Many of us who turn 40 struggle to capture the cutting-edge coolness of our younger days. But Spoleto Festival USA, which ends its fourth decade this spring in Charleston, has never stopped being hip.
As usual, Spoleto will offer a huge dose of diversity and a fistful of firsts. The world premiere of “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now” contains music, spoken words and video projections reflecting on grace and democracy. Another world premiere, “Afram, Ou La Belle Swita” (dubbed an “African romance”), introduces most of us to long-dead, Charleston-born composer Edmund Thornton Jenkins.
U.S. premieres include Helmut Lachenmann’s opera “The Little Match Girl”; Antoine Dauvergne’s baroque comic opera “La Double Coquette” (revised by contemporary composer Gérard Pesson); a new production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Dublin’s Gate Theatre; and “Golem,” the Jewish folk tale updated by the uncategorizable British theater company 1927.
Yet the piece that has Charleston buzzing has played all over the world continuously since 1935: George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess,” set to a libretto by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin and based on Heyward’s non-musical play set in Charleston.
It celebrates Spoleto’s return to Gaillard Center, which closed more than three years ago for a $142 million renovation. “Porgy” will open the 2016 Spoleto Festival in the 1,800-seat Martha and John Rivers Performance Hall. Both Charleston and Charlotte can feel civic pride: The opera played triumphantly at the old Gaillard Municipal Auditorium in 1970 as part of Charleston’s tricentennial – reportedly to the city’s first integrated audience– and Johnson C. Smith University’s concert choir will provide many voices for the chorus.
Tickets to the festival, which runs May 26-June 12, go on sale to everyone Thursday, though donors can buy them now. You can often get seats at larger venues on the spot during the 18-day run, but certain events – especially chamber music and jazz gigs – will probably sell out before the fest opens.
Jonathan Green, the specialist in Gullah culture whose paintings and prints have gone around the world, will design the set and costumes for “Porgy and Bess.” David Herskovits, who directed the sold-out production of DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s play “Mamba’s Daughters” here in 1999, directs; Lester Lynch and Alyson Cambridge sing the title roles for conductor Stefan Asbury. The festival will offer “Porgy and Bess”-themed walking tours daily, and organizations around the city will produce related activities.
Pierre Alferi has devised a cheeky new libretto for “La Double Couquette,” a comic story of a double-crossing cross-dresser who sets out to win her lover back from a young seductress. Period musicians Ensemble Amarillis will perform the 1753 score, which contains 32 additions by Gérard Pesson.
Things take a grimmer turn in Lachenmann’s “Little Match Girl,” which takes place in the last hour of a freezing child’s life. (Letters by Red Army Faction founder Gudrun Ensslin provide some text for this adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s story.) Conductor John Kennedy and his 106-piece orchestra will encircle the audience on a platform to perform the score, which includes clicks, crackles, knocks and hisses. The composer will speak at a Music In Time concert of his work May 27.
Modern choreographer Bill T. Jones returns to Spoleto with “Play and Play: An Evening of Movement and Music,” featuring eight musicians from the Spoleto Festival Orchestra playing chamber works by Beethoven, Mozart and Mendelssohn. Dancers will do “D-Man in the Waters,” “Spent Days Out Yonder” and “Continuous Replay.”
Britain’s Aakash Odedra Company makes its Spoleto USA debut with “Rising,” four solo works performed by Odedra. Choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Akram Khan and Russell Maliphant created three of them for Odedra, who’s trained in Indian dance styles, and he’ll do one of his own.
L.A. Dance Project also makes a Spoleto USA debut with Justin Peck’s “Murder Ballades,” based on the American folk tradition of songs about crime; Cherkaoui’s “Harbor Me,” a trio exploring the role of the harbor as a place of shelter or a border that can turn you away, and Benjamin Millepied’s “Hearts & Arrows,” set to Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 3.
Seattle choreographer Amy O’Neal created “Opposing Forces” to examine the values of race and gender in battling, commercial dance, contemporary performance and rap culture; five B-boys will perform to an original score by Waylon Dungan, aka WD4D.
And “Havana Rakatan” uses salsa, mambo, jazz, bolero, son (which combines the structure and feel of the Spanish canción with Afro-Cuban percussion), cha-cha and rumba to explore Cuban passion through the choreography of Nilda Guerra and the live sounds of the eight-piece son band Turquino.
