three pleasures. The first – a drawback, if you dislike contemporary music – is that you can almost never attend back-to-back concerts now without encountering living composers. I heard four: Philip Glass, Wiancko, Larry Alan Smith (who wrote the solo “Three Angularities” for his oboist son, James Austin Smith) and Doug Balliett. The latter gave the regional premiere of “Echo and Narcissus,” narrating and playing double-bass in this tale from Ovid’s “Metamorphosis.”

Anthony Roth Costanzo (center) sings a three-song suite by Philip Glass and George Frideric Handel during the 2019 Bank of America Chamber Music series.
Anthony Roth Costanzo (center) sings a three-song suite by Philip Glass and George Frideric Handel during the 2019 Bank of America Chamber Music series. Photo by William Struhs.

The second is the willingness of world-class artists to take occasional minor roles out of a sense of comradeship. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sang vocal interludes in Balliett’s “rap cantata,” none of them more than about 45 seconds. Pianist Inon Barnatan, who’ll open the Charlotte Symphony’s 2019-20 Classical season with Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto, will show up near the end of the festival (June 5-9) to join in a Faure quartet, a Beethoven trio and a 12-person adaptation of the overture to Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.”

The third involves no music at all. Conversations from the stage enlighten and amuse, providing entry points to obscure pieces. The self-taught Wiancko explained that he had written nothing for years, absorbing influences from jazz and blues and punk-rock and “a little bit of Brahms,” and you could hear those as he strummed his cello and tickled a glockenspiel in “Universe.” (Perhaps not the punk-rock.)

These introductions could become a trend. The founder of Compagnie Hervé Koubi told the Gaillard Center crowd about his upbringing in Southern France, his Algerian heritage, his Jewish father and his belief that his street dancers are not employees but his “brothers” from around the Mediterranean and Africa: Burkina Faso, Algeria, Israel, Italy, Spain and other lands.

Compagnie Herve Koubi
Compagnie Herve Koubi performs two nights in the Charleston Gaillard Center, kicking off the 2019 season of Spoleto Festival USA. Photo by Nathalie Sternalski.

What he did not say was how to approach “What the Day Owes to the Night.” Like the music that accompanied it – a mashup of Sufi mysticism, J.S. Bach and the Kronos Quartet with vocalist Hamza El Din – Koubi’s 13 dancers, all of them acrobatically gifted and many of them with strong breakdancing chops, seemed to be moving in a quasi-religious trance and trying to induce one in us.

This company occupied the opening weekend spot often reserved for celebrated ballet or modern troupes, which do long mixed programs. Koubi’s lone piece lasted just over an hour, and he exhausted his movement vocabulary after 15 minutes. The ensemble remained onstage the whole time, with small groups emerging briefly from the mass, and “Day” slowed down for only a few moments near the middle.

Koubi seldom varied the cycles of arms reaching to heaven, bodies spinning upside-down or upright in dervish-like whirls, leaps and rolls and falls interrupted briefly by meditative sections. Time seemed to stop – a satisfying thing if you were in sync with Koubi’s repeating rhythms, a painful one if you weren’t.  

Dispatch from Spoleto: A Night at the Theater

Pictured (above): Paul Groves and Melanie Henley Heyn; photo by Leigh Webber.

By Lawrence Toppman

I attend Spoleto Festival USA every year because it’s the kind of place where a beach ball might determine what you’re about to see. That’s what happens on audience-choice nights for performances by Shakespeare’s Globe.

The London-based company has scheduled performances of “The Comedy of Errors,” “Pericles” and “Twelfth Night” throughout the festival, which ends June 9 in Charleston. But it has also set times when the audience decides what to watch.

Eight actors amble onto the stage, playing a loose-knit version of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” on banjo, accordion, oddly tuned trombone and other instruments. One heaves a beach ball into the crowd, and the third person who touches it has to listen to audience applause and declare which title got the most support.

During Spoleto Festival USA’s 2019 season, Shakespeare’s Globe returns to the Dock Street Theatre with a rotation of Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, and Pericles, as well as Audience Choice performances. Image Courtesy of Shakespeare’s Globe.

Spoleto specializes in the mind-challenging avant-garde, so it was no surprise that my audience (and one the day before) screamed loudest for Shakespeare’s most mindless gagfest, the play about twins separated shortly after birth with twin servants who were parted in infancy, too. Shakespeare beautifully crafted this absurdity, polishing a plot he stole from Plautus, and the Globe octet highlighted every bit of ribald wordplay and knockabout hijinks in “Errors.” (On this showing, the Three Stooges would have been right at home in Elizabethan days.)

The eight had to trim only a few bits of the play to make sense of it with so small a cast. They also brought out the mock-serious side: Characters deal with potential execution, presumed adultery, imprisonment, brief commitment to a madhouse and emotional upheavals of other kinds, and the Globe players lent these sections as much weight as Shakespeare would allow.

By contrast, the theater company 1927 gave audiences a show as light as a balloon and left us floating somewhere in the universe, like the massively obese feline in the first of its many fairy tales. “Roots” carried no message – except, perhaps, that life holds catastrophes for every human being and most animals – but delivered zen-like stories in a weirdly funny way.

Company 1927 in the world premiere of “Roots” at the Emmett Robinson Theatre at College of Charleston during the 2019 season of Spoleto Festival USA. Photo by Leigh Webber.

Two cast members played a dozen or so instruments – my favorites were a musical saw and a warped version of an Asian lute – while two others stood in front of a backdrop or poked their heads through it. (All wore whiteface.) A combination of cartoonish video projection, mime and dialogue gave the impression that characters and locales were moving, and the deadpan seriousness of the macabre stories made them hilarious. At the end, walking out, an audience member said, “It must mean SOMETHING.” Mmmmmm…not necessarily.

The operatic version of “Salome” tried desperately for deeper meaning and, for one hour, succeeded. Directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, who set this same opera in Nazi Germany so effectively at Spoleto in 1978, have reimagined it as a story for our time. They have set it atop the roof of a modern penthouse, where the title character goes to escape Herod’s noisy party below.

Melanie Henley Heyn sang beautifully and expressively across her range, playing Salome as a lonely, sheltered girl whose first attraction to a man – unfortunately, woman-hating John the Baptist – goes terribly wrong. But the character doesn’t work if she’s just a victim, someone so brutalized by men that she asks for the Baptist’s head as vengeance against a gender that has abused her sexually and psychologically. (Paul Groves sang Herod, her molester stepdad, with the right fervor, though Erik van Heyningen made a lightweight prophet.)

Pictured (l-r): Edna Prochnik, Paul Groves, and Melanie Henley Heyn in an all-new production of Richard Strauss’s Salome at the Charleston Gaillard Center. Photo by Leigh Webber.

To achieve their aims, the directing team began to ignore stage directions from librettist Hedwig Lachmann (who adapted Oscar Wilde’s play), demanded action that went against the grain of Richard Strauss’ music and actually changed the outcome of the opera. I heard the word “daring” tossed around afterward. It would also be daring to stage a “Hamlet” where the prince jumped up in Act 5 — “The poison didn’t kill me!” — and danced his way onto the throne of Denmark. Would you want to see it?

To learn more about the performances at this year’s festival, visit Spoleto Festival USA.