The Piccolo Spoleto Festival runs concurrently with the 17-day Spoleto Festival USA. It was founded in 1979 by the City of Charleston as an outreach program, utilizing local and regional artists and a broad range of venues from city streets to churches, parks, and storefronts. Presenting some 700 events, it has been directed by Ellen Dressler Moryl from the beginning. Events encompass activities for children, dance, drama, blues and jazz, early music, chamber music, and concerts by members of the Charleston Symphony.

I have sampled Piccolo events every year since it was founded. Time conflicts with Spoleto concerts and distances between performance venues curtailed my attendance this season. My focus has always been on three series: the Early Music series, the Spotlight Concerts, and the recital series called L’Organo, which remains free. (Many other series have had to begin charging admission.)

This season, I was able to attend only two concerts in the Early Music Series, long my favorite Piccolo event. Printed programs are rare exceptions, so director Steve Rosenberg, a recorder virtuoso, announced the works and provided brief commentary from the stage. After years in different venues – the Custom House, the College of Charleston’s Randolph Hall, the French Huguenot Church, and the Circular Church – the perfect performing space has been found at last in the First (Scots) Presbyterian Church. It has plenty of seating, and its acoustics give a natural form of “amplification” to baroque strings.

The June 3 program featured Chatham Baroque with ECU’s John O’Brien playing a fine chamber organ. Under the witty rubric “Leave It to Biber,” the music surveyed 17th-century composers who, like Karl Heinrich Biber (1681-1749), lived and worked in Austria. Chatham Baroque is a flexible ensemble, and for this concert it consisted of a trio – Julie Andrijeski, baroque violin, Patricia Halverson, viola da gamba, and Scott Pauley, theorbo and baroque guitar.

A five-movement Sonata Quinta by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) opened the concert; it has the usual mix of fast and slow movements and various dances that included an allemande, a courante, a striking sarabande with variations, and a concluding gigue. Andrijeski’s violin line was clearly articulated, no matter how fast or dense the notes.

Next came a lovely Trio Sonata by Antonio Bertolli. The movements were slow, fast, and slow. Most memorable was the opening one, in which Andrijeski’s violin wove a long arching melody above a faster baseline formed by Haverson’s viola da gamba and punctuated by Pauley’s deeply-resonant plucked strings.

Biber was one of the greatest violin virtuosos of his time, and many of his compositions make use of scordatura tuning. This involves deliberately altering the normal tuning to produce particular effects. The composer’s use of scordatura is found in the twelve Mystery or Rosary Sonatas and [a] Passacaglia. From the stage, Andrijeski briefly explained the technique and played a sample of the normal tuning (g-d-a-e) contrasted with the tuning (a-d-a-d) used in the Sonata IV in d minor, titled “Jesus Taken to the Temple.” It opens with a gigue followed by an adagio, an aria with variations, and finale. Her rapid bowing and crisp articulation were remarkable. A dramatic and harsh episode represented Jesus casting the moneylenders from the Temple. The other three players joined her for the full and rich continuo portion.

A Trio Sonata in a minor by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) featured an extended ground bass played on the chamber organ by O’Brien. Sepulchral dark notes from Pauley’s theorbo and the viola da gamba’s musings fitted around this foundation and served to make a fascinating backdrop to the melodic lines, sung by the violin.

There was an almost vaudevillian quality to Biber’s “Sonata representativa,” for solo violin. Over the course of nine short movements, the following were given vivid portraits in sound: a nightingale, a cuckoo, a frog, a hen and her cock, a quail, and –shades of Charles Ives – a military band that passes by! The Sonata begins with a lively allegro and ends with an allemande, which O’Brien later suggested may represent “the farmer coming out, seeing the retreating army, and then perhaps feeding the animals.” Andrijeski tossed off these miniatures with seeming ease in a tour de force of technique. It was hard to believe that all of this “musical onomatopoeia” took place using the normal tuning of the violin.

