CHARLESTON, S.C. — When Martha Teichner spoke with Nigel Redden over the Memorial Day weekend, there were three major takeaways from the Spoleto Festival USA general director — in what will stand as Redden’s exit interview for most of us in the live or online audience. As we might have guessed, setting up the 2021 festival has been notably awkward after the cancellation of last year’s 17-day event due to the coronavirus pandemic. If Redden and his staff had anticipated how quickly vaccinations would open up Charleston’s indoor venues, Spoleto scheduling could have been more robust.
Because this year’s festival is so downsized after the hiatus, Redden stated, next year’s festival will be pivotal for Spoleto’s survival. The normal balance between popular and outré events will need to be skewed toward the cash cows. Staying on until October but keeping his hands off the search for his successor, Redden will certainly play a key role in framing the 2022 lineup.
Notably modest about his impact and achievements during his most recent 26-year tenure and his prior stint at the helm from 1986 to 1991, Redden was surprisingly frank about his decision to step down. He pointed unhesitatingly to the #BlackLivesMatter Movement that arose amid the turbulence of 2020 and, more specifically, to the manifesto issued by the We See You White American Theatre coalition of BIPOC theater artists demanding radical, immediate, and long overdue reforms.
To those willing to overlook the often-scathing tone and occasional militancy of the 29-page “Accountability Report” and its demands, WSYWAT was offering a blueprint on how to create an anti-racist American theater. Though not primarily a theater person, Redden saw himself checking two major boxes in the laundry list of justifiable grievances, the color of his skin and the length of his reign.
What Redden said back in September, that the cancellation of the 2020 Spoleto and enforced isolation had weighed heavily upon him, sounded right for a press release. This more recent elucidation sounds right for Redden. We can see a continuous line of white males at the helms of various sectors of Spoleto since its opening season in 1977, beginning with festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti leading the student orchestra, Charles Wadsworth hosting the lunchtime chamber music concerts, and Joseph Flummerfelt leading the Westminster Choir.
The younger men carrying on their tradition are notably more adventurous in their programming, such as Joe Miller leading Westminster, Geoff Nuttall hosting the chamber music at Dock Street Theatre, and John Kennedy wearing one of the two hats worn by Menotti as resident conductor of the orchestra. Since the Westminster is a separate entity from Spoleto and Nuttall was Wadsworth’s hand-picked successor, Redden’s hand in pushing the festival to a fuller embrace of new and contemporary music was most emphatic in his appointment of Kennedy.
Yet the international tone and resources of the festival have led Kennedy to widen his horizons in recent years, and an unmistakable tidal shift has occurred in the choral and chamber music programming as well, now permeated with contemporary repertoire and studded with world premieres. COVID restrictions have kept Kennedy and Miller away from Spoleto for two seasons now, relegated to digital presentations on YouTube during this year’s festival — video self-portraits and bite-sized performances that will linger online through June 18. So it has been Nuttall’s responsibility to carry the torch in live events for the 2021 season, reasserting the festival’s right to be recognized among the world’s preeminent champions of new music.
Nine of the eleven programs at this year’s festival (each repeated three times) are showcasing works by living composers, including five pieces by composers appearing live at Dock Street Theatre and four world premieres. Most of these were clustered at the top end of the schedule, making tickets, always tough to score on opening weekends at Spoletos, particularly tight in this year of social distancing. So we were obliged to miss all four live performances of works by this year’s composer-in-residence, Jessica Meyer, and asked to limit our requests for press seats to one concert.
Turning my attention to the second of Spoleto’s three weekends, I had little difficulty settling on my choice: the return of cellist Alisa Weilerstein to the festival in the world premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s Milonga. With Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat on the same program, I would also get to see five players I’d never heard before at Dock Street.
Hoping against hope, I also requested Program VIII: more Weilerstein — again paired with pianist Inon Barnatan — and the return of Anthony Roth Costanzo, the superstar countertenor, beloved at Spoleto years before the éclat of his Met Opera debut. My first choice was granted. Although Costanzo’s return was solidly sold-out for all three performances, my chutzpah was rewarded with an offer to choose between two additional programs.
Had I known that violinist Livia Sohn, Nuttall’s spouse, would be returning from a hand injury in Program III to premiere a Meyer composition written specially for her, From Our Ashes, my choice of her subsequent appearance in Program V would have been easier to make. That concert included the Handel Oboe Concerto in G minor and Saint-Saëns’ fearsome Hippogriff violin sonata, with a contemporary wildcard in between them, Kenji Bunch’s The 3 Gs for solo viola.
Whether he’s anticipating next season’s make-or-break festival or simply realizing that much of what he does on the Dock Street stage will endure in perpetuity on YouTube, where excerpts of every concert are streamed as soon as one day after a program bows out, Nuttall has noticeably sharpened his emceeing. Simply watch the streamed excerpts of Program VII and you’ll see.
To gin up excitement for Golijov’s Milonga, Nuttall not only hailed the return of the Weilerstein-Barnatan duo and the stature of the composer, he brought on hornist David Byrd-Marrow to help demonstrate the two rhythms clashing with each other in the piece. These two rhythms, the 3-3-2 pattern of the milonga and the 4/4 of Joseph Achron’s “Hebrew Melody” (written for Jascha Heifetz), repeatedly diverging and converging, personify the composer himself and his Argentinian/Jewish heritage.
Before bringing Byrd-Marrow on, Nuttall mocked himself a little by confessing that Barnatan had suggested that he demonstrate the milonga beat with one hand and the 4/4 with the other — a “total fail,” he recounted, when he made the attempt. At the end of the demo, having said that the two rhythms bumped against each other, Nuttall and Byrd-Marrow actually finished back-to-back, bumping each other.
