Let’s hope it doesn’t rain. At least, not during Spoleto Festival USA 2019.
Five bands are scheduled to play the College of Charleston Cistern Yard, a spectacular space that becomes the festival’s outdoor concert venue. If the festival could be said to have a vibe, most of that vibe is generated right there, among the oak trees and in front of the columns of Randolph Hall. It’s carried to the festival’s other venues and along downtown streets at the end of May and beginning of June each year, when the festival brings artists from around the world and every genre to the Charleston.
On Jan. 3, organizers announced their 2019 programming, which includes a variety of musical performances, dance, theater, opera and public discussions.
The pop and jazz music concerts kick off with the irresistible Esperanza Spalding, a bass player and chanteuse who is fearless in her pursuit of her musical truth. She emits a vibe all her own. Her new record “12 Little Spells” is genre-defying, groovy and poetic, and kinda magical. You should go hear her.
Festival General Director Nigel Redden said the programming this year is interconnected to a degree. A couple of key themes emerge: Several of the productions deal with refugees and people who are not native to the place in which they find themselves. Other productions focus on women: their desires and strengths.
The acoustic trio I’m With Her features savvy bluegrass and Americana string players Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O'Donovan. They are each stellar musicians; together they are an intense meteor shower you can’t look away from. They are best viewed outdoors. This is your chance.
The all-male alternative to I’m With Her is the quintet Chris Thile helped assemble and a festival favorite, Punch Brothers. It should quickly be added that the festival is a Punch Brothers favorite, so the love goes both ways. All the fellas in the band are captivating virtuosos, but pay attention to Thile’s mandolin and how it responds to those fingers.
On the jazz side of the equation are the Carla Bley Trio and what promises to be a memorable tribute to the late pianist Geri Allen. The former features a true original who doesn’t often perform these days. She is one of those musician’s musicians and much-esteemed composer. The latter is a band consisting of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, sax player Ravi Coltrane, pianist (and Spoleto veteran) Craig Taborn, bassist Robert Hurst and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. Since tap dancers are really musicians who create their tunes with feet and floor, it’s wholly appropriate to find one among these other players whose instruments can more easily be moved around.
The Dafnis Prieto Big Band plays Afro-Cuban music that will surely cause you to move rhythmically in your seat (or take to the aisles) at the Gaillard Center. Or, for more Cuban-inflected music, try David Virelles, a New York-based pianist who will perform three solo recitals before being joined by percussionist Roman Diaz.
Sax player Mark Turner and pianist Ethan Iverson celebrate the release of their album “Temporary Kings” with a few intimate performances at the Recital Hall.
The big opera production this year is Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” in a contemporary urban setting. The opera, which debuted in 1905, is based on Oscar Wilde’s telling of the biblical story and features tenor Paul Groves as Herod and