With Virus In Retreat, Music Bug Is Back At Southeastern Festivals

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JoAnn Falletta, principal guest conductor of the Brevard Music Festival. (Photo courtesy of Brevard Music Festival)

PERSPECTIVE — Classical music festivals in the Southeast have come roaring back as concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic subside.

Audiences likewise appear to be streaming back into concert halls and theaters as presenters return to full operations after two years of canceled or severely curtailed performances.

Venues appear to be operating at 100 percent capacity; patrons sit cheek by jowl. Masks are coming off, too, though policies differ from event to event. The Spoleto Festival USA required masking at indoor events, for instance, but the ongoing Brevard Music Center Summer Festival does not.

Spoleto Festival USA

Charleston, the most tradition-bound of cities, becomes as artistically innovative as San Francisco or New York for the three-week Spoleto Festival USA.

The 2022 edition of the arts festival, which ran May 26-June 11, attracted more than 48,000 ticket-holders and $2.7 million in sales. The 46th annual Spoleto offered 124 performances, including 10 world and U.S. premieres encompassing opera, classical music, theater, dance, chamber music, European-style circus, jazz, and pop music.

The year’s festival marked the first for new general director Mena Mark Hanna, though because performances are planned well in advance, much of this year’s festival was the brainchild of Nigel Redden, who stepped down in October after 35 years at the helm but was highly visible in the audience this year.

One of Redden’s projects was the long-delayed world premiere of Omar, the Rhiannon Giddens/Michael Abels opera, which enjoyed five sold-out performances. This haunting, lyrical work about enslaved Islamic scholar Omar Ibn Said won praise from many critics, including Perry Tannenbaum, writing in Classical Voice North America. Conductor John Kennedy led a glowing performance. The visually stunning production moves on to Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago in the coming months.

Matthew White (Rodolfo) and Lauren Michelle (Mimi) in Yuval Sharon’s reverse-order production of ‘La Boheme’ at the Spoleto Festival USA. (Photo by Leigh Webber)

Yuval Sharon’s reverse-order La boheme turned out to be a dream production. Sharon’s staging began with Act IV, then proceeded to Act III, Act II, and Act I. It may have seemed gimmicky but it worked well, thanks to the fine young lyric voices on stage. Especially pleasing were Lauren Michelle’s soaring Mimi and Matthew White’s mellifluous Rodolfo. It was a delight to see a legend, tenor George Shirley, in the speaking role of The Wanderer, a sort of narrator who helped the audience navigate this reworked Boheme. Conductor Kensho Watanabe drew polished playing from the Spoleto Festival Orchestra.

Karim Sulayman’s Unholy Wars was a compendium of Baroque operatic excerpts centered around the Middle East and the Crusades. The stylized and visually arresting production examined the separation of the human race based on color and creed.

The ever-engaging Geoff Nuttall led the Bank of American Chamber Music Series with spirited and insightful commentary at the historic Dock Street Theatre.

Those performances barely scratch the surface of the array of theatre, dance and music attractions offered by the festival in Charleston, a gem of a city. For the cultural omnivore, Spoleto remains a bucket-list destination.

Sarasota Music Festival

The accent at Florida’s Sarasota Music Festival, which ran June 6-25 this year, is on chamber music, but the three-week event also featured full orchestral concerts, all under the leadership of music director Jeffrey Kahane.

Like the Brevard and Eastern music festivals, Sarasota is a concert series and music academy for talented young classical musicians.

Nearly 500 musicians from top music programs at colleges and conservatories worldwide audition to participate in the festival each year, but only 60 are accepted. These exceptional musicians work side-by-side with a group of 40 music professionals from America’s major orchestras. 

Pianist Robert Levin performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 on June 18 with Kahane conducting the Sarasota Music Festival Orchestra. The concert also featured music by Rameau and Brahms.

Conductor-pianist Jeffrey Kahane. (Photo courtesy of the Sarasota Music Festival)

The festival closer on June 25 featured violinist Francesca Anderegg taking on Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, with Kahane on the podium. Also featured was Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Walker’s 1946 Lyric for Strings, dedicated to the composer’s grandmother, a formerly enslaved person. The concert concluded with Mendelssohn’s sunny “Italian” Symphony.

Several other chamber programs also were offered in Sarasota, home to excellent beaches, hotels, and restaurants. For more information, visit sarasotaorchestra.org/festival or call (941) 953-3434.

Brevard Music Festival, through Aug. 7

The Brevard Music Center summer festival regularly attracts 40,000 patrons to its idyllic performance venues in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The festival presents 80 performances encompassing opera, jazz, orchestral music, and chamber music, with roughly half of those events free.

Brevard is both a concert series and a summer institute for 500 talented young classical musicians who embrace everything they do with skill, style, and go-for-broke commitment.

The leadership of high-profile Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart has helped the festival garner visits in recent pre-pandemic years by such soloists as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and pianists Andre Watts and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, among others.

This year, violinist Joshua Bell returns to Brevard to perform a July 26 program called Voice and the Violin with soprano Larisa Martinez, featuring music by Mendelssohn, Schubert, Puccini, and Bernstein. The next day, Bell performs Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Brevard Music Center Orchestra and Lockhart on the podium.

