Most people decide if a particular Spoleto will be good or bad weeks before it starts, let alone before it ends.
During the first few days of the festival, I had conversations with two people who have lived in Charleston for several decades. One told me, "This year feels like something new and exciting, like we've made a big change." The other said, "It just doesn't seem like much is new or different this year."
I've heard similar sentiments most years and it usually has little bearing on what actually transpires. I'm one of those people who decide in advance if the year looks like a good one or not-so-good one. I'm usually basing my opinion on the research that my job requires, but I'm only right about half the time. The festival is the sum of its parts — and of course more than the sum — but each performance has to stand on its own. Sometimes there's a so-so year with one or two things that you'll remember forever.
As much as we prognosticate about if this is a good or not-so-good year, we don't really know until we start actually going to events. Even though I've been attending the festival since 1990, I have never been able to stay the entire time or see most of what's on offer.
I saw 14 performances during the first four days. I've been surprised, as I am almost every year. Some surprises are nice, some are not. That I should be surprised surprises me because I've been surprised nearly every year.
The overall surprise is how much death is in the works. Every other thing seems haunted by ghosts and spirits and suicide or close calls.
The first big, and unexpected, pleasure — with almost no death — was Le Grand C by the physical theater group Compagnie XY. They may be called a circus, but I'd call them acrobatic dance theater; this is modern dance and abstract theater stacked three or four people high. Not only did they thrill with high-flying feats, they moved me with little touches of humor, romance, and tragedy.
The one-person performances at the festival often hit me as one-note. Mayday Mayday by Tristan Sturrock changed my mind about these (as others have, but not often enough). Considering the play is about a physical injury and slow recovery — he broke his neck a decade ago — it is appropriate that this is a very physical show. Sturrock plays himself, several other characters, and many of the set pieces. He is the show and he's magnificent.
The dance group Compagnie Käfig is all about the physical, blending Brazilian dance with hip-hop and a touch of modern. The quality of their performance hasn't changed much since they appeared at the festival a decade ago — it's good dancing of its type. The more complete theatrical approach of the piece Agwa took them to a new, multi-dimensional level.
As is often the case, the operas are a mixed bag. The two one-acts, Mese Mariano by Umberto Giordano and Le Villi by Giacomo Puccini, are beautiful and imaginatively staged, two rarely performed tragic gems that are exciting to uncover. Thanks to their accessibility and brevity, these are the kinds of operas that can turn skeptics into fans. The orchestra and local singers sounded excellent, and the dancers from local company DanceFX really charged up Le Villi. Again, very physical stuff.
The new opera Matsukaze by leading Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa left me torn, although most of the people I've talked to loved it. (Although they, like me, were a little baffled as to why it was sung in German. The librettist is German and Hosokawa works extensively in Germany.) In this story about a monk's encounter with ghost sisters, the music is exciting and complex and the singers solid. Many people were really taken with the giant tree made of clear plastic surgical tubing that dominated the stage, but it isn't used well and the presentation is an unfulfilling mix of the stylized and naturalistic.
Simplicity is the byword with several productions. Kägif works with about 100 clear plastic cups, XY with a three-foot log, and Sturrock with a telephone handset, toy ambulance, and helicopter. Even the set for Matsukaze, with the plastic tree and a little paper house, is humble in its materials.
A Midsummer Night's Dream, by Bristol Old Vic and Handspring Puppet Company, also attempts to do much with simple means. One-by-four boards, a basket, sticks, and an old-fashioned blowtorch become characters in Shakespeare's tale, but never really come alive. The doubling of the lead actors with puppets is inconsistently handled, and the wonderful scary fairy puppets don't have a major role. This is a big, complex work made nearly indecipherable and rarely enjoyable by the staging.
My Monday was the most packed day with six concerts ranging from 1840s chamber music to bluegrass to an electronically enhanced vocalist.
The pleasant surprise was the first Intermezzo concert with music by Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and Igor Stravinsky for chamber orchestra. This late afternoon treat at the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul was relaxing but invigorating with mostly high-spirited works — ragtime dances by Ives, theater music by Copland, and a ballet suite by Stravinsky. These "little" concerts are too often overlooked treasures.
At the other end of the spectrum was the Music in Time performance by vocalist and sound/video artist Pamela Z, who has been at her craft for nearly 30 years. She works almost exclusively with her own voice, electronically manipulating it and layering it live using a couple of laptops and some more obscure devices like repurposed sonogram machines. A little of the technique goes a long way and things start sounding the same after about 45 minutes.
The sameness was especially apparent coming right after Punch Brothers, who have a taste for musical variety in their genes. The group gets dubbed a progressive bluegrass band, but they are much more than that. The group can go from Steve Reich-flavored rock to mellow if tangled folk songs to a dissonant cacophony that segues into straight-ahead bluegrass. Unlike their last Spoleto performance, there was no 40-minute four-movement piece, but there was an even more thrilling high-wire act on the strings of mandolin, guitar, violin, bass, and banjo. Punch Brothers creates a new kind of music that honors the tradition of bluegrass and forges a bond with contemporary classical music. Others have done it earlier, but few better.
Punch Brothers is an ensemble — a very cohesive, creative one — and that's what chamber musicians aim for as well. The chamber ensembles that gather for Spoleto don't all play together all the time, but most of the musicians have enough experience with one another and the music that it feels like family.
A new family came on board this year, the Brentano String Quartet, taking the place of the long-time resident St. Lawrence Quartet the first week. Although both quartets formed about 20 years ago and play a similar repertoire, Brentano and St. Lawrence are "two completely different animals," according to Geoff Nuttall, chamber series director and first violinist with St. Lawrence. While St. Lawrence is loose and rather wild, Brentano is cool and controlled. It made for a slightly different first week of chamber music, but a no less rewarding one. Nuttall has brought more and more variety to the series since he took over several years ago. He successfully meshes diverse works in one concert, coupling something like the solo percussion work Rebonds by Iannis Xenakis with Schubert's beautiful String Quartet in G Major.
Part of the variety this year came from Steven Schick, the first percussionist ever featured in the chamber series. His playing was met warmly if not rapturously, and it helped that he talked about the pieces in a friendly and accessible way. The best pairing was Schick and cellist Alisa Weilerstein playing the stately Mariel by Osvaldo Golijov.
All three of the concerts were diverse, going from light to dark, fun pieces to serious and substantial. Nuttall's introductions are just right — informally informative and humorous without going overboard. With Schick finished and gone, the rest of the series might not look as radical, but make no mistake, the chamber series is one of the most exciting parts of the festival.
Visual art gets little attention from the festival, but in recent years it has partnered with Charleston-based art organizations including the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, which has mounted museum-quality shows for years. This year is no exception with Rebound: Dissections and Excavations in Book Art, in which five artists take apart and put back together books. It speaks to the importance of books, the decline of the physical book in our culture, and takes the words and pictures inside the covers and turns them into something new. While there's much intellectual richness in all these artists' works, the sheer beauty and technical accomplishment alone make this a must-see exhibition.
What's ahead is nearly two more weeks during which we may accurately decide if it was a good year. But with both Oedipus and Verdi's Requiem on the way, be assured the deathly tone will continue.