The programming for the Spoleto USA 2005 Festival Concert was a welcome change from the conventional. To the world premiere of a commissioned work were added a great Romantic concerto and a seminal work of the 20th century. On June 5, Festival Music Director Emmanuel Villaume faced a stage filled with the enthusiastic young musicians of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra. The Gaillard Municipal Auditorium was nearly filled by an eager and attentive audience.

The concert honored John Kennedy, one of the Festival’s own – a composer, an associate conductor, a percussionist, and the long-time Director of the Music in Time series, the venue of the Festival’s most challenging programming, described by The New York Times as “weird and wonderful.” On this series, we have relished a Ruth Crawford Seeger retrospective and listened with disbelief to musicians, scattered about a church, knocking rocks together. Kennedy’s commissioned work, “Storm and Stress,” proved to be engaging and might well have a future beyond its premiere. The title is borrowed from the Sturm und Drang literary movement in which hardship and struggle were seen as beautiful and necessary elements of life. He sought to show how the city, the Festival, and the nation have weathered the storms of recent times. The ten-minute work has an inexorable forward momentum; its engaging lyrical passages are juxtaposed with jarring, dissonant sections. Along with allusions to jazz and blues, there was the glaring quote of the “fate motif” from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. After a long delay, Villaume was able to get Kennedy to join the musicians on stage to share the prolonged and enthusiastic standing ovation.

Time has proven Gian Carlo Menotti right in his decades-long advocacy for Rachmaninov and other rich Romantic music, filled with gorgeous melodies. Long-breathed tunes don’t come in greater abundance than in the Russian master’s brooding Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30. The un-jaded young musicians provided a plush and warm cushion for pianist Andrew von Oeyen, who had the necessary upper-body strength, wide-fingered dexterity, and over-arching concept to bring out every nuance.

Villaume led a brilliant and stimulating interpretation of the original version of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). The savage forward drive and the tricky cross-rhythms were performed with astonishing clarity. All the musicians played with extraordinary intensity and virtuosity. While there were too many to list at length, four stood out because of their prominent roles. From the marvelously-controlled high notes of the opening bassoon solo, Laurel Sharps’ even sound and refined phrasing were constant delights, and three other soloists – bass clarinetists Louis DeMartino and Michael Byerly, and double bassist Dacy Gillespie – were outstanding. At its notorious 1913 Paris premiere, Rite caused a near-riot, but the Festival audience leaped to its feet with sustained enthusiastic approval as Villaume had all the sections stand in turn to be acknowledged.

The 2005 Spoleto Festival USA Choral/Orchestral Concert returned to bread and butter programming this season. A full house packed Gaillard Auditorium on June 8 for a program that was “short and sweet” or, since the composer was Brahms, “bittersweet.” The Westminster Choir was joined by the much larger Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus that had been well drilled by Robert Taylor. The two groups formed a perfectly-balanced ensemble with equal numbers of men and women, and there were plenty of low voices that are so necessary for the dark timbre of Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 49. The members the Spoleto Festival Orchestra played with a maturity beyond their years. On the podium was Joseph Flummerfelt, whose years of experience showed in every bar of the performance. The vocal soloists were soprano Tamara Matthews and baritone Charles Robert Stephens. It was wonderful to hear this work in a good acoustical environment with none of the lines typically blurred by overly resonant church acoustics.

Flummerfelt’s interpretation was deeply satisfying: every tempo was convincing, the choral and orchestral forces were carefully balanced, and all seven sections were integrated within a vision of the work as a whole, so there was no sense of isolated episodes. Both vocal soloists were excellent. Matthews used a little more vibrato than I am used to but her diction was clear and she sang with a pleasing timbre. Stephens’ fine, dark baritone voice easily filled the hall, and his enunciation was superb.

The Spoleto USA’s Intermezzi (II-IV) were unusually venturesome: there were works from the early Second Viennese School, Romantic piano music played by a substitute artist, and a promising lieder recital. Two were clear winners while the third was unsatisfactory from several points of view.

Early works by Arnold Schoenberg were featured in Intermezzo II, heard in the warm acoustics of Grace Episcopal Church on June 3. Between seven and fifteen members of the Spoleto USA Festival Orchestra were led by Marc Williams. Schoenberg founded The Society for Private Musical Performances to present his works and those of his friends along with transcriptions or orchestral reductions of music by more established composers. Schoenberg’s role in preparing these varied quite a bit. The Society’s repertory is a treasure-trove for any chamber orchestra.

Typical of the delights to be found is Schoenberg’s transcription of “Kaiser-Waltzer” (“The Emperor Waltz”) by Johann Strauss II. The small forces – two violins, viola, cello, clarinet, flute, and piano – allow for great clarity of line. Williams conducted a good if rather too direct performance in which free use of Viennese rubato was largely missing.

One of the high points of Braunfels’ opera Die Vögel was baritone Brian Mulligan’s portrayal of the tormented Prometheus. Schoenberg’s transcription of Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) heightens the wrenching sorrow of these mournful songs. Mulligan’s enunciation was flawless and his sumptuous baritone, from floated high pianissimos to resounding fortes, filled the church. His nuanced use of dynamics and phrasing wrung every ounce of meaning from the words. One of the delights of the festival is the chance to hear rising major talents of tomorrow in their early successes.

Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie (Chamber Symphony), Op. 9, is a seminal work that combines late Romanticism and the composer’s increasing compression of means. He creates dissonances without immediate resolution and concentrates all the elements of a symphony into a single movement. Dense textures are juxtaposed with lush, melting melodies. The intensity of the work is not unlike the sweep of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. The work is tonal, but traditional rules are stretched close to the breaking point by Schoenberg’s increasing use of formal complexity and contrapuntal density. The fifteen musicians and Williams combined passionate involvement with great precision that did full justice to the score.

Intermezzo III, heard in Grace Episcopal Church on June 5, involved a substitute piano soloist and a considerable change in the program. Instead of Chopin’s the complete Études, Opp. 10 and 25, played by Olivier Reboul, a fine mixed program was given by Judith Gordon, who has long been associated with the Festival’s avant garde Music in Times series.

Gordon’s experience with contemporary music paid dividends in her glowing performance of Alban Berg’s seminal and transitional Piano Sonata, Op. 1. Published in 1910 and first performed in 1911, the piece is in one movement. Three themes are developed within a tonal framework using many of the techniques of the composer’s mature style. Gordon sustained Berg’s long-lined melodies while giving full value to the abundant chromaticism. It was an intricate puzzle of extraordinary beauty.

Claude Debussy’s Étude XI (“Pour les arpèges composés”) made a good link between the modern Berg work and Chopin’s Préludes, Op. 28. Different arpeggio types and configurations were explored along with contrasting rhythmic patterns in both hands. Gordon’s dexterity was flawless, and her timbre palette was shimmering.

Unlike those of J.S. Bach, the Préludes, Op. 28, of Frédéric Chopin are stand-alone, individual pieces. Like Bach’s, there are twenty-four preludes in all the major and minor keys, but Chopin’s are not tied to fugues or suites of dances; each is a Romantic sketch evoking what John Gillespie, in Five Centuries of Keyboard Music, called “a mood of a fleeting impression.” It was a pleasure to hear Gordon perform the popular preludes such as those in e minor or the bleak f minor one, with its big, hand-stretching chords. Having a seat with an ideal view of the keyboard, it was a treat to see Gordon ready her fingers for the one in f-sharp minor, in which the right-hand thumb has to play the melody while the hand’s upper fingers race quietly through a maze of fast notes – all going against the left hand, which has its own complicated pattern in a totally different rhythm. The visual highpoint was the Prelude No. 19, in E-flat, in which both hands leap wildly in opposite directions, all over the keyboard. That was quite a show!

Alas, Intermezzo IV proved to be very disappointing for many reasons, and not only musical ones. Music lovers attending Spoleto events have very tight schedules, whether they are going to multiple performances or just juggling dinner reservations – no trivial matter in a city filled with many fine restaurants. Musicians face similar challenges.

This June 7 concert was to have showcased Canadian tenor Philippe Castagner, accompanied by pianist Lydia Brown. The recital, in Grace Episcopal Church, was supposed to have started at 5:00 p.m. The full house grew restless as five, ten, twenty and more minutes passed. An announcement of a “slight” delay was made at one point, and an usher passed on the unconfirmed rumor that the tenor had been at another performance and was held up in traffic. Just short of the thirty-minute mark, the recital began with Book I of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, D.911. Castagner has a pleasing timbre and his enunciation was excellent. As he proceeded, he seemed to be singing many of the songs far too loudly, and when he tried to modulate to a lower volume, his voice was unevenly supported. Based on his glowing reviews for last year’s Die schöne Müllerin, I believe the singer was having a very bad day.

Since I had 6:30 p.m. dinner reservations, I joined many of the attendees and left at intermission. Local reviews report that his voice improved by the end of the concert. I hope to hear him in better voice and punctually in place for some future concert. This was the only significantly unsatisfactory Intermezzo program that I have attended to date.

Note: This is the seventh of a series of 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]. The last review will cover offerings of the 2005 Piccolo Spoleto Festival.