Early Music concerts featuring Steve Rosenberg and members of the College-of-Charleston-based Charleston Pro Musica are always a delight. The focus of a June 8 concert in First (Scots) Presbyterian Church was “Music of the Sephardic Jews” and consisted of a mix of instrumental and vocal music showing the close similarities between early Spanish music (very much like flamenco) and that of the Sephardic Jews, who were driven out of Spain. A smaller new group, Brio, formed from members of the Pro Musica, consisted of countertenor José Lemos, Mary Ann Ballard, playing rebec and viola da gamba, the ubiquitous Rosenberg, playing a variety of recorders, a krumhorn, a gemshorn, and an early guitar, and Danny Mallon, who was a virtual “one man band.” Besides tambourines and normal drums, he had various bells attached to his arms and legs, and he held a small drumstick between his toes, using it to strike a cowbell and other objects. His performances were wonderful to behold – he is rather like a “Medieval” Harpo Marx.

Those used to the bland quality of countertenors that came from the English Cathedral Choir tradition are apt to be astonished by the vivid color and vibrant, warm timbre of Brazilian-born José Lemos. His wonderfully even voice can turn on a dime to execute any nuance of dynamic or phrasing. His diction and projection are exceptional, and there are few more passionate performers in his vocal category. His voice could be described as a dusky contralto with equally superb highs and lows. All the song selections were in Ladino, the Spanish dialect of the 15-16th centuries used by the Sephardic Jews. Flamenco antecedents were brought out impressively in the song “Noches, noches” (“The Nights are made for Romance”), which also featured a mournful recorder, a droning bass-line, and percussion suggestive of the Middle East. Rosenberg’s evocative guitar helped underline the Spanish flavor of the songs “Quando el Rey Nimrod” and “Ya me cansi…” (“The more I play my guitar”).

During every festival, Rosenberg programs a striking instrumental piece that he calls “The Italian Rant.” Its melody is similar to that of Smetana’s “Moldau” and the national anthem of Israel. For this concert, he used a rebec, a small guitar, and a tambourine. At the end, Lemos joined in with a stirring vocalise. This has become a signature tune for Rosenberg’s several Charleston-based ensembles.

A concluding set of songs was a showcase for different combinations of instruments. Percussionist Mallon slowly rolled a container of gravel, suggesting the waves of the sea, as Lemos spun out the lines of “La Serena” (“The Mermaid”) above a sad melody played by the recorder and viola da gamba. This was about a mermaid who lured sailors to her tower in the sea. The love song “Las Estregas” featured the melody in the recorder above a bass of pizzicatos from the viola da gamba, accompanied by the beat of a small drum. Only a small-sized viola da gamba and gentle strumming of a guitar accompanied “Durme” (“Sleep beautiful one”), a soothing lullaby. A relic of the Sephardic expulsion, the song “Los Caminos…” was found in Sirkedji, Istanbul. This humorous ditty (about an eager lover begging to get engaged or married) highlighted Lemos’ full and rich low range. His higher range got equal time in “El mi Querido Berio Vino,” a song about the joys of wine, which was supported by a lively percussion part and a soprano recorder. In the encore, “La Rosa” (“The Rose”), Lemos’ sensuous vocal line was austerely supported by castanets and plucked viola da gamba and guitar strings.

For more information about José Lemos and Brio, see [inactive 8/07].

Piccolo Spoleto’s L’Organo series of midmorning organ recitals, sponsored in part by the American Guild of Organists’ Southeastern Chapter, still maintains its free-admission policy. Fine organists from across the nation showcase their specialties along with basic works from the German and French repertories.

A variety of instruments –almost all new since the widespread damage of Hurricane Hugo – in some half-dozen historic churches are utilized. These organs make interesting contrasts with the Æolians, Flentrops, and Brombaughs in the Triangle and the Casavant-Frères that seem to predominate in the Triad region of NC.

French repertory and one real novelty dominated the June 6 recital, played on an organ made by Kenneth Jones and Associates of Bray, Ireland, in 1994 and installed in the magnificent St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, a defining Charleston landmark. Most of the pipes of the 40-stop, 51-rank organ are fitted into or behind the original 1768 case, made by John Snetzler of London. The organist was Patricia G. Parker, a native of Charlotte, and a graduate of Salem College and the Eastman School of Music.

French chromaticism was on display in the plush textures of Marcel Dupré’s “Cortège et Litanie” and César Franck’s Chorale No. 2, in b minor. It was fascinating to hear Charles Tournemire’s “Improvisation sur le ‘Te Deum'” as reconstructed by Maurice Duruflé. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A, S.536, served to show Parker’s fine taste in choices of registrations and articulation of musical lines. Most unexpected were the snappy theme and playful treatment of two selections from Sacred Sounds for Organ Based on Early American Hymn Tunes, by the well-known jazz player George Shearing. The selections were “So Fades the Lovely Blooming Flower” and “I Love Thee, My Lord.”

