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This year's USA Spoleto Festival stays strong despite its misfortunes

Wednesday, June 07, 2000

By Robert Croan, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The USA Spoleto Festival has been much beleaguered this year. First, there was the matter of the Confederate flag, which flies over the state capitol building in Columbia, precipitating a boycott of the festival by the NAACP and cancellations by several artists and ensembles.


Robert Croan is president of The Music Critics Association of North America.


And although the flag is about to be moved to a compromise location, the boycott remains. The festival's board of directors issued a statement calling for the flag to be removed from the state house, and Charleston's Mayor Joseph Riley went so far as to join a protest walk to Columbia, but Spoleto Festival USA 2000 is taking a big hit, nonetheless, with attendance so far down more than 10 percent below last year's figures.

Contributing to the woes of general director Nigel Redden -- who took over the American component of the festival that composer Gian-Carlo Menotti founded first in Italy and later here -- was a crippling swimming injury incurred by Antoine Rigot, artistic director of a French circus that had to cancel several scheduled performances as a result.

Still another related misfortune was the death in March of musical administrator Erica Gastelli, known to Pittsburghers for her work with the Ezio Pinza Council for American Singers of Opera.

Redden faced all these misfortunes, refunding money for lost performances, replacing some of the artists who canceled and adding a special concert aimed at the local black community.

The Music Critics Association of North America, which had long since accepted an invitation to hold its annual convention in conjunction with Spoleto USA from May 31-June 4, lost some attendees as a result of the boycott, too. The issue of the flag was taken under advisement by the association as a matter of serious concern, but in consideration of the stance taken by the festival and the mayor, it was decided to go ahead with the meeting as planned.

It may sound like the answer to "Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" but this year's Spoleto Festival in Charleston has been as lively and artistically potent as any I have attended in the past. There were two major contemporary works (by Chinese-American Bright Sheng and German Heiner Goebbels), two productions of operas that are older but off the beaten path (Verdi's "Luisa Miller" and Gluck's "Iphigenie en Tauride"), traditional ballet and modern dance, theater ranging from life-sized marionettes to Berthold Brecht's "Mother Courage" and -- perhaps the most consistent drawing card to this festival over the years -- the twice-daily chamber music concerts held and directed for the past 24 years by the beloved and inimitable Charles Wadsworth.

Concurrently, there's Piccolo Spoleto, a fringe festival that offers even more performances each day than its renowned big brother. Add to this superb dining, upscale shops and exquisite architecture all around, and one thing is certain: There's something to do in Charleston every waking hour in the three-week period that lasts through Sunday.

Highly provocative were two powerful works from the past decade. Goebbels' "Surrogate Cities," composed in 1996 for the 1,200th anniversary of the city of Frankfurt, is a mammoth symphonic-vocal-electronic work, which for its American premiere was staged by Opera Theater of Pittsburgh Director Jonathan Eaton. The venue was Charleston's Memminger Auditorium, a grand old theater destroyed in the 1980s by Hurricane Hugo and only partially restored for this occasion.

The work is scored for huge orchestra, vocal soloists and sampler, conducted with strength and dedication by Spoleto's outgoing music director, Steven Sloane. Against a stark black background, spotlights flash harshly into the audience, performers straddle catwalks, pop-style singers vocalize serious (and often pretentious) poetry describing the phenomenon of cities from various sides.

The composer's name brings to mind an infamous Nazi (no relation), but the work does address the history of Germany and Judaism in cantorial extracts during a half-hour-long Suite for Sampler and Orchestra that is perhaps the weakest segment. The jazzy vocals by 19-year-old Kristin Williams and rap song-speech of David Moss were most effective, and would have been more so had the program booklet contained texts and background information.

It should be noted that the live performance was a half-hour longer than the simultaneously issued ECM CD version, and that the sections were performed in an entirely different order.

Sheng's "Silver River," in contrast, is a delicate, subtle piece that tells an ancient Chinese legend in a mixture of Eastern and Western musical idioms. Originally performed at the 1997 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, "Silver River" was newly -- and very beautifully -- staged in the small Garden Theater by Ong Keng Sen and librettist David Henry Hwang (author the Broadway hit "M. Butterfly").

Hwang's libretto is hokey and sentimental, but it worked in this setting. The Jade Emperor, played by a Chinese Opera singer (Jamie Guan), fears that a human will destroy the world, and he sends a beautiful golden buffalo (Karen Kandel, who translates his words into spoken English) to prevent this. She falls in love with a mortal cowherd, who is portrayed dually by a mellifluous operatic baritone (Michael Chioldi) and a flutist (David Fedele). The buffalo falls in love with the cowherd, but he rejects her for a weaver, also enacted dually -- by a silent dancer (Muna Tseng) and a player of the pipa (Wu Man), a Chinese pear-shaped lute, who just about steals the show.

If this all sounds complicated, it isn't so in the realization. The emotions are simple and moving, and the performances last week -- conducted by the composer himself -- were superb right down the line.

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