Spoleto 2009 » Features

Long Live King Coif

All the buzz about the new director of chamber series, bad ideas, spider men, and more

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So it looks like Geoff Nuttall dyed his hair just in time. Observers have been buzzing for two years about whether Charles Wadsworth, the 80-year-old director of chamber music for Spoleto Festival USA, was planning to retire. And when he announced that he was, speculation began about who would replace him. The good bet was Nuttall, who has been collaborating with Wadsworth at the festival for years. His ascent was made official Sunday. A few days before, however, he surprised audiences with a dye job that favored Guy Fieri from the Food Network. Along with being "the most important associate director in the world," Wadsworth said that day, Nuttall was also "the most incredibly coiffed." Such was the buzz last week.

A bad idea

We've seen a lot of reading at Spoleto. A recent performance of a Bach cantata by the Westminster Choir was punctuated by a wave of sound from people turning pages to keep up with the lyrics. First, it was startling. And then it was funny. Reading was evidently important to getting the most out of Westminster's a cappella concert at the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul, too. Don't want to miss the meaning of all those hosannas.

At least reading made sense at this concert. If you wanted to follow along, you could, because the "house" lights were left up. That's standard for choral concerts. And besides, it's not like you're going to miss the action on stage. It's a choir.

Theater, however, is a different animal. The house lights are supposed to go down to create the illusion that you're watching a new world unfold on stage, and there's usually some kind of action taking place. If what happens on stage requires you to gaze downward, away from the stage and onto a piece of paper with, say, song lyrics on them, doesn't that indicate a kind of fundamental problem with the whole enterprise?

I know all this is obvious, but it evidently escaped the attention of the people behind Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre's 20th Century. Much of the work's meaning was to be found in writing, I was told by Martha Teichner, the veteran CBS correspondent who donates her time to the festival by conducting the Conversations Series.

I happened to be seated next to Teichner. As we waited for the start, we made small talk. She said she had seen Addicted to Bad Ideas in New York and was struck by the fact that she couldn't hear the lyrics. The lyrics, she said, were vital to getting the full meaning of the show. And Terricloth is really a good writer, she said. So she took it on herself to call Terricloth's people to suggest he put them on paper. And they did.

The result was a kind of house divided at the opening of Addicted to Bad Ideas. On the one hand, there were young 20- and 30-somethings rocking out, loving the music and the multimedia show. Some were even singing along, apparently familiar with the storyline from the get-go. On the other were boomers, head bent down, trying to use the ambient light from the stage to read the printed matter, green foam plugs crammed into their ears.

Some people got some of the meaning some of the time, but no one got all of it all the time (unless they already knew the piece). It's sad that Bad Ideas is marred by one bad idea. All it needs now are some good ones.

One to watch

Just when you think you know someone, she proves you wrong.

I know Emily Wilhoit as the head of the League of Charleston Theaters. I have quoted her in news stories, because she's the spokesperson for local stage companies. But I had never seen her perform.

I missed Gypsy and I missed the last time she and David Mandel did Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years. By coincidence, I have seen her husband Josh perform, but not Wilhoit. I didn't have reason to think she was a bad actress and yet I didn't have reason to anticipate anything more from her than a warm personality, a kind smile, and a capable administrator of an important nonprofit organization.

After seeing her in The Last Five Years, from now on, things will be different. In the musical, Wilhoit plays Kathy, a struggling actress married to a more successful husband and novelist, Jamie. The story of their failed marriage is told in two directions at once. Forward from Jamie's perspective. Backward from Kathy's. It sounds a lot more cerebral than it is. Mandel and Wilhoit make it look and sound easy and natural.

Kathy is the role that for me confirmed Wilhoit's status as one to watch. Though she told me later that Wednesday's show wasn't her best (I sense a little modesty there), it still demonstrated an emerging actress with powerful singing and a strong and often commanding stage presence. She was earnest, funny, ironic, and doubtful — sometimes all of these things in a single song.

Pulling off envy and hope isn't easy. But she did it. One song calls for her to express pride in her husband's success (the publication of his first book) and pride in being a part of that success. In the same song, she struggles to find comfort in that, because to acknowledge the reality of her own stalled career is too much to bear. There's another song in which she provides an inner monologue while auditioning for a Broadway show that expresses the fear of anyone trying to make it with the fear of anyone trying to build a family life. It's both funny and bittersweet — you care for her and you laugh at her. It's both at once.

'Sperm whales' is funny

John Kennedy, the director of Spoleto's Music in Time series, usually presents himself as a courteous, urbane, and sophisticated spokesman for new music and contemporary composers. During Spoleto, it was no different, except we also got to witness Kennedy's impish impulses at a recital by the peerless Yumiko Tanaka. Tanaka is a master of the shamisen, or three-stringed guitar from Japan. One of her pieces was by the Japanese composer Michio Mamiya.

Called A Monster, it was inspired by a story reprinted in the program. To allow the tech crew time to make stage changes, Kennedy read aloud the story. The story is about a monster too big to live in Japan, so he jumped into the sea, after which he realizes there are "five thousand little whales inside his trousers." Kennedy paused for a long moment after reading the word "trousers."

"It doesn't say if they're sperm whales," he interjected.

Kennedy's all right.

Spider Men

A spider web is a natural paradox. It's stronger than steel, relative to its size, and yet it's more elastic. Can genres of music be thought of the same way? Coming down from Bill Monroe and his lineage, bluegrass was never stronger but also pretty rigid. His inheritors tend to be the least flexible. In the hands of explorers like David Grisman, bluegrass has been deconstructed to a degree at which it might not be recognized as bluegrass anymore. If there's a practitioner who most resembles a spider web, who challenges the tradition without dismantling it, it might be Chris Thile.

The former frontman for Nickel Creek was evidently stunned to be so well-received by Spoleto fans this week. "Thanks to those people who thought this was a good idea," he said at the end of the performance. "We did." The rest of us did too. It's really not that surprising to find Thile on a Spoleto bill. Especially after witnessing his latest creation, The Blind Leaving the Blind. It's a long work, perhaps too long for purists. But draped over its bluegrass bones are influences ranging from Bartok to Bach to Keith Jarrett. It was a lovely piece that to my ears sounded a bit studious at times but nonetheless striking in its ambition and affection of bluegrass. Thile doesn't want to get away from it; he just wants it to grow.

And I say all this because last Wednesday night, about half way through the show, I noticed something. It was a long and single fiber of spider web miraculously attached to the scroll of the double bass, the other end wafting in the breeze. The Punch Brothers are really the Spider-Men.

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