The visible pipes of the Bethel United Methodist Church organ were eye-catching – they looked like an uneven batch of cigars! The instrument, with 44 stops and 51 ranks, was made in 2004 by Schlueter and Sons, of Lithonia, Georgia. The eclectic June 7 program was played by Richard Webb, Professor and Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Southern University in Baton Rouge.

Kenneth Leighton’s “Festival Fanfare” (1968) made colorful use of the “flutes” and the “trumpets” and featured rhythmic flourishes, some striking dissonances, and an impressive, long-held final note. Three of the chorale preludes of J.S. Bach that were in a set of 35 rediscovered in Yale University Library in 1985 were played. Webb began with “Jesu meine Freude,” S.713, which has a bright and lively repeated theme. In “Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ,” S.1102, Webb made delightful use of tinkling chimes and the organ’s Zimbelstern or bell star. The third chorale, “Ich hab’ mein Sach’ Gott heimgestellt,” S.707, impressed me little – it was lovely but not memorable. “Variations on ‘Restoration'” (2002) by Janet Linker (b.1938) makes use of a tune from The Southern Harmony (1835). In the tasteful first variation, both “flutes” and “oboes” were heard; the second was slow, with deep low notes that exploited the vox humana; and the stately third made use of the “trumpets” and ended with an impressively-sustained note. Jarring contrasts of dynamics and registrations were the dominant features of the Sinfonische Kanzone, Op. 85/2 (1911) by Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933).

There were several North Carolina connections in the June 8 First (Scots) Presbyterian Church recital. The church’s neoclassical interior is one of the loveliest in all of Charleston. The focal point is the magnificent white wrought-iron decorative screen covering the visible front pipes of the 51-stop, 74-rank Ontko and Young organ (1992). Guest artist Florence Jowers is Assistant Professor of Music and College Organist of Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory. She received degrees in organ performance and church music from the Yale University School of Music and Stetson University.

Her virtuosity was showcased in J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in F, S.540, with its striking double fugue and its exchange of parts back and forth between hands and feet. “Fantasy on the Torah Song ‘Yisrael V’oraita'” by Craig Phillips (b.1961) required the listener to stretch to take it in – and to follow through its swatches and fragments of melodic lines and some of the eerie registrations used. According to Jower’s program notes, the composer’s goal was to express the fiery spirit of the melody without ever entirely voicing it.

CVNC has reviewed several rewarding concerts that featured the music of Charlotte native Dan Locklair, currently Composer-in-Residence at Wake Forest University. His “In Mystery and Wonder” (2004) was commissioned by the Casavant-Frères Organ Company in honor of their 125th anniversary. The piece, in two movements, is accessible to players with a broad range of skills. The first movement makes modest demands on the organist; the second is more of a technical challenge. Both movements are centered on the notes “C” and “F,” the initials of the organ company. The music was inspired by the first two lines from William Cowper’s hymn “God Moves in Mysterious Ways.” The elegant simplicity of the melody takes up the first line and the brilliant Toccata uses the next, “…His wonders to perform.” Jower made the best possible case for this work, which I hope to hear again.

British composer Percy Whitlock’s Plymouth Suite made a fine vehicle to display the broad range of Jowers’ artistry. Organist colleagues of the composer are depicted in each of the wok’s five movements. Reflecting a garrulous friend, the Allegro Risoluto is showy with a simple melody surrounded by “chattering.” Most of the gentle “Lantana” was slow. “Chanty” was aptly named; it has a jaunty melody and a special effect, the suggestion of “pp” distant pipes. Gradually building over its course, “Salix” began with a slow, stately melody using “oboe” pipes over a “walking” bass. Ranging from deep low notes to soaring high ones, the final number, a brilliant Toccata, featured an attractive cantus firmus.

Note: This is the last of eight reviews of Spoleto USA and Piccolo Spoleto events by CVNC critics. For an index containing links to earlier commentary (by Ken Hoover & William Thomas Walker), click here. And for an interview with Charles Wadsworth, conducted in Charleston by WCPE announcer (and CVNCer) Ken Hoover, click here [inactive 2/10].