A Pocketful of Piccolo

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Tuesday evening’s activities for this Spoletobuzz blogger provided a case study in the kind of variety Piccolo Spoleto serves up daily around town while Spoleto hogs the media attention. At the City Gallery at Waterfront Park at 6 p.m., the little festival inaugurated the first in its ’06 Spotlight Concert Series with a presentation from local contemporary music kooks The New Music Collective. NMC are a local group of young local players who pride themselves on kicking convention to the curb and dabbling in what’s often called “new” music. In the classical music scene, that’s generally anything from the past 50 years or so, with special attention to the boundary-busting experimental and avant-garde composers like John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, Olivier Messiaen, the grandfathers of minimalism (Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley), and many other international recent noisemakers. But it also includes music so fresh the ink is still wet on the notation.

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For their Tuesday evening gig, NMC’s program included works from Messiaen, Cage, and Reich, as well as brand new compositions from NMC member Philip White and New York friend Mariah Dodson. The group had made the most of the two floors of the spacious city gallery, which was busting out all over with artwork from Southern realist William McCullough for his Piccolo retrospective. There were cymbal kits and speakers set up in corners throughout the space, all of which came into play at some point during the concert. White’s original composition unplug everything blindfolded for percussion and electronics utilized ambient electronic sounds, including what sounded like cocktail party chit chat and doors closing, and the aforementioned cymbals.The effect was one of sound coming from every possible direction, which in fact it was. NMC director Nathan Koci played John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano (listen here) on a fire-engine red toy piano, to the crowd’s great amusement.

The big hit of the evning, though, was Steve Reich’s atmospheric 1973 work Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ, which had all three NMC members, plus a phalanx of eight additional players and singers, hammering out Reich’s signature mesmerizing polyrhythms on vibraphones and maribas. And couple who stomped out in a huff at the beginning of the program – How dare they not give us Mozart! - weren’t missed in the least.

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Afterward, at Charleston Music Hall on John Street, multitalented husband-and-wife team Brad and Jennifer Moranz – the production minds behind the late ’90s variety show Serenade and the annual Charleston Christmas Special – had packed the Music Hall’s 1,000 seats for their George and Ira Gershwin tribute Fascinating Rhythm. For a facility that sits empty nine-tenths of the year, Charleston Music Hall has far and away the most sophisticated technical outfit of any theatre this side of the Performing Arts Center, and the Moranzes know how to use it. They also know how to pull together a top professional singing and dancing team, which includes Broadway veterans like Michael Demby Cain, Laurie Williamson, and themselves, as well as locals like shoulda-been-on-Broadway-but-got-married-instead Tiffany Parker. Fascinating Rhythm was as top-tier a production as you’re likely to find anywhere, both in terms of talent and production value. I’m not the biggest fan in the world of musical revues, but even I couldn’t help tapping along to “I Got Rhythm,” and guffawing at Tiffany Parker’s showmanship in the hilariously interactive "Treat Me Rough.”

Incidentally, I realized only afterward that I wasn’t the only one who’d run to the Music Hall from the City Gallery. New Music Collective member Ron Wiltrout was the drummer for Fascinating Rhythm’s on-stage band. Busy kid.

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Ducking out of the Music Hall, I managed to catch enough of sketch group Elephant Larry’s new show at the American, as part of Theatre 99’s Piccolo Fringe, to know that I want to see the whole thing. The best bit I saw: a sketch in which the Blue Fairy turns Pinnochio into a real boy – and suddenly all the other wooden items into Gepetto’s workshop want to be made “real,” too. The result – projected on slides behind the players – a meaty table covered in hair and moles, and a fleshy two-by-four. Digusting? With a doubt. Funny? You better believe it.

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