Remembering the past, looking to the future, and finding the Spoleto sweet spot

First impressions


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Departures were very much a part of the first few hours of the 37th Spoleto Festival.

At opening ceremonies foremost in the remembrance was Ted Stern, the founding chairman of the festival board, who died in January at 100 and to whom the 2013 festival is dedicated. Joseph Flummerfelt, director of choral music since the festival started and who leaves the festival when this one ends, was up on the stage. On the front row down at Broad and Meeting sat festival chamber music founder Charles Wadsworth, who will be making his final public performances at the final chamber concert. Up by Flummerfelt was Ellen Dressler Moryl, who recently retired as director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, a post she’s held almost continuously since it was established 35 years ago. And there was Joe Riley, who can’t be mayor forever, but who seems to be doing fine.

I’ve attended about 20 of these opening ceremonies and sometimes dread going. But even if the words were not particularly inspired this time out, the sentiments were, and the importance of recognizing those who made the festival possible — those who are, as Flummerfelt put it, “leaving the stage” — was genuinely moving.

When festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti, who’d been running a festival in Italy since 1958, came looking for a place to hold a U.S. version, he decided on Charleston and made in happen in 1977 with the help of the young mayor Riley and Stern, who was president of the College of Charleston.

“Ted Stern was the only person with the credibility and trust to make it happen,” Riley said.

It’s worth noting that Stern wasn’t only there at the start. He was also on hand in the early ‘90s when Menotti forced General Director Nigel Redden and board members out, when the festival nearly sunk through debt and inept management a few years later. Riley, Flummerfelt, and Wadsworth were also very much part of the power struggles, siding first with Menotti, then when Menotti quit the Charleston festival, sticking with it. (This is particularly significant with Wadsworth and Flummerfelt, whose connection with Menotti went back to the Italian festival.)

I’ve never had much interaction with Flummerfelt, talked to Stern mostly when things were falling apart and he was all business dealing with that business and with me, but have gotten to know Wadsworth a bit over the years. Without them, the festival would never have happened, let alone kept going and kept getting better. It’s nice to see this tribute.

By comparison Geoff Nuttall is a kid, but he’s not exactly a kid around the Spoleto Festival. He and his colleagues in the St. Lawrence Quartet have been performing the festival for 18 years, and he’s been running the chamber series for the last four, but he brings such enthusiasm to the series that it’s hard to remember that he isn’t only 25 or 30 or even 40, but he has a few years in him yet.

Most years when the opening ceremonies are the same old thing, the real opening ceremony is the first chamber music concert which immediately follows. And it was that again, so it seemed like two really great official openings.

This opening was both very new and very traditional starting with a solo percussion work by Iannis Xenakis performed by Steven Schick, the first percussionist to ever perform on the series, and ended with Schubert’s String Quartet in C major, which Menotti always insisted close the festival. (I grabbed Wadsworth after the concert and asked him why. “Gian Carlo thought it was the best piece of chamber music ever written.”)

“I’m guessing that a lot of you didn’t come here expecting a solo percussion piece to start the series,” Nuttall said with a bit of a knowing nod to the generally conservative tastes of the chamber audience.

The 15-minute piece was a regular tour-de-force with Schick working his way around half a dozen drums of various sizes and a batch of wood blocks. He dodged and weaved through the work which revealed the composer’s background as a mathematician and architect, walls and building and blocks growing bit by bit, then adding color and detail.

Before playing, Schick spoke for a few minutes, noting that percussion is the oldest instrumental music in the world, but that as a written form and part of the concert repertoire is among the youngest — born around 1956, two years after he was born. That also seemed an apt metaphor for the bigger picture of the old and new at the festival that marks this year.

Something else was new as well — that audience known for its conservatism and its, ah maturity, responded not only warmly, but enthusiastically.

For a piece like the Schubert, the usual quartet playing would be St. Lawrence, but this year the Brentano Quartet — which Nuttall says is his favorite quartet — has taken over that position for the first week of the festival. They did get a little help from St. Lawrence with Nuttall playing the second violin (apparently Brentano’s second fiddler got lost with the luggage on the flight in) as well as second cellist Alisa Weilerstein. The enthusiasm and physicality with which they tackled the 50-minute piece even surpassed that of Schick and drew out all the emotional richness of the work. This is a sublime work, graceful, uplifting and moving in every way, especially the second movement.

I am not always the most focused audience member. Usually I have a lot of things on my mind and I’m usually taking notes (I’m taking notes about this right now, as the Schubert winds up.) I go to dozens of classical concerts each year and while most of them are good, very few grab my undivided attention.

Two hours into the festival, I have a lot on my mind. I have packed up the car with way more stuff than I can keep up with. I am serving for the first time as overview critic for the Charleston City Paper and am a tiny bit intimidated by this wonderful opportunity. I am attending the entire festival for the very first time in the 23 years I’ve been coming and I have a stack of tickets to 43 events that loom during the next 17 days. I woke up at 3:30 this morning and it took me an hour to get back to sleep, a pattern that’s been going on for the last three weeks. I never get headaches — I’ve had a headache for three days. The first hour of the drive from Columbia where I live was bumper to bumper with idiot drivers. It’s after 2 and I haven’t eaten.

But with that second movement, I’m immersed in the music and all that washes away. I’m planning on locating that incredible place often during the next 42 performances.


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