On the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Gian Carlo Menotti, founding father of Charleston’s Spoleto Festival, the maestro’s first opera was staged once more. The year was 2011. His friend and collaborator Joseph Flummerfelt conducted the Spoleto Festival USA orchestra in the comfortably refurbished Dock Street Theatre. If any one event during this, the thirty-fifth year of Spoleto Festival USA, evoked the spirit of Menotti’s original magna carta, it would be this haunting composition.
Written just after the Second World War and premiered in New York City in l946, The Medium tells the story of Madame Flora who conducts séances, conjuring phantasms of the departed for her grief-stricken clients. To be among the audience in that historic theatre was to sense the palpable presence of the man himself, listening in the wings, summoned by Dr. Flummerfelt and the opera’s director John Pascoe. Voicing Menotti’s musical genius was mezzo-soprano supreme Barbara Dever. Mr. Pascoe, who designed the surreal set and created its spectral lighting, had been rehearsing The Medium with the maestro in Monte Carlo, February of 2007, when the renowned impresario gave up his own ghost.
“Gian Carlo had the dream to have a festival somewhere in the US,” as Dr. Flummerfelt tells it. “Around l975, it became apparent this place had been identified. It was Charleston, SC, this charming city with a European ambiance. I came in the summer of l976 to crawl around, look at the churches, the Dock Street, the Gaillard, go out to Middleton … decide where things would happen. And I remember very well, of course, the first Festival. I was standing with Gian Carlo at a party after the opening and I said, ‘Did you imagine there might
be such success in the first year?’ And he said, ‘Not in my wildest dreams!’
“But the transformation of the city of Charleston [as we know it now] is just astounding,” he adds, “there were about three good restaurants when we started out in ’76—and that’s stretching it. The transformation of the Memminger, which was derelict, the Dock Street, and the Gaillard Auditorium as the last to be redone … well, Joe Riley has said the best thing to happen to Charleston in the twentieth century has been the Spoleto Festival.” General Director Nigel Redden says this: “Spoleto reinvigorated the town and reminded people of what a fascinating city it is. The Festival has emphasized an important aspect of Charleston’s history: Charleston had a musical life very early on to reinforce the sophistication of the city. It was probably the richest city in all the colonies. It had a taste for the arts, and especially the performing arts. The city built a theater in the early eighteenth century.”
And, oh, the jewel in the crown, as articulated at the Dock Street, that very theater, is Spoleto’s Chamber Music. The star athletes of stringed instruments sport against a field of green with the engraved backdrop of our harbor. 2011 was Geoff Nuttall’s second season as director of the ardently attended series performed at the coolest midday break in Charleston. Charles Wadsworth passed the baton to Mr. Nuttall, who picked up where Mr. Wadsworth left off, delighting us with colorful secret histories of the classics and their composers’ private lives. On the day we attended, the old lion graced the box stage right and rose to receive his standing O when introduced by the new wand in town.
Can there be another festival in America as classy as this one? In both the classic and brash definitions, is there any other festival as sexy in its eclecticism, vetted by Nigel Redden and artistic directors Flummerfelt, Joe Miller, and Robert Taylor? Where else but here would you thrill to opera as diverse as the American premiere of émilie in French, by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and Lebanese librettist Amin Maalouf, then a week later rock to the holy rolling resurrection of The Gospel at Colonus starring the Steele’s and the Blind Boys of Alabama? As Nigel Redden has said, “What distinguishes our Spoleto from other festivals is that we do have such a range of music. I want to make sure that magic continues.”
While the Festival was rooted from its beginnings in opera, Spoleto Festival USA has evolved under Nigel Redden’s leadership to encompass many diverse expressions of superior musical talent. He says, “What makes our orchestra different from all others is we audition young musicians from around the country, and so it is as good as it gets in the world. Our chamber music is on a very high level. We feature only the best of soloists. The Westminster Choir is unlike any other chorus in the country. I think the impact of Spoleto on Charleston is also an impact on the state.” Mr. Redden continues, “Beyond that, in other parts of the country, the Festival speaks to a more rounded view of what the Southeast actually is. The Southeast is more sophisticated than the stereotypical way it is often portrayed. It is important that Charleston and South Carolina are not seen as one-dimensional. Everyone who comes here to perform takes great pleasure in the fact that they are in Charleston.”
Our 2011 musical mystery tour began at the Cistern, under the spreading live oaks on the College of Charleston’s gracious front yard. Soft summer breeze, 9:00 p.m., a thousand newgrass aficionados had settled in and kicked off their shoes. This was the one-night-only stand by a twenty-year-old banjo/mandolin prodigy from Texas hill country and The Boston Conservatory. Sarah Jarosz, accompanied by sidemen Alex Hargreaves on fiddle and Nathaniel Smith at cello, tore up numbers from an album called Song Up In Her Head. The trio then fired through tunes from the new CD, titled Follow Me Down, with more of her own compositions and a Bob Dylan cover titled “Ring Them Bells.”
