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A Piccolo Spoleto 2006 Sampler

June 6, 2006 - Charleston, SC:

During the same 17 days that Spoleto Festival USA is presenting some 120 performances of international quality, the City of Charleston presents about 700 events as part of Piccolo Spoleto. Ranging from special children's programs to important regional performers, the programming often complements the older festival. Many of its classical music presentations are well worth exploring. The main problem for the music lover will be the distance between Spoleto and Piccolo venues. How fast can you comfortably traverse how many blocks? This barrier kept me from covering two Triangle and Triad performers. The Meredith College Chorale appeared on the Piccolo Choral Artists series in the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul (venue of the popular Westminster Choir recitals), and Jimmy Jones, Kenan Organ Scholar at the NC School of the Arts, appeared in Grace Episcopal Church as part of the free mid-morning L'Organo series. Jones is organist-choirmaster of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Greensboro.

Two of our favorite Piccolo Festival offerings are the Early Music and the Spotlight Concert series. For years, the Spotlight series used the spacious First (Scots) Presbyterian Church for its concerts. This large space allowed ample room for a wide range of music lovers to listen in a fine acoustic. This season the series was spread over several venues.

No question about it, the greatest view at any of Charleston's concert sites is from the City Gallery at Waterfront Park, with its unrivalled panorama of the harbor. The June 2 concert entitled "An Elegant Evening of Rachmanino[v]," provided this view as the backdrop for three fine musicians while the audience was surrounded by the glowing colors of paintings in a William McCullough retrospective. There were only two flies in the ointment: the Steinway piano was a cut or so down from a Concert D and could not produce the rich bass sonority that the composer demands and that the pianist so clearly could have delivered, and the hall seated fewer than 300. There was a standing-room-only crowd.

Musical matters were in fully capable hands. Pianist Volodymyr Vynnytsky, a 1983 laureate of the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud International Piano Competition in Paris, has been the Music Director of the Music and Art Center of Greene County (NY) since 2003. (This was a promotion from Artistic Advisor and Resident Pianist, since 1996.) The native of the Ukraine has appeared with many chamber music groups and orchestras. The two string players are currently on the faculty of the College of Charleston. Singapore-born Lee-Chin Siow is a Gold Medal winner of the 1994 Henryk Szeryng International Violin Competition and has concertized widely. Her violin was made by J.B. Guadagnini of Milan, about 1750. Ukrainian-born cellist Natalia Khoma has won top prizes at a number of competitions including the 1990 Tchaikovsky in Moscow.

Vynnytsky and Khoma gloried in the plush sonorities possible in Rachmaninov's Sonata for cello and piano. I have seldom heard a richer sound conjured from a cello, and Khoma's pizzicatos resounded with authority. Never crossing the line into sentimentality, both artists gave full vent to the composer's melancholy.

Violinist Siow joined her colleagues for a very complete and consuming interpretation of the Trio Elegiaque, Op. 9. I believe most repeats were taken and no cuts were made. A number of music lovers had to ease out before the end since the concert ran well past the estimated time. (It was an hour and 50 minutes, not an hour and 15....) The ensemble maintained a superb sense of musical line and architecture over the whole trio. Their palette of dark sonorities was remarkably varied. The set of variations was particularly successful.

The Spotlight Concert heard in the spacious St. Matthew's Lutheran Church on June 6 was ambitious but a mixed success. Conductor and tenor Robert Taylor led soloists, members of his Charleston Symphony Chamber Singers, and a small ensemble from the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in a slightly abridged performance of the Vespero della Beata Vergine (Vespers 1610) of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).

The good news first, the modern instruments were surprisingly successful in approximating the sound of an early baroque orchestra. There were no sackbuts, etc., but the reading was creditable, all the same. Best of all were the antiphonal qualities possible in the church. Shallow balconies run the length of the church. Taylor placed harpsichordist Jane Harlow and the trumpets above the chancel, on the right. In mid-balcony, separated as needed, were two tenors, joined at one point by Taylor himself. A fine-sounding positive organ played by William Gudger provided continuo in the middle of the orchestra. Opening stanzas aside, the 50-member chorus generally projected the text clearly. Soprano soloists Margaret Kelly Cook and Suzanne Fleming-Atwood were very fine.

