The 30th version of Spoleto's opening ceremony went down at noon today in front of the Old Exchange Building at East Bay and Broad streets. There was much that was standard about the event — hundreds of attendees engaging in a huge, strategic street ballet as they vied for the few patches of shade in the area, for example. Watching desperate Spoletians contend over a few inches of darkened pavement in a doorway or behind a lamp post, I decided on an alternate tactic: simply to let the sweat soak through my shirt entirely, eliminating any patchiness and hopefully giving the impression that my shirt’s actual color was a wettish dark brown.
Apart from experiencing the National Anthem as sung by a dreadlocked baritone with his neck-length hair pulled back and his shirt unbuttoned to the navel (Nmon Ford, Don Giovanni himself), a highlight of the ceremony was a strange musical performance that consisted of 13 cars outfitted with speakers on their roofs and a new work, Car-illon Fanfare, created by minimalist composer Philip Glass in honor of the festival’s 30th anniversary. It was hard to tell exactly what was going on during the performance: essentially a dozen tricked-out BMW’s looped around each other in front of the crowd while harpsichord music played from them and onlookers tried to figure out how best to react. A news release secured after the event was over explained that the idea was the work of Glass and poet and novelist Richard Grossman. “Grossman’s Car-illon is an automotive instrument, consisting of 13 vehicles: one Harsicar, in which a keyboard is strapped to the back of the front seat of a car; and 12 Chromatic Cars, each bearing a roof-mounted speaker capable of playing the octaves of a particular note of the chromatic scale. When the car-illonist, seated in the Harpiscar, plays the keyboard, the appropriate notes are activated and issue from the corresponding Chromatic Car’s speaker.
After the four-minute work was finished, there was a smattering of polite applause from the confused audience. Board president Eric Friberg suggested that the worked “shows the many sides of Spoleto.” Maybe. The most common response among those present, however, was that what it really showed was the many sides of festival sponsor BMW.
Mayor Riley used his address to hit some familiar themes — how Spoleto’s artists inspire Charleston to strive for excellence rather than mediocrity, etc. — but he also took the opportunity to pimp hard for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and its musicians: “The Charleston Symphony needs our increased support. We must make sure that our musicians are paid appropriate to their gift to the city and that we all reach down and give more generously to the CSO.”
A short, colorful performance from three members of Nrityagram Dance Ensemble (insider info alert: it's pronounced “narishyagram”) received an enthusiastic response, -- though we were actually all just marveling at their endurance, what with the temperature being what it was. Which was brutal. The dancers were swaddled in multiple layers of costumes, but kept smiles glued to their faces every moment of the short presentation, while the rest of us gasped and grumbled in the heat. That's what I call excellence in the face of mediocrity.