Jarosz’s music is described as ethereal and mystical but is as “rootsy,” like she puts it, as fastidious and furious, as anything to come down from the mountains in the old days. It sounds like calling home over cotton fields. One song channels E. A. Poe’s “kingdom by the sea,” evoking that poet’s stay on nearby Sullivan’s Island. She married his rhythmic chantey “Annabel Lee” to her own alto vocals, leaving listeners hypnotized. Fans that night ranged from college upstarts to the seasoned supper sets. By the end, the entire assembly was on its feet.
While wandering the sidewalks during Spoleto, one hears melodies drifting from open windows, instruments tuning, bands sound checking, arias trilling, drums thumping, more jamming than you can shake a stick at! And that was the case more than three decades ago, too. “I was talking to the mayor about those early years,” Joe Flummerfelt says, “and there was an abandoned Penny’s where Charleston Place is now … Dick Robeson had this idea to take that space, put in a makeshift bar, a sound system for dancing, lay in a lot of ABC wine … we called it the King Street Garden and Gun Club. We made it up as we went, it was so exciting, like a carnival come to town!”
Brilliant parties after concerts in elegant homes and gardens are famous year after year—this is where the divas let their hair down. There’s so much kinetic energy after performances that players need to blow off steam, toss back the bubbly, nosh on shrimp and biscuits, and bask in the positive ions. You see performers from the beaux arts leaning in to try to parse the local patois, “Pardon, darling. Did you say pluff mud?” Or you may catch somebody shouting over
the DJ after a rock show, “Not that shag. I mean the bop, not the boff!”
An exclusive event called the White Party was thrown outside the old jailhouse building, which was once known as the Seabreeze Hotel. The ghost of Andy Warhol himself made an appearance since the fête followed a showing of Andy’s screen tests from 1964–67, which ran above the dreamy techno-pop soundtrack played live by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, which was the next stop on our musical tour. The show is called 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. They describe their music as hypnotic electronic pieces; their songs create a narrative under the lingering close-ups of Warhol’s affecting pictures. Dean, who played with the band Luna, mans electric guitar, and Britta handles bass and electric keyboards. This talented couple sings and recounts short bios of the beautiful and the damned: Edie Sedgwick, Paul America, Billy Name, Dennis Hopper, and Nico of the Velvet Underground. Their band performs haunting refrains like Lou Reed’s “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore,” their own compositions such as “Incandescent Innocent” and “Eyes in My Smoke,” plus Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine.”
You need a mood alternator plus a mood ring to mood swing from Warhol’s downtown factory one night to the uptown choral/orchestral concert the next. Presented on stage at the Gaillard, conducted by Joseph Flummerfelt, and featuring the Westminster Choir along with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus, one is elevated into realms of the celestial. Over one hundred voices swelled to Brahms’s “Alto Rhapsody, op. 53” and Bruckner’s “Te Deum in C Major.” The audience here is knowledgeable, well-heeled, and ready for lift-off when the maestro waves the wand and makes the magic happen. This is as close as you can get to heaven without leaving your own hometown. Thank heaven, too, for the fine folks at the wine bar who intuit what you want at intermission since after a while you lose the will to choose. Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” were sung in Hebrew by a twelve-year-old boy treble who raised a joyful noise to standing bravissimos on the back end.
If it hadn’t been for Nigel Redden’s midnight call to Lindsey Graham and the senator’s plea to the State Department, we would have missed the terrific Latin American folk music of González and Vita—her gorgeous voice and his arrangements of Peruvian and Argentine rhythms. He plays a six-string electric bass, and she accompanies on drums. Homeland security has a hold on lots of other Gonzálezes and this noted professor of music at the Buenos Aires conservatory was detained overnight, barely making the duo’s first performance on the lawn at the Cistern, their North American debut. Micaela Vita made the introductions: “I will translate for Willy. We are so happy to be here. We love this beautiful city. He says he always wanted to come to your South of America because Willy believes he is Rhett Butler. We are bringing you the music of our poor people. Slaves were landed in Peru and dispersed down to Argentina. We are preserving their music. We hope you like it.” They played two nights to captivated audiences.
By this point, we have attended six performances and four post-party bashes with many, many stems of rouge, blanc, and vins rose, both grand of cru and ordinaire. One begins to lose a smidge of discernment wine-wise and may likewise have thrown certain cautions overboard. One has flashbacks après soirees of loose lips, sinking ships. But all this was prequel to the appearance of Trombone Shorty. On the evening of this highly anticipated throwdown, we attended a pre-party at SuSu and Pug Ravenel’s home in order to prime the pump for the “SupaFunk” to come.