In short, Nuttall scorns the seriousness of “setting the mood” in favor of trying to make his enthusiasm contagious. Remarkably, this humorous approach worked for a melancholy piece, cuing us to look for something we would surely find. That turned out to be chiefly Achron’s tune and Golijov’s variations on it, for Weilerstein is such a mesmerizing and rapturous performer that I gladly dwelled in the soul of Jewish melody while I was at Dock Street Theatre, mostly oblivious to the countercurrent of Barnatan’s Argentinian flavorings at the keyboard. That friction was more readily savored a day later when the YouTube replay was released.
Nuttall analyzed the Septet in a manner that would have pleased Wadsworth, but he added a couple of layers: the wild popularity of the piece, which eventually annoyed the more mature Beethoven, and his own iconoclastic preference for early Beethoven over the more widely admired masterworks of the middle and late periods. The sunniness of the music and the fecundity of melody, Nuttall extravagantly predicted, would surely send us off into the streets singing and dancing.
The Septet was a wonderful chance to see most of the newcomers in action, including bassoonist Monica Ellis, violinist Jennifer Frautschi, violist Ayane Kozasa, cellist Arlen Hlusko, and Byrd-Marrow. While this genial romp gave Byrd-Marrow a merry workout on the French horn with repeated hunting calls, the chief protagonists were Frautschi and clarinetist Todd Palmer, facing off at opposite sides of the stage. Palmer was as jocund and propulsive as ever, leading the woodwinds, while Frautschi was liveliness, intensity, and joy leading the strings. Anthony Manzo, like Palmer a longtime fixture at Spoleto, stood like a pillar between the two sections, genially keeping time on the double bass.
Frautschi had already distinguished herself in the Hippogriff, lavishing her bold, fruity tone on the Saint-Saëns sonata with even greater intensity, zest, and decisiveness, bringing Program V to a triumphant conclusion. Peak ferocity was reached minutes after the notorious torrent of 704 sixteenth notes that begin the closing Allegro molto, when Frautschi and pianist Pedja Muzijevic, already red-lining the tempo, turned on the turbojets.
Ignoring the note count of the frantic Allegro molto, Nuttall cited it as among the greatest moments in all of chamber music and asserted that Saint-Saëns is inexplicably underrated in the pantheon of great composers, a genius in the Mozart mold. His intro for the Handel concerto was more droll, embarrassing oboist James Austin Smith by floating the idea of celebrating his manly beauty by making him a centerfold in a Spoleto swimsuit calendar. Then he prevailed on Smith to demonstrate how Handel expected his featured soloists to improvise. To contrast, Nuttall now invited all the musicians onstage, instead of playing their written parts, to improvise behind Smith as he repeated his little performance.
Cacophony. A bad idea — illustrating the Baroque balance Handel adhered to. One of Nuttall’s cornier shticks.
Like Wadsworth before him, Nuttall doesn’t scorn pedagogy altogether. He seemed to revel, in fact, in teaching us the concept of scordatura, purposeful mistuning, as violist Hsin-Yun Huang prepared to make her Spoleto debut soloing on Bunch’s The 3 Gs. Nuttall and Huang showed us the normal tuning of her instrument from top to bottom, A-D-G-C, and how Bunch would be obliging the violist to retune two of strings to an A-G-G-G configuration.
Then a parting shot for us to mull over as Nuttall exited to the wings: “Hsin-Yun will never be closer to Jimi Hendrix as you are about to see her.” We soon realized what he had meant — and why there was a piano bench onstage next to Huang. Strums on the strings were the easiest of Bunch’s demands on the violist’s right hand in the hectic opening section of his piece. A sprinkling and then a barrage of finger taps on the four strings and along the fingerboard launches the solo, utilizing three or four fingers and making it impossible to grasp a bow.
When the piece did permit Huang to pick up her bow from its resting place on the piano bench, the music moved slightly closer to Hendrix, settling in a region somewhere between jazz and bluegrass, a bit funky and definitely appealing — with plenty of ricochet and double bowing to test the soloist’s mettle. In the video excerpt, which remains free online through June 18, Huang’s exploits on viola are followed almost instantly by Frautschi’s bravura in the Saint-Saëns finale, a rather remarkable sequence.
Three of the four Jessica Meyer works featured at Spoleto this year are also preserved on the streamable excerpts. Sohn’s comeback is predictably captured, as is American Haiku, cellist Paul Wiancko’s touching tribute to his wife, Kozasa, and their mixed heritages, which the couple performed in a memorable cello-viola duet. Kozasa is even more impressive in Program IV, where she teams with Palmer — at the top of his game — and Muzijevic in Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio. None of that performance is omitted. Nuttall’s intro, a typical mix of humor and nostalgia, will tell you why.
Redden’s valedictory season will have a momentous afterword when the curtain goes up fully again in 2022. Then we will finally behold the world premiere of Omar, the opera by Rhiannon Giddens. Originally scheduled for a 2020 premiere, Omar is based on the autobiography, written in Arabic, of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim-African man who was enslaved and transported to Charleston. The twice-postponed premiere will be a final testament that Redden’s vision for Spoleto is grounded in diversity — and firmly rooted in Charleston’s checkered history.
Perry Tannenbaum regularly covers the performing arts scene in Charlotte, N.C., for Queen City Nerve and CVNC. His CD and concert reviews have also appeared in American Record Guide and Jazz Times.