The season opened June 24 with pianist Conrad Tao performing Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations and Ken Lam conducting the Brevard Music Center Orchestra. Also on the program were Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Violinist Joshua Bell returns to Brevard perform a July 26 program called ‘Voice and the Violin’ with soprano Larisa Martinez. (Photo courtesy of the Brevard Music Festival)

Brevard has a vibrant opera/music theatre program; this season’s features are Opera’s Greatest Hits (June 23), Bizet’s Carmen (June 20, July 2), Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (July 14, 16), Mitch Leigh’s Man of La Mancha (July 28-30), and An Evening with Cole Porter (Aug. 4).

Among many other featured works are Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto (with violinist Maya Anjali Buchanan) and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (Katharina Wincor conducting, June 26); Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (with pianist Lara Downes) and Dvořák’s American Suite and Ellington’s Harlem (JoAnn Falletta conducting, July 8); Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto (Gabriela Martinez, piano) and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 (Matthias Bamert conducting); Florence Price’s First Violin Concerto (with Randall Goosby, violin) and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (Lockhart conducting).

The season concludes Aug. 5 with Lockhart leading Mahler’s epic Third Symphony.

Throughout the summer, Brevard will spotlight more popular entertainment as well, with an ABBA tribute band (June 25), the Steep Canyon Rangers (June 28) and banjo virtuoso and frequent Brevard guest Bela Fleck (Aug. 20).

For more information, visit www.brevardmusic.org or call (828) 862-2100.

Eastern Music Festival, June 25-July 30

The Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, N.C., returns to a full schedule of more than 60 performances for its 61st year after canceling the in-person 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then operating at a limited capacity during the summer of 2021.

Each summer, the festival attracts more than 250 Young Artists (ages 14-23) from across the U.S. and around the world to study and perform for five weeks with its 75-plus faculty musicians, many from nationally recognized symphony orchestras and music schools.

In 2019, over 21,000 people attended the Eastern Music Festival’s 65-plus ticketed performances and events by three symphonies, multiple chamber ensembles, and signature guest artists, and many more participated in community engagement performances at libraries, churches, retirement communities, galleries, and museums.

Conductor Gerard Schwarz, music director of the festival since 2007, leads the festival orchestra on July 2 in Howard Hanson’s Third Symphony, Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Lara St. John.

Pianist Santiago Rodriguez performs Grieg’s Piano Concerto on July 9. Also on the concert is Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, with Schwarz conducting.

Violinist Lara St. John will perform Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto at the Eastern Music Festival. (Credit: JR Sheetz)

Guitarist Jason Vieaux performs the world premiere of Avner Dorman’s work for guitar and orchestra called How to Love on July 23.

Schwarz leads towering orchestral works such as Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (July 16), Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 (July 23), and Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra (July 30).

The festival features dozens of chamber concerts.

Based in the heart of North Carolina, the festival and and its summer educational program run June 25 through July 31. Performances take place at Guilford College and other locations around Greensboro and Boone, N.C. For more information, visit easternmusicfestival.org or call (336) 272-0160.

GLOW Lyric Theatre Summer Festival, July 15-31

A concern for social justice drives the GLOW Lyric Theatre Summer Festival in Greenville, S.C. The two-week festival, July 15-31, aims to “spark dialogue and ignite change through opera and musical theatre,” said Jenna Elser, GLOW’s artistic director.

Now in its 12th year, GLOW offers three productions this summer, including the Southern premiere of Stinney: An American Execution. The opera, with music by Frances Pollock, deals with the real-life story of George Stinney Jr., an African American who became the youngest person to be legally executed in the United States in the 20th century. In a notoriously unfair 1944 trial, the 14-year-old was convicted by an all-white South Carolina jury for murdering two girls, but that judgment was vacated 70 years later.

Stinney received its world premiere at Opera Grand Rapids in February. GLOW’s production marks only the second time the opera has been staged. It’s particularly poignant to perform the opera with a South Carolina cast in the state where the incident occurred, Elser said.

“Without restorative truth-telling, we can’t move forward with racial justice,” she said.

Gavin Rector is George Stinney Jr. in ‘Stinney: An American Execution. (Photo by Christian Elser)

Also planned for the festival is the Elton John-Tim Rice musical Aida, with a plot that follows Verdi’s classic opera. The musical about two warring nations takes on added resonance in light of the conflict in Ukraine, Elser said: “Its main theme is that love can create peace and can win over hate and discrimination.”

Aida, which enjoyed a four-year Broadway run (2000-2004), also explores the GLOW festival’s theme of racial justice.

Aida is the story of a love triangle involving the Nubian slave Aida, her Egyptian conqueror Radames, and his betrothed, Amneris, against the background of the Nubian struggle for freedom from Egyptian slavery.

Rounding out the festival is Classic Broadway, featuring medleys of songs from South Pacific, West Side Story, and other musicals that also touch on themes of social justice.

Led by Elser and her husband, executive director Christian Elser, GLOW is returning to full productions after seasons of virtual performances (2020) and limited stagings (2021).

“This will be our most expansive and expensive season to date,” said Christian Elser. “I feel the best about this season than I ever have because we’ve come back after two years when the arts could have been totaling decimated. The support we’ve enjoyed feels wonderful.”

GLOW’s performances take place at Greenville’s Kroc Center. For tickets, visit https://glowlyric.com/ or call (864) 558-4569.