World Premieres Spark Spoleto Fest’s 40th season

Lester Lynch and Alyson Cambridge sing the titles roles in a new production of 'Porgy and Bess' at Spoleto Festival USA. (Julia Lynn)
Baritone Lester Lynch and soprano Alyson Cambridge sing the title roles in a new production of Gershwin’s
‘Porgy and Bess’ that is the centerpiece of Spoleto Festival USA. (Julia Lynn)
By Paul Hyde

CHARLESTON, S.C. — No trip to Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA, which runs through June 12, is complete without a visit to the historic Dock Street Theatre for morning or afternoon chamber music. Hosted by the engaging Geoff Nuttall, whom The New York Times dubbed “the Jon Stewart of Chamber Music” for his witty repartee with audiences, the chamber-music series remains a big attraction, an oasis of intimacy within an international festival known for its headline-grabbing world premieres of operas and other large-scale works. “We’re at the heart of the festival,” said Nuttall.

Geoff Nuttall of the St. Lawrence String Quartet directs the chamber series. (Julia Lynn)
Geoff Nuttall has directed the chamber series since 2010. (Julia Lynn)

The chamber series he has directed since 2010 frequently enjoys sold-out houses. Much of its success is no doubt owed to violinist Nuttall, who attracts first-rate young musicians to perform in more than 30 concerts at Spoleto each season. Nuttall also provides spirited introductions to the music and performers, offering often droll insights that bring to mind his illustrious predecessor, Charles Wadsworth. And, he notes, the ticket prices are nothing like what they are in New York.

Nuttall’s chamber concerts, however, will have lots of competition at this year’s festival, which is celebrating its 40th season. A new production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess will be performed at Gaillard Center, which recently received an elegant three-year, $142 million makeover. Porgy is the festival’s centerpiece and likely blockbuster, but the three-week Spoleto Festival features more than 150 other performances encompassing dance, theater, opera, jazz, and popular and classical music.  Among the highlights are two world premieres and at least four U.S. premieres.

The chamber music lineup in the historic Dock Street Theatre ranges from Bach to Osvaldo Golijov. (William Struhs)
Chamber music at Dock Street Theatre ranges from Bach to Golijov. (William Struhs)

Nuttall, not be upstaged, is featuring two world premieres on the chamber-music series. Both are by Osvaldo Golijov, the Argentine composer based in Boston. “Osvaldo is a great friend and he’s got a great history at Spoleto,” Nuttall said, speaking by phone from San Francisco International Airport. “He’s been the composer-in-residence two times before, and we’ve premiered works by him before at Spoleto.”

Golijov’s Drag Down the Sky is a 20-minute work for baritone and string quartet with a text by Conor McPherson based on the Book of Job. The piece, also known as Agamemnon’s Aria, is part of a projected opera by Golijov. It will be performed on June 4-5 by baritone Tyler Duncan and the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which Nuttall founded in 1989.

“It’s a magnificent piece,” said Nuttall, who serves as artist in residence at Stanford University and lives in nearby Portola Valley. Earlier in the festival, Nuttall and his wife, violinist Livia Sohn, will offer the world-premiere of Golijov’s Anniversary Bagatelles. Golijov wrote the duet arrangement of Beethoven bagatelles in honor of the couple’s 15th wedding anniversary.

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is at Spoleto. (Pix Talarico)
Anthony Roth Costanzo sings Handel and Gershwin. (Pix Talarico)

Among the performers in Spoleto’s chamber-music series this year is countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who will perform works by Handel as well as Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” and “Summertime.” Other featured musicians include cellist Alisa Weilerstein, pianist Inon Barnatan, clarinetist Todd Palmer, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, and violinist Benjamin Beilman.

For Nuttall, variety is the spice of the chamber series, with a range of composers and styles spotlighted — from Bach to Haydn, Mendelssohn, Glinka, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Faure to contemporary composers including Louis Andriessen and Gordon Beeferman. “Eclecticism is important for me but also introducing people to new music and, even more importantly, to real live composers,” said Nuttall, who will perform with his St. Lawrence colleagues on several programs. “That’s what keeps our art alive….Some people have very traditional tastes, so my challenge is to find a balance between new and old, and known and unknown.”

'La Double Coquette': Mailys de Villoutreys, left, and Isabelle Poulenard. (Marc Domage)
‘La Double Coquette’: Mailys de Villoutreys, left, and Isabelle Poulenard. (Marc Domage)

In its 40th anniversary season, the Spoleto Festival will offer plenty to dazzle the ear and eye. Not surprisingly, the programming is attracting considerable attention from the national and international media. More than 80 journalists are attending the festival, including 36 members of the Music Critics Association of North America, according to Jennifer Scott, Spoleto’s director of marketing and public relations. Most activities take place at various venues throughout Charleston’s charming Historic District.

“For Spoleto’s 40th year, we wanted to make the program extraordinary,” said Nigel Redden, Spoleto Festival’s general director. “There is a celebratory feeling throughout the entire program that features the signature Spoleto Festival USA blend of new works and young artists alongside established international visionaries.”

German composer Helmut Lachenmann (Astrid Karger)
German composer Helmut Lachenmann (Astrid Karger)

Porgy and Bess is well worth seeing. But  La Double Coquette, a French Baroque comic opera by Antoine Dauvergne about romantic shenanigans, is very rarely revived and should not be missed. It will receive its U.S. premiere here with revisions by contemporary composer Gérard Pesson. Another U.S. premiere will be the opera The Little Match Girl by German composer Helmut Lachenmann. Hans Christian Andersen’s tragic tale depicts a poor girl on a snowy street, lighting matches for a few seconds of fleeting warmth in her final hour.

