Tales of Two Series

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From music critic Lindsay Koob:

I’m a relative Spoleto old-timer (over 20 festivals), and I’ve never experienced a poor outing at MiT – Spoleto’s regular tribute to cutting-edge new music. Saturday’s opener was no exception.

Director/conductor John Kennedy dug up some truly fascinating stuff for this one, beginning with Christian Zeal and Activity – an eerie, hymn-like chamber orchestra piece by John Adams that’s built around the looped tape of a tent preacher’s sermon…. uniquely American, to say the least. Ira Mowitz’s Shimmerings surrounds a recording of his computer-generated music with the sounds of seven varied instruments – and the end result is best described by its title. Wow -- artificial intelligence meets the real article – and the composer was there to tell us about it.

Those two numbers alone would’ve made the evening memorable – but the evening’s hit came last. Hearing Solution is an intense piece from Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky for multiple instruments that mimics (among others) the kind of strange sounds you experience in a hearing test (it was commissioned by a hearing aid company). With super-cellist Jason Calloway leading the way, it’s subtly edgy mood prevailed until near the end, when it suddenly blossomed into some of the most purely gorgeous, melting modern music I’ve ever heard. Way to go, John! The happy house was packed – as it will no doubt be for the series’ remaining three events. Book NOW or regret it.

Despite a couple of reportable glitches, Sunday’s Intermezzi opener came off nicely, too. As I predicted in my preview (link?), the first work – Anton Webern’s Op. 21 Symphony – proved to be something of a bone of contention. A challenging, but incredibly coherent 12-tone piece, it drew both warm applause and furtive negative mutterings from the crowd.

Later in the concert, conductor Marc Williams digressed, talking to the crowd about the Webern piece before leading a second performance of it…. "Hey, it only lasts eight minutes.” Like he also said, this is a work that bears repeat listening – and most of us were grateful for the second chance. Sure, you can’t expect everybody to “get” 12-tone music, and so we heard some more stoic audience whispers -- and, lo! At least a dozen listeners got up and stalked out after the music began – something I’ve never seen before at an Intermezzi concert. Well, it’s their loss: they missed the final Beethoven. The rest of us learned something.

And, wouldn’t you know it, the same thing happened at Don Giovanni later that evening. This is a totally irreverent modern staging of a very traditional work, and a number of presumed opera purists (looking rather upset) stormed out of the Memminger in the middle of Act I. I’ve also heard some negative rumble about the shameful sacrilege of transplanting the hallowed story of Romeo & Juliet into a latter-day New Jersey mortuary. Folks – HELLO? Why the heck are you here at Spoleto in the first place, if you can’t take a little modern artistic license?

Down, boy – forgive the soapbox time – back to business. The hit of the Intermezzi concert was a near-ideal go at Mozart’s beloved Clarinet Concerto, with featured soloist Amitai Vardi. The orchestra was warmly brilliant, and Vardi’s playing had it all: dulcet tone, touching musicianship, and glittering passagework. Too bad he suffered an apparent memory lapse in the middle of the final movement – but, after a couple of uncertain measures, he recovered nicely and went on to a brilliant finish. Proof positive that a single slip doth not a bad performance make.

The final piece – Beethoven’s first try at a real symphony – ended the evening with spirit and wit. Kudos to the terrific players of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra for some inspired work – in both of these key series. Between them, all omens remain auspicious for much more classy musical adventure. -LK

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