Looking For Red, White and Blue Between Bach, Beethoven And Brahms: Can American Music Be Found at American Music Festivals?

Down in Charleston, South Carolina, the blooming of magnolias and azaleas is followed by the opening of the Spoleto Festival USA. Held in early summer, this 23-year-old festival holds plenty for those who want more than the three Bs.

Charleston, South Carolina
May 28–June 13, 1999

Contemporary American and international music is laced throughout Spoleto’s 130-performance 17-day festival, which encompasses all arts. Theater directed by David Mamet and Ping Chong, the Miami City Ballet dancing Balanchine set to Gershwin, a new Laurie Anderson multimedia work, a Kurt Weill opera never performed in America -— festivalgoers can choose which flavor of premiere they’d like to taste.

“The festival has always been committed to contemporary artists who are doing interesting work,” says Spoleto General Manager Nigel Redden, “an enormous amount of which turns out to be American.”

A keystone to this philosophy is Spoleto’s “Music in Time” series (which used to be called “20th Century Perspectives,” but has been upgraded with the imminent arrival of the 21st century). Directed by Essential Music co-founder and percussionist John Kennedy, “Music in Time” is a series of almost exclusively contemporary American works. This year’s four concerts featured John Luther Adams’s new work for chamber orchestra Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, a premiere of Kennedy’s, and “Music at the Edge,” a program of works written at the beginning and the end of this century.

A highlight of this year’s Festival was the world premiere of performance artist Laurie Anderson’s Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, a Spoleto-commissioned multimedia work based on Herman Melville’s whale of a tome. Despite suggestions from local Charleston critics that perhaps the electronic doyen was in over her head, Anderson and Spoleto get points for bravely wrangling big game productions. (Spoleto specializes in behemoth-themed mixed-media stagings: last year was Steve Reich and Beryl Korot’s Hindenburg.)

A second highlight was the American stage premiere (better late than never) of Kurt Weill’s 1932 opera Die Bürgschaft. Thematic connections to Weill’s opera were built to other departments of Spoleto, with a cabaret evening of songs by Weill, Hanns Eisler and pre-tone-row Arnold Schoenberg in a program entitled “1930s Berlin,” and concerts of chamber orchestra works by the three.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do is to integrate contemporary with some of the more traditional aspects of our program,” says Redden of Spoleto’s daily chamber music concerts. “Of three pieces on each program, one has a good chance of being a contemporary American piece.”

Chance did not favor contemporary American or any contemporary composers this season, though, with programs of Debussy, Brahms and Haydn landing squarely in the wholesale traditional bin. But the Spoleto Festival Orchestra’s concert loaded the I Ching with Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Ives’s The Unanswered Question and Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, as did a Westminster Choir concert with works by Poulenc, Vaughan Williams and Barber.

And, the Festival finale concert was a fireworks-included tribute to American composers, with performances of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait and Fanfare for the Common Man, Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (you go, girl), and Ives’s Decoration Day, Gershwin’s Catfish Row suite from Porgy and Bess, which after all is based on an actual street in Charleston.

In addition, Spoleto’s jazz series featured legendary Harlem composer/saxophonist Sonny Rollins and the yes,-they’re–still-around-world-music band Oregon.

“The theory behind the festival,” says Redden, “is that we encourage people to hear and see a great variety of things so that they find some of it challenging, some of it entertaining, some of it provocative, some of it sublime.”

From Looking For Red, White and Blue Between Bach, Beethoven And Brahms
by Mic Holwin
© 1999 NewMusicBox

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