This week would have marked the 44th season of Spoleto Festival USA. Founded in 1977 by Gian Carlo Menotti, it’s earned an international reputation as one of the finest performing arts festivals in the south.
More than 140 dance, theater, music and other artistic performances and events were slated to take place during the 17-day festival, which takes place in Charleston, South Carolina. The coronavirus (COVID-19) forced a cancellation of this year’s physical events. However, audiences can still enjoy free digital and radio broadcast programming in lieu of the 2020 season.
Spoleto at Home
“When we initially announced the Festival’s cancellation, we received an outpouring of overwhelmingly encouraging, albeit saddened, messages from our audience,” says General Director Nigel Redden.“Artists were similarly disappointed — Spoleto is a highlight of their year.
With Spoleto at Home, the Festival seeks to celebrate our community and honor the Festival process to the best of our ability. While gathering in person is not possible, I hope Spoleto at Home programming can bring a small amount of what makes the Festival so special into each of our living rooms, providing a little light in these dark moments.”
Since the Festival’s inception in 1977, the twice-daily chamber music concerts at Dock Street Theatre have been beloved cornerstones of each season. They are famous for their assemblage of leading musicians and eclectic programming. As such, Spoleto is partnering with South Carolina ETV to produce one of the most robust elements of Spoleto at Home: weekday radio broadcasts of 11 past Bank of America Chamber Music programs, curated by Festival Director of Chamber Music Geoff Nuttall.
“There’s nothing like the energy and intimacy of being at the Dock Street Theatre during a chamber music concert at Spoleto,” says Nuttall. “But these concert broadcasts will take you as close as possible to hearing the magic that happens live. While I absolutely wish we could all be there in person, choosing my top 11 programs of the last decade has been such a gift, and I am overjoyed to be able to relive these special musical moments with the Spoleto audience and South Carolina Public Radio listeners.”
Nuttall’s chosen concerts will air Monday through Friday beginning at 11:00am EST on the South Carolina Public Radio program “Sonatas and Soundscapes.” Nuttall will join host Bradley Fuller to introduce each concert. He’ll also conduct interviews with various performers on air. Those outside of South Carolina can stream the weekday show online at southcarolinapublicradio.org at 11:00am EST (all listeners must tune in at the scheduled time).
One of the most anticipated events of Spoleto’s 2020 season was the world premiere of Omar. It is a new opera commission from Grammy Award winner and MacArthur Fellow Rhiannon Giddens, with cocomposer Michael Abels. The opera is based on the 1831 autobiography of Muslim African scholar Omar Ibn Said. It traces his spiritual journey from his home in Western Africa through his capture and enslavement in the Carolinas.
The opera will now premiere during the 2021 Festival. Spoleto at Home will provide the public its first preview. On May 22, sit in with a conversation between acclaimed tenor Jamez McCorkle — cast in the central role of Omar Ibn Said — Giddens, Abels and Festival Resident Conductor and Director of Orchestral Activities John Kennedy. The conversation also touches on how the project came together, and Giddens and Abels talk about — and demonstrate — some of the opera’s musical themes. The video will be available for viewing on spoletousa.org beginning May 22 and remain online through June 7.
Each season, the Festival assembles an original orchestra that accompanies the opera selections and performs symphonic and chamber concerts throughout the 17-day season. The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra is central to Festival operations, and it provides a valuable opportunity for young professional musicians to gain extensive performance experience, working alongside Resident Conductor and Director of Orchestral Activities John Kennedy and guest conductors. In 2020, the orchestra was slated to engage more than 80 musicians.
“It’s disappointing that this year’s ensemble didn’t have the opportunity to coalesce,” says Kennedy. “So in conceiving a virtual project appropriate for this moment, I chose Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together, a work that functions a metaphor for confinement and conditional freedom. Its accompanying text is fragmented into parts, but when gathered and stitched together, it speaks to defiance and resolve.” A digital concert of Rzewski’s Coming Together, recorded remotely by members of the would-have-been 2020 Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, will be available for viewing on spoletousa.org beginning May 30 and remain online through June 7. Other digital concerts will feature Pedja Muzijevic and jazz duo Linda May Han Oh and Fabian Almazan. A regular during Spoleto’s Bank of America Chamber Music series, Muzijevic is a master pianist whose recent engagements include performances for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s Bach Festival in New York, Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, and at New York’s 92Y.
His Spoleto at Home concert will feature three works played from his home in New York: J. S. Bach’s Partita in C minor, BWW 826; Henry Cowell’s Aeolian Harp; and C.P.E. Bach’s Sonata in G minor, Wq. 65/17. Muzijevic will introduce each work. This concert will be available for viewing on the Spoleto Festival website beginning May 24 and remain online through June 7.
Bassist Linda May Han Oh and pianist Fabian Almazan were scheduled to play four performances during this year’s Wells Fargo Jazz series. In this recorded concert from their shared home, Oh (on acoustic bass) and Almazan (on the piano) will give listeners a taste of their creative work together as well as discuss their environmental advocacy within the music industry. The concert will be available for viewing on the Spoleto Festival USA website June 3 – 7.
During a typical season, jazz critic and Spoleto’s Wells Fargo Jazz advisor Larry Blumenfeld regularly interviews musicians for a series of free Jazz Talks. These discussions aim to illuminate the perspectives of various artists slated to perform.
For Spoleto at Home, Blumenfeld will host three exciting Jazz Talks — featuring conversation and bits of musical performance. Blumenfeld will speak with Ben Jaffe, bandleader of Preservation Hall Jazz Band (available for viewing May 23 – June 7). He will also speak with pianist Jason Moran and singer Alicia Hall Moran, producers of the multidisciplinary work Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration (May 26 – June 7). Clarinet virtuoso Dr. Michael White, a leading expert of New Orleans jazz icon Danny Barker (May 29 – June 7) will be featured as well.
In recent years, Spoleto has partnered with the Charleston Jazz Academy to facilitate master classes with Wells Fargo Jazz artists as part of Spoleto ETC (Engaging the Community) — the Festival’s education and community outreach program that aims to build audiences and encourage artistic learning. This year, drummer Shannon Powell, who had been slated to perform with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and as part of the New Orleans Jazz Celebration, will lead a virtual workshop with academy students. The class will be available for Spoleto at Home viewing May 31 – June 7.
For a complete list of scheduled Spoleto at Home events, visit spoletousa.org. All events are free and available for view.
(Photos courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA, by William Struhs and Braden Piper)