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If the 170 events of the 17-day Spoleto Festival USA were not enough, the music lover is also confronted with some 470 events presented during the same time frame by the City of Charleston's Piccolo Festival. Piccolo was created to be a cultural outreach program for those who could not afford the high prices of tickets for Spoleto. Originally, most Piccolo events were free, but economic realities have forced the charging of nominal ticket prices. Events range from free programs in the parks, for children, to jazz and drama by local or regional artists, to several musical series that merit the attention of Spoleto attendees. Founded in 1979, this was the 30th anniversary season of the "Little Spoleto" festival.
I have always focused my attention on three Piccolo series: L'Organo, Early Music, and Spotlight Chamber Music. All events take place in various historical churches throughout the city's historical district. With so many of the two festivals' concerts going on at or near the same time, logistics become critical. Can I make it from venue A to venue B before the second concert begins? It is an art in itself!
The L'Organo Recital Series of mid-morning weekday organ recitals is one of the few free Piccolo events left. Hurricane Hugo wiped out most of the city's fine organs but many new instruments are housed in historic organ cases.
June 2, 2008: The wonderful Greek revival jewel box that is Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue dates from 1840, when it replaced the 1792 synagogue lost in the great Charleston fire of 1838. The city was founded in 1670, and the Jewish presence has been dated to 1695. This is the fourth-oldest Jewish congregation in the continental United States. The main hall's superb acoustics make it an ideal venue for concerts. The organ was the only one not identified by maker and disposition of pipes in the series program book or on the venue's own fine website.*
Organist David Lowry was a member of the committee that founded the L'Organo series. He was joined by trumpeter Mark Dulin in several selections. The two gave the world premiere of the evocative "Nocturne Soliloquy" by Leonard Mark Lewis (b.1973). The "Toccata on Leoni" by Seth Bingham (1882-1972) gave Lowry plenty of scope to weave delicate, eerie, hushed tapestries around loud and rousing peaks. The Ricercar of Guy Bovet (b.1942) was colorful and expansive.
A special treat for this concert and the next was the presentation of selections from Handel's Opus 4 organ concertos. In both cases, College of Charleston musicologist William Gudger expertly supported the organist, directing a fine ensemble consisting of an oboe, two violins, a viola, a cello, and a double-bass. The Concerto in B-flat, Op. 4/2, was sprightly, with a colorful organ registration.
June 3, 2008: Monica Alexandra Harper was a bold and virtuosic interpreter who brought out the best from St. Matthew's Lutheran Church's 1967 Austin Organ. It has three manuals, forty-five stops, and fifty-eight ranks. The Toccata, Op. 104, by Joseph Jongen (1873-1953) was lively, with a bold bass line and brilliant tutte. Every musical strand of the Passacaglia and Fugue, S.582, by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) was remarkably clear. It was fascinating to compare this work to the "Passacaglia quasi toccata on a theme of B-A-C-H" by Milos Sokola (1913-1976). A Sonata in one movement on Kalenda Maya by Libby Larsen (b. 1950) proved inventive and resourceful. The bright and lively Toccata from the Suite, Op. 5, by Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) made one long to hear more. Harper and Gudger's little band turned in a rhythmically vital and tuneful Concerto in F, Op 4/4, by Handel.
The Spotlight Concert Series moved to a new venue this year, the New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church, located only a block north of Gaillard Municipal Auditorium. Unfortunately, the 6:00 p.m. series is rather far from most other major Spoleto venues for events that begin at 7:30 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. My other reservation is the church's weak air-conditioning. A few seasons ago, a concert I attended was severely shortened because of unbearable heat.
June 3, 2008: This Spotlight Concert was an outstanding example of the best of Piccolo programming. Members of the Charleston Symphony and two soloists under the baton of Donald Portnoy focused on works by American composer Stephen Paulus (b.1949), who spoke briefly about each piece on the program and answered questions from the audience. The composer had just flown in from Paris where he had directed an oratorio about the Holocaust.
The orchestra's concertmaster, Yuriy Bekker, gave a full and rich-toned performance of Paulus' Rhapsody (1996), for violin and orchestra. Paulus said it was composed for the Atlanta Camerata, a community orchestra, with then Atlanta Symphony Concertmaster William Preucil. Most of the technical challenges are in the solo part while the orchestra weaves a pleasing background.
Paulus' song cycle Erotic Spirits (2004), is immediately attractive and fascinating. It was commissioned by the Augusta Symphony and Debora Voigt. Paulus said "erotic" was meant in its broader, more classical sense, with an emphasis on sensuality. His eight texts range from Sappho (6th-century BC) through Izumi Shikibu (10th century). The orchestration is inventive and varied. Soprano Deanna McBroom's diction was superb and her tone was pleasing. Her voice was evenly supported from the quietest passages to the loudest. Her one high C was perfectly delivered. The composer said that brilliant high notes should be severely rationed in a score.
Sea Portraits is in four movements: "Sunrise," "Sailing," "Storm," and "Moonlight on the Sea." It would be crude to call this attractive, skillfully orchestrated work, an "American La Mer." but there are plenty of hushed string tremolos and pizzicatos along with harp arpeggios. There is a lovely violin melody played over an accompaniment by violas. The scoring for flute is colorful and imaginative. Despite the title of the fourth movement, the composer said it "ends loudly for show." Wasn't there an old saying about loud night falls in the tropics?
The Early Music Series, now in its 23rd season, is one of the younger programs of the Piccolo Festival. It is directed by internationally-known recorder virtuoso Steve Rosenberg, a faculty member of the College of Charleston and a frequent guest with groups such as the Baltimore Consort. Mainstays of the latter ensemble, viol-player Mary Anne Ballard and percussionist extraordinaire Danny Mallon, are regulars too. They are members of Rosenberg's locally-based group Brio. Rosenberg said that the series has given some 391 concerts to date.
June 4, 2008: The glorious First (Scots) Presbyterian Church has one of the finest performance spaces in the city; it is the best of the many venues that Rosenberg's group has used. It is worth visiting just to see the fine grill work covering the visible organ pipes behind the altar and choir stall.
Most of the series programs are announced as they are played, which is frustrating to reviewers and many listeners. This program, "In a Renaissance Café," was a model of what ought to be on a printed sheet, listing all selections and players, and attached complete texts with both the original texts and translations.
The program was about equally allocated among Renaissance French works, traditional English and American/Appalachian songs, and music of the Sephardim, a Brio specialty. Instrumental works featured rebec and viols played by Ballard; crumhorn, gemshorn, recorders, and both Renaissance and Baroque guitars played by Rosenberg; and percussion from Mallon, who rattled, shook, or beat on everything imaginable.
One of Charleston's living treasures is the charismatic countertenor José Lemos. The Brazilian singer got his undergraduate degree at the College of Charleston before more advanced study. He has rapidly become one of the most sought-after singers for such Baroque operas such as those of Handel. He has one of the more winning sounding countertenor voices, fuller and warmer than most, and technically immaculate.
June 5, 2008: This wide-ranging concert featured the Charleston Pro Musica, made up of faculty and students from the College of Charleston. The superb vocal ensemble was prepared by Robert Taylor, who also directs the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus. The instrumental group was impressive, especially graduating cellist Wade Davis. Among the vocal selections was Thomas Morley's "Now is the Month of May," John Dowland's "The Heart is True," and a fascinating four-part Scottish song, "What Mighty Motion?" The song "Raggle Taggle Gypsy" is well-known from a version recorded by the Baltimore Consort. Rosenberg played "Divisions Upon a Ground of Mr. John Banister." The concert ended with "Pass Time With Good Company" by King Henry VIII.
June 6, 2008: Half of the six solo cello suites of J.S. Bach formed the program of this concert. The impressive soloist was Natalia Khoma, a graduate of Moscow Conservatory and a faculty member of the College of Charleston. She played Suites No. I in G, 6, in D, and 3, in C. She used a fine-sounding modern-style cello with an endpin. She produced a golden, warm tone. Her articulation in fast passages was outstanding, and she strongly characterized the different dance movements.
June 7, 2008: This program, entitled "The King's Singer," allowed locals and festival visitors to hear countertenor Lemos in excerpts from many of his best Baroque operatic roles. His superb harpsichord accompanist was Jory Vinikour, who had given a masterful solo recital the previous night that was the talk of series regulars. His extraordinary artistry was displayed in a solo Passacaglia by J. K. Kerll and the mighty Chaconne in G by Handel. Lemos sang three passionate arias from Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea, "E pur io torno," "Agaggiato Poppea," and "Hoggi, hoggi sara Poppea." Vivaldi's Cantata, RV.677 ,was followed by arias from three Handel operas. These were "Si spietata il tuo rigore" and "Quel torrente" from Giulio Cesare in Egitto, and "Otton, Otton... voi che uditi" from Agrippina. Lemos' vocal palette was amazing as was the emotional intensity he brought out in his singing. The printed program, listing the works and including a brief synopsis of each vocal selection, was very helpful.
*Updated 7/8/08: According to Edgar Allen Poe's "The Purloined Letter," the best place to hide something is in plain view. The lower half of page 16 of the organ series program book lists the synagogue's instrument as an Ontko & Young Organ, 1996, Opus 24, with two manuals, nineteen registers, and nineteen ranks.