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Concerts led by Joesph Flummerfelt, Spoleto USA's Artistic Director for Choral Activities, have justly been among the most popular at the Festival. The former long-time conductor of the Westminster Choir was first selected by festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti for the Italian festival and then brought to the New World extension in Charleston, SC. Flummerfelt’s artistic judgment and reputation readily help fill any venue. Verdi’s Missa da Requiem, his very operatic setting of the text, was given in Gaillard Municipal Auditorium.
The Westminster Choir, currently led by by Joe Miller, joined with the Charleston Symphony Chorus, prepared by its director, Robert Taylor. Flummerfelt then led intensive rehearsals of the combined choirs. The ensemble was tight, and there was an unusually equal distribution of voices in each category— sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, tenors, and basses. The latter brought a dramatically-apt and ominous weight to their parts. The chorus displayed an extraordinary dynamic range from the subtlest ppp to bone-rattling fortissimi.
Flummerfelt’s vocal soloists made up a quartet more effective than the sum of its parts. One of the pleasures of regular festival attendance is watching the rise of talent over many seasons. Soprano Jennifer Check began as a regular member of the Westminster Choir and first came to prominence as a soloist in the 2004 Festival performance of Vaughan Williams’ Dona noblis pacem. Check’s rock-solid vocalism was evident throughout Verdi’s Requiem, and her simple and straight-forward rendering of the concluding “Libera me” was breathtaking, indescribably beautiful, and moving. I was often reminded of Amneris’ Act III scene in Aïda as I listened to the dark mezzo-soprano of Michaela Martens, who made a perfect foil for Check. In the “Agnus Dei,” the duet involving Check and Martens was perfectly matched. Age should only deepen the already fine bass of Alfred Walker. He sounds more like a bass-baritone, but he had sufficient heft to send chills up the spine during “Mors stupebit et natura.” Eduardo Valdes was far short of being a ringing Verdi tenor, alas, but his great care for words brought much pleasure to his trio with Check and Martens in “Quid sum miser tunc dictus?”
The young musicians of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra played their hearts out for Flummerfelt. He kept them in ideal balance with his vocal forces at all times. It helped greatly that he immediately set a dynamic benchmark by having an unusually hushed, quiet opening. This made the hell-raising “Dies irae” sequence all the more effective.
Triangle music lovers and critics can count on too-steady diets of alternating seasons featuring the requiems of either Verdi or Brahms. Spoleto fare tends to the same pattern. This 2007 Spoleto offering was one of the most deeply moving I have heard.
June 5, 2007, Charleston, SC: Emmanuel Villaume, the Spoleto Festival USA’s Director for Opera and Orchestra, chose an unusually attractive program for his Gaillard Municipal Auditorium concert. “Childhood” was a common theme in all three selections — tone poems by Richard Strauss and Paul Dukas along with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G. The young musicians of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra are still fresh to the repertoire and have not had their enthusiasm dimmed by under-rehearsed or routine performances. It seems each year the players are even more talented.
Strauss’ "Till Eulenspiegel,"Op. 28, depicts the antics of the medieval rogue using numerous motifs. The prankish theme — five French horn notes repeated against string tremolos — is the most famous motif. The comic orchestral high jinks turn dark and threatening as Till’s hanging is depicted.
The images from Walt Disney’s Fantasia haunt many music lovers when they hear Dukas’ "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice." Based on a ballad by Goethe, it is a cautionary tale about a young apprentice who misuses a spell to get a broom to do his chores. Chaos results when he cannot stop the spell.
Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was inspired by one of the Knaben Wunderhorn poems called “Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen” (“Heaven Is Stock Full of Fiddles”). He named the song, one of the happiest, after the first line of the poem “”Wir geniessen die himmlischen Freuden” (“All heavenly joys are ours”). Much of the symphony has the delicacy of chamber music, and Mahler used his most sophisticated orchestral language to portray his idealization of childlike naïveté.
Villaume directed confident and stylish performances of all three works. His young musicians played with taut ensemble and crackerjack virtuosity. All of the principal players were excellent but two stood out — the concertmaster and the young lady who played horn — because of their masterful solos throughout all three works. The important vocal part in the Mahler was taken by soprano Monica Yunus. She was the irresistible Zerlina, the peasant girl targeted by the title character, in the festival’s Don Giovanni in 2005 and 2006. She entered discretely during the orchestral introduction to the fourth movement. Her facial expression was that of child-like wonder, and her crystal-pure soprano was exactly right for the text. This was a deeply satisfying interpretation.
Tar Heel music lovers will get a chance to hear Villaume when he guest conducts the North Carolina Symphony in January 2008.