Now for the mixed bag. Pitch discrepancies plagued the antiphonal pairing of tenors in the "Gloria" section of the "Magnificat" and the three tenors in the "Duo Seraphim." Charles Ives might have relished it!

It was a valiant attempt with more musical rewards than not and at a modest price. The antiphonal potential of St. Matthews ought to be used more often. Maybe a program of Venetian Baroque music could be done next time?

Over the years, Piccolo's Early Music series has led a peripatetic existence, beginning in the Old Exchange building followed by a long stay in Randolph Hall on the lovely Spanish moss-draped College of Charleston campus. Noisy air-conditioning had to be turned off during the performances. Shorter stays in recent seasons in the French Huguenot Church and the Circular Congregational Church were followed by last season's move into the better acoustics of First (Scots) Presbyterian Church.

In common with the Spoleto Chamber Music series, the Early Music series does not have printed programs. Director Steve Rosenberg announces each selection before it is played. There isn't even a chalkboard list of the program. Rosenberg, an internationally known recorder virtuoso, frequently joins with visiting ensembles in addition to leading several of his local groups.

The June 2 concert was the last of five given by Chatham Baroque. Well known from appearances on NPR's Performance Today and from a fine series of Dorian CDs, the trio was making its third festival appearance. The players are violinist Julie Andrijeski, viola da gambist Patricia Halverson, and Scott Pauley, theorbo. Founding second violinist Emily Davidson passed away last year and is being honored by a performance fund. Players informally discussed their instruments and announced the musical selections, except for the unidentified opening work, which had a very familiar tune. An early guitar or vihuela was added to the mix and one-man-band Danny Mallon joined in with tambourine and various gourds and rattles attached to his extremities. Corelli's Sonata in d minor has four movements. The lively first movement found the gamba echoing the violin's theme. The next movements were measured, slow and fast. The intonation and phrasing were outstanding, and articulation was very clean and clear. "Piva," a work by theorbo player-composer Giovanni Kapsberger (c.1580-1651), features a tender melody with a dream-like quality. Reflecting its title, violinist Andrijeski played a droning bagpipe-like figure above pizzicato gamba and resonant bass notes on the theorbo. A stomping rhythm dominated an Italian version of a Canarios. A playful Trio Sonata by Samuel Capricornus (1628-65) featured Pauley plucking a repeated bass line of some 56 notes while the violin and gamba shared imitative counterpoint. Six brief movements by 17th-century Venetian Dario Costello featured attractive melodies and strongly contrasted tempos and interesting pairings.

See [inactive 3/07] to order their CDs. They will soon have a new label, and they hope to reissue some of their hard-to-find Dorian recordings.

The June 4 concert featured Rosenberg's newest group, Brio, a smaller ensemble whose membership is drawn from the Charleston Pro Musica, which utilizes a mixture of faculty and students from the College of Charleston. The nominal focus of the concert was "Early Music of Spain," but it was leavened by some Elizabethan songs along with other folksongs. A treasure of Charleston is countertenor José Lemos, one of the finest practitioners of that high-flying art around. His timbre is most enjoyable, and his vocal production, evenly supported. His technical mastery is matched by his solid musicianship along with a witty sense of timing. Joining Rosenberg on recorders were Mary Anne Ballard on viola da gamba and ambidextrous percussionist Danny Mallon.

Over the course of five dance pieces, players varied the instruments, alternating the gamba with a rebec or early guitar. Castanets, pizzicato gamba, and a small guitar supported Lemos as he conjured Sephardic singing with "Alta alta" ("High is the Moon"). Elizabethan songs "Sweet Jane" and Thomas Morley's "Oh Mistress mine" followed. "Lord Rendal, my son," almost Lemos' signature tune, was given a moving performance. In all, an eclectic mix of 15 selections made for a satisfying hour.