I felt like I was in Disneyworld. The line was wrapped around itself about four rows deep, the sun was broiling the streets, and people were inching forward. I guessed I was in the right place but was all this really for a choir concert? Indeed it was, but this was no ordinary choral ensemble; this was the Westminster Choir, chorus-in-residence for the Spoleto Festival USA since 1977. This 5 p.m. concert was being held at the magnificent St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, just behind the College of Charleston dormitory where many of the musicians and media were staying. Although this was a sellout, the slow-moving, snaking line was mainly because this enormous church has an entrance barely larger than the front door to my house. Once you entered, it was into a sparkling cathedral full of the finest stained glass windows this side of the pond and a wondrous interior that the drab, brown outside walls gave no hint of.

There are many outstanding choirs throughout the United States – several here right in the Triangle – but the Westminster Choir, composed of students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, and the St. Olaf Choir from Northfield, Minnesota, are in an elite group that few others can touch. Just one unison note lets you know that this choir is in a class by itself. This afternoon’s concert was conducted by Joe Miller, Director of Choral Activities at the College, and he chose a wonderfully diverse program that demonstrated the adaptability of these young singers. The first part focused on the unique vocal character of works from the Scandinavian-Baltic regions. A pair of Ave Marias by relatively young composers Mantyjarvi and Kverno gave us glimpses into a fascinating world of compositional styles refreshingly isolated and apart form the mainstream.

The central work of the concert was an epic creation called Raua needmine (Curse upon iron), based on the Finnish national epic Kalevala. Folk songs are combined with fascinating contemporary choral techniques in a cohesive manner that has you hanging on every musical utterance. The incredible discipline and technique that goes into performing such a complex work did not get in the way of the artistic expression – this alone was worth the price of admission. It wasn’t all icy, bleak northern climes as the choir also showed their range with Nelly Bly, a lovely Stephen Foster song, and The Farewell Overture, a comical finisher.

June 8: We switch from young vocalists to the even younger instrumentalists of the Ginn Resorts Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra. The final program of the Intermezzi series was the only purely orchestral concert of my stay, and it featured a frightening professional-sounding group of musicians, most of whom seemed not even old enough to drive.  

The opening work, Claude Debussy’s revolutionary “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” was played in a chamber reduction/arrangement by Arnold Schoenberg. Pity! Removing the harp from Debussy and replacing it with a piano is as disconcerting as using piano instead of harpsichord in a Baroque opera. An electronic organ (no, I’m not kidding) augmented the vastly reduced strings. It was all there, but the shimmering, ethereal quality was shattered every time the harsh piano was voiced. This might be a nice academic idea and a good orchestration workshop, but when you know the magnificent original, it’s hard to accept this substitute.

Even knowledgeable music lovers sometimes treat the music of Haydn as simplistic and quite easy to play. This is way off the mark and is especially evident when you hear a really great performance of a Haydn symphony. “The Bear” (82nd of 104) is a typical work of Papa H., but this performance was anything but. The orchestra was graceful and elegant when that style was called for, and they displayed a playfulness and maturity way beyond their years.

One of the first classical recordings I purchased was a Stravinsky-conducted, vocal version of his neo-Baroque masterpiece Pulcinella. It has remained one of my favorite records (12-inch, round, vinyl thingies) and compositions. Stravinsky’s inventive re-workings of pedestrian works by Pergolesi are immediately accessible and offer an aural textbook on 20th century orchestration that is almost impossible to tire of.

This performance was electric. The virtuosity and energy constituted a living presence and, with the brilliant colors pouring in through the dozens of stained glass windows, it felt like you were on a magical journey. Some memorable moments were a blistering moto perpetuo sixteenth-note bassoon part in a variation featuring just woodwinds and the delightful section where the trombone demonstrates the characteristic sliding quality of the instrument.

June 8: If you’re going to make your first trip to the United States after being invited to play at a prestigious music festival like Spoleto, you may as well commit to maximum exposure. Agustin Luna is a 25-year-old guitarist from Argentina who played seven recitals during the festival, most often two in one evening. Since programs are not available beforehand (and in this case, not even at the concert), I don’t know whether all of the recitals were the same – although I suspect they were. One perplexing aspect of Luna’s appearance was that he played as part of the Wachovia Jazz series. Perhaps that was just a spot to place this artist, which is fine, but I find the stereotype of labeling any Latin American guitarist as a jazz player to be tantamount to musical profiling.

Unlike the other concerts during the festival, where the venue is as much a part of the experience as the music, this recital was held in a rather grim, run-of-the-mill auditorium in a nondescript building on the College of Charleston campus. Luna is a charming, earnest young man who immediately captured the hearts of everyone in attendance. This was not only his first trip to the United States but also his first appearance outside of Argentina. With seven recitals to play it would have been a great benefit to everyone to have had printed programs. Among other things, this would have at least minimized the painful awkwardness of the artist announcing the programs in English. This was however part of the charm; the people loved him and also felt his earnest but difficult attempts to speak our foreign language.

The reason I have gone on about this is that it felt like many could not separate his undeniable adorableness from his performance as a classical guitarist. I feel like the Grinch, but hey, isn’t that what critics are for? Luna played works originating as folk songs from his native Argentina and also several well-known works by the great Paraguayan composer Agustin Barrios. While he is a competent player with a pleasing tone and good technical control, there is a generic “part of the pack” level of playing with very little discernible personality or individual voice.

Note: For all our reviews of Charleston events this year, linked from one page, click here [inactive 3/2011].