Spoleto Festival USA announces 2014 lineup

The St. Lawrence String Quartet is a mainstay of the Spoleto Festival’s chamber music series at the Dock Street Theatre.

After Spoleto Festival USA announces its new lineup, it’s tempting to try to discern a theme or trend that unifies (or at least holds together) the programming.

The festival is known for its eclecticism, its range of performing arts offerings that include opera, jazz, Americana music, serious theater, physical theater, chamber music, choir concerts and dance. What could possibly tie all this together?

Two things, it so happens.

The 2014 festival schedule features quite a lot of the familiar — performance artist Laurie Anderson, the Charleston duo Shovels & Rope, husband-and-wife banjoists Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, the ever-popular chamber music series run by Geoff Nuttall and even a dose of tap dancing, this time from Dorrance Dance.

But there’s a lot of something else, too, and it can be summed up in a word: New.

Pianist Stephen Prutsman will debut his new piano quintet at the Dock Street Theatre.

The festival will present the American premiere of Michael Nyman’s opera “Facing Goya,” unfamiliar to all but a few.

Nyman will offer a concert that includes the premiere of his new string quartet and a selection of his film music.

John Adams’ opera-oratorio “El Nino” will be staged in full for the first time.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago will showcase its creative, contemporary choreography.

The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra will play two modern pieces, “Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony” by Michael Gordon (a premiere) and “The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven” by Louis Andriessen.

And Resident Conductor John Kennedy’s Music in Time series will once again present 20th and 21st century works that many patrons will never have heard before.

Something else is new this time around: Joe Miller officially takes over from Joe Flummerfelt as Director of Choral Activities for the festival. Miller will conduct the production of “El Nino,” and he will lead two grand performances of the Westminster Choir that feature some not-often-heard music written in recent decades.

“I learn a lot from Joe Miller’s concerts,” General Director Nigel Redden said. “He is exploring repertoire that I’m unfamiliar with. So we want to do something that plays to his strengths and the strengths of the Westminster Choir.”

The choir will be busy. Not only will the singers populate the risers for their two big concerts; they will populate two opera stages for the productions of “El Nino” and Janacek’s “Kat’a Kabanova” (another work that might be new to some patrons).

The other artistic strand tying the festival together is religion. Not the overt, proselytizing kind but, rather, the sort of religious expression that strikes universal chords, touching on the grandeur of the human experience and the faith that art inspires.

Miller will explore spiritual themes in his programs featuring the otherworldly work of Estonian composer Arvo Part, for example. And the opera “El Nino,” directed by John La Bouchardiere, has a libretto adapted by Adams and Peter Sellars that presents a tapestry of writings, sermons and Gospel readings (along with a bit of Latin American poetry) to tell the Nativity story.

It’s not much of a stretch to say that Laurie Anderson’s work is tinged with a certain Eastern spirituality.

And Gregory Maqoma, a South African dancer making his Spoleto Festival debut, will present “Exit/Exist,” a performance in which he channels an ancestor, Chief Maqoma, a 19th-century Xhosa warrior who resisted colonialism. Though Maqoma mixes a variety of dance styles, and is accompanied by guitarist Giuliano Modarelli and a vocal quartet, his solo dance includes elements of African ritual and supernatural syncretism.

Also new (at least in recent years) is the festival’s decision to present three operas instead of the typical two.

“Kat’a Kabanova,” a love story by the banks of the Volga River by Czech composer Leos Janacek, is the big one, presented at the Sottile Theatre, directed by the Druid theater company’s Garry Hynes and conducted by Anne Manson.

“The music is gorgeous,” Redden said. “It is the music of freedom and danger. If you are free you can risk.”

Other festival highlights include:

Ireland’s Gate Theatre presents Joseph O’Connor’s adaptation of “My Cousin Rachel” at the Dock Street Theatre.

Indian-Canadian actor-director Ravi Jain presents a family story called “A Brimful of Asha” at the Emmett Robinson Theatre.

New York-based Keigwin + Company blends fashion and pop in two works, “Megalopolis” and “Runaway” at TD Arena.

Finnish aerialist Ilona Jantti premieres her “Footnotes” and “Gangewifre” along with her “Muualla/Elsewhere” at the Emmett Robinson Theatre.

Jazz singer Rene Marie returns to the festival to pay tribute to Eartha Kitt at TD Arena.

Singer Charenee Wade will make her festival debut with a performance in the Cistern Yard.

The Festival Orchestra, conducted by Joana Carneiro, will play John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic Symphony” and Bartok’s difficult “Concerto for Orchestra.”

So “new” seems to be the appropriate word. Will it all gel? This is the annual challenge.

“I always worry,” Redden said. “It’s about making sure the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

And in 2015, the festival likely will have something new again: a renovated Gaillard Center that will host opera, classical music concerts and more.

Tickets for the upcoming festival go on sale to the public Dec. 9.

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