That’s what he calls it. Shorty himself. This is a fella from NOLA who noodles the theme for HBO’s Treme, the nabe he hails from. He says Treme is what the old folks call it. He and his band, Orleans Avenue, refer to it as the 6th Ward or Backatown. Shorty first picked up the trombone to play with his family’s funeral band when he was four. Because he couldn’t reach but three notes, he played the others with his foot. Trombone Shorty materialized in front of the Cistern’s antebellum columns in a burst of red alert and whipped the rest of us into a stage-four hurricane of WHAT IT IS.
Fifteen hundred temperate citizens of disparate ages were immediately G-forced into one rolling thunder riptide of the Shorty cohort’s controlled demolition of jazz improvisation. Before our congregation now, forecasting the weather are people who know something about heat. No sooner had the high-pressure system over the Holy City cooled down than … “Backatown!” The title song from their first album revved the group again. Shorty’s drummer, an otherwise seeming white man, has a gigantic flocked ’fro of hair that makes Bootsie of the Rubber Band appear subdued. The hair flapping behind the horn is like: electrified, refried, blow-dried, and blistering the bottom of that beat.
Shorty said one time he threw a concert under his real name, Troy Andrews, and nobody came but his family. He said, “Our culture is the only thing we have down there, so we have to get it right, pass the sound on. I call what we do musical gumbo—it comes out of my horn like Sponge Bob.” He says it’s up to them to learn the vocabulary of those who came before, to grow it and make it their own. “You know what making music is? It’s magic!”
I’m going to reveal to you now what I recollect about the last two nights of the Spoleto Supabowl 2011. Saturday night was the musical theatre explosion known as The Gospel of Colonus. The story is lifted from Sophocles’ last play when Oedipus Rex is old and seeking redemption from his sins. The king is played by … the Four Blind Boys of Alabama with the venerable Jimmy Carter in the lead, the last living original singer and keyboard genius of the group doing things on a tiered stage you cannot imagine a blind man capable of. His quartet and the four dynamite brothers and sisters of the Steele family have toured this revelational tent revival all over the world.
There are forty people on stage at the Gaillard giving gospel and rock a whole new testament from the blues to resurrection. More like insurrection is what it was: the most powerful shout-out praise any soul in the Gaillard has ever been brought to their feet by. We watched some of the straightest people in the Southeast leap up to witness.
I tell you what. At the after-party of Colonus in the garden at 9 Limehouse, J. D. Steele said, “We started with this show in l982, workshopped it at the Walker in Minneapolis. The artistic director there was Nigel Redden! He recommended our choir to be the choir, so we have come full circle with Nigel by coming here.” Brother Fred Steele says, “We did Spoleto in Italy in l985. I’ll never forget when Gian Carlo arrived at the party after Gospel. It was very dramatic! Lots of lights, flashbulbs. He walked through the crowd and everybody reached out to touch him.” Sister Jevetta Steele chimes in, “He sanctioned the whole thing—for thirty years we’ve been doing it all over the world.” Sister Jearlyn Steele says, “He was so elegant, that man!”
The final afternoon of Charleston’s grandest happening, the internationally celebrated Spoleto Festival USA, is always held on the cultivated grounds of Middleton Plantation alongside the meandering Ashley River. Here, golden motes of sparking sunlight cut through Spanish moss while thousands of music lovers with excitable small fry spread picnic tarps; pop up igloos of edibles, fried comestibles, devilled everything; and pull out jug wine, six-packs, and pre-mix mojitos for 2011’s grand finale fireworks display invoked by the iconic Del McCoury Band.
Del and the boys, who hail from Nashville, Tennessee, country music capital of the galaxy, are the plus de plus of sanctified banjo-mandolin-fiddle-guitar and upright bass homestyle pickin’. The crowd that day was as keyed up as naturally laid-back people can afford to be. Del and his sons, Rob and Ronnie, plus Jason Carter and Alan Bartram assumed the stage and the great man called our Sunday come-to-meetin’ to order, “Everybody hold on now!” Sunset was doing its long slow burnout as the band counted off and commenced to whip the daylights out of them gitfiddles.
I don’t know if you know of Del McCoury, who just released a box set of fifty years of truest-bluest bluegrass, but this band tore into road tested chestnuts such as “The Farm,” “Nothing Special,” “The Company We Keep,” “Never Grow Up Boy,” “Tennessee Waltz,” and their inimitable rendition of “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” They flat put it down where the cats can get at it! Such tunes as these and a bushel more where those come from cut loose while a pearlized half-moon slipped up over the silver-tipped river. Happy villagers gamboled on the green like they did in simpler times all over God’s creation. It seemed as if the pickers barely paused to take a breath, their legendary leader’s head of snow white hair hardly ruffed, while the others of us got the sense we were as tuned to the music of the spheres as the band was. The heartstrings of each and every one of us blissed-out listeners got plucked that night but good.
As stars popped out all over the state of South Carolina, and blossoms of fireworks spun forth upward, one would have to go along with wild Bill Shakespeare who knew a thing or two about entertainment his own self: “Yes! Music is the food of love. Play on! Play on!” — C.L.C.