Though it’s an international festival, Spoleto is well connected to its community.  To this end, it will mark the first anniversary of the murder of nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church with several performances. Among those events will be the world premiere of a multimedia project conceived and directed by acclaimed visual artist Carrie Mae Weems called Grace Notes: Reflections for Now. The theater piece will include music, song, text, spoken word, and video projection posing the question “What is the role of grace in the pursuit of democracy?”

“It’s not going to be a requiem, but much more of a rumination on democracy, freedom, and aspirations,” Redden said. “I think it’s going to be a very thoughtful, provocative, and inspiring piece.”

A second world premiere, a performance of the “African romance” titled Afram ou La Belle Swita by Edmund Thornton Jenkins, will feature cast members of Porgy and Bess. Redden said the production will shine a light on the accomplished but largely unknown Charleston-born Jenkins, who died in Paris in 1926 at the age of 32. “Edmund Thornton Jenkins…was the son of Daniel Jenkins,” said Redden, “a freed slave who founded the Jenkins’ Orphanage, an institution that looked after African-American orphans in Charleston. Jenkins attended the Royal Academy of Music in London. He performed extensively in Europe and had quite a respectable career. He wrote this operetta at the age of 32, and died shortly after that. This operetta has never been performed.”

Cambridge is making her role debut as Bess
Alyson Cambridge is making her role debut as Bess.

The production of Porgy and Bess, which stars baritone Lester Lynch and soprano Alyson Cambridge, was designed by Jonathan Green. An internationally acclaimed visual artist, he will take audiences on a journey from the familiar streets of Charleston to an older Charleston that reveals the roots, strength, and character of South Carolina’s Gullah community — a community in which Green himself grew up and that inspired George Gershwin when he began composing the opera at Folly Beach in 1934.

“What Jonathan has done is focus on the specialness of that community,” Redden said. “The roots and traditions of this self-sufficient community are much more clear visually. The African part of the Gullah culture becomes much more apparent.” Porgy and Bess will be performed on May 27 and 30, and June 1, 3, 8, and 12.

Spoleto’s resident choral ensemble, the Westminster Choir, will be joined by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the Spoleto Festival Orchestra to perform Beethoven’s Mass in C Major and his Choral Fantasy on June 7 in the Gaillard Center.

The jazz lineup features pianist Randy Weston. (Carol Friedman)
The jazz lineup features pianist Randy Weston. (Carol Friedman)

Jazz will play a prominent role in the festival, with appearances by the Randy Weston African Rhythms Sextet and vocalist René Marie, the Bohemian Trio, singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, the Freddy Cole Quartet, Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, and pianist Jason Moran, who will offer his program called “Fats Waller Dance Party.”

There’s much to be said for venturing beyond music to enjoy some of Spoleto’s other attractions. Dublin’s Gate Theatre, a festival favorite known for its stylish and witty productions of classics, returns with a new staging of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest this year at the Dock Street Theatre.

The innovative theater company known as 1927 brings its production of Golem to Spoleto in its U.S. premiere. Hailed by the Times of London as “a Frankenstein for the 21st century,” Golem is loosely based on the Jewish folklore myth about a man who fashions a creature out of clay to work for him.

'Opposing Forces' by choreographer Amy O'Neal (Bruce Clayton Tom)
Spoleto debut: Choreographer Amy O’Neal’s ‘Opposing Forces.’ (Bruce Clayton Tom)

Sadler’s Wells London visits the festival for the first time with a Cuban-themed dance work, Havana Rakatan. Choreographer Amy O’Neal also makes her festival debut with her hip hop work Opposing Forces.  Also on the theater slate will be three critically acclaimed productions — Ada/Ava, The Gambler’s Guide to Dying, and Every Brilliant Thing — to be performed in Charleston following international festival appearances.

Jonathan Green designed 'Porgy and Bess' and the festival poster.
Festival poster artist Jonathan Green did the stage design of ‘Porgy.’

For many festivalgoers, the 2016 events will offer the first opportunity to hear performances at the renovated Gaillard.  Porgy and Bess was the perfect musical theater work to celebrate the auditorium’s reopening, Redden said. The folk opera is set in Charleston and based on Charleston-born DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy. In 1970, the relatively new Gaillard Auditorium was the venue for a production of Porgy and Bess that is a long-remembered civic event representing unity, pride, and artistic achievement.

The Gaillard’s concert hall was redesigned to bring the audience closer to the stage and improve the hall’s acoustics. Seating capacity was reduced from 2,700 to 1,800. “The furthest away seat is much closer than it used to be,” Redden said. “It was done very much with acoustics in mind.” The formerly dark concert hall now is bathed in an apricot-colored light. “One of the things about doing a festival in Charleston is that people come from all over the country and the world to the festival — more than half of our audience is from out of the state,” Redden said. “They come to Charleston because it’s beautiful. Unfortunately, I don’t think the old Gaillard gave you much of a flavor of Charleston. But I think this new theater will.”

Redden attended a concert last fall for the gala reopening of the Gaillard that featured the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and cellist Yo-Yo Ma as soloist. (Construction delays prevented the Gaillard from being available until this year’s event.) “The acoustic is really beautiful,” he said. “There was a wonderful richness to the sound but it felt intimate at the same time. It was agonizing to have to wait, but we’re thrilled to get back into the theater.”

Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for The Greenville (SC) News. Follow Paul on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7. Paul can be reached at

The Gaillard Center received a $142 million makeover that reduced seating capacity from 2,700 to 1,800. (Blue Ion)
The Gaillard Center received a $142 million makeover that reduced seating capacity from 2,700 to 1,800. (Blue Ion)