Dublin’s Gate, a 10-time visitor to Spoleto, returns with “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Wilde’s comedy about the deceptions lovers practice on themselves and each other. Laughs (and poignancy) of a different sort come in “Every Brilliant Thing,” a one-man show written by Jonny Donahoe and Duncan MacMillan; Donahoe plays a man looking back on a list of things he created throughout his life to remind himself (and his depressed mother) how to find joy.
The end of life comes in two forms. In “A Gambler’s Guide to Dying,” writer-performer Gary McNair recounts the story of his grandfather, whose bet on the 1966 World Cup final made him rich; when diagnosed with cancer, the old man bet all of his accumulated winnings on living to see the year 2000. In “Ada/Ava,” created by Chicago’s Manual Cinema, three musicians and five puppeteers convey the story of twin sisters who spend their lives together until Ava dies; when a carnival comes to town, Ada visits a mirror maze and journeys across the thresholds of life and death.
Speaking of inanimate objects coming to life, 1927’s “Golem” (written by Suzanne Andrade) is based loosely on the Jewish myth about a man who fashions a creature out of clay to work for him but gets unexpected results. This show employs 1927’s characteristic blend of live performance, film, animation and Claymation designed by Paul Barritt.
How to classify “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now” and “Afram, Ou La Belle Swita”? Sarah Lewisacted as adviser for the former, a meditation partly on race that runs just a few days before the first anniversary of the killings at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church; visual artist Carrie Mae Weems directed. Edmund Thornton Jenkins, son of a Charleston minister who was born a slave, wrote “Afram” shortly before dying in Paris in 1926; it’s a cabaret revue with songs, foxtrots and such evocations of Charleston as “Underneath the Palmettos and Pines.”
Two-time Grammy winners Old Crow Medicine Show will open the festival May 26 with bluegrass and Southern folk music. A day-long Wells Fargo Festival Finale will conclude it July 17 at Middleton Place with gourmet picnic fare, a beer garden, regional bands, Denver soul band Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats and a fireworks show.
In between come nights of jazz. The Wells Fargo Jazz series offers Jason Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party, with the pianist fronting a raucous band while wearing a papier-mâché replica of Waller’s head; Randy Weston African Rhythms Sextet, with the bop-influenced pianist at its head; vocalist René Marie, whose performance with an instrumental quintet includes a commissioned work (“Be the Change”) inspired by the community outpouring after the Emanuel AME Church murders; pianist-composer Arturo O’Farrill And The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra; and Cécile McLorin Salvant, the Grammy-nominated singer who interprets songs as music theater and will spotlight her 2015 album “For One to Love.”
Joe Miller, Spoleto’s director for choral activities, will conduct Westminster Choir performances of Poulenc’s Mass in G, Debussy’s “Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans” and Brahms’ vocal quartet “An Die Heimat,” along with traditional favorites. He’ll also lead the choir in a concert of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and Mass in C and Messiaen’s “Couleurs de la Cité Celeste.”
The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra will play in all of those, as well as Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” and Alberto Ginastera’s “Variaciones Concertantes.” It will also give a 40th-Season Celebration Concert May 28. That program includes Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante, performed by Chamber Music Director Geoff Nuttall and other soloists; the premiere of “Blessing the Boats,” a new work by Resident Conductor and Director of Orchestral Activities John Kennedy; and a few surprises.
Kennedy’s Music in Time series features five concerts of contemporary music, from tributes to Lachenmann – “Ein Kinderspiel,” his song cycle “Got Lost,” “Serynade” for piano – to George Crumb’s “Ancient Voices of Children” and Kennedy’s own “Spoletudes.”
Violinist Nuttall returns to program the Bank of America Chamber Music series, which offers 33 concerts at Dock Street Theatre. This year is kind of a “greatest hits” lineup: St. Lawrence String Quartet, pianists Stephen Prutsman and Inon Barnatan, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, violinist Benjamin Beilman, oboist James Austin Smith, baritone Tyler Duncan, composer-in-residence Osvaldo Golijov. Violinist Pamela Frank is the most significant debutant, and Nuttall will announce in April what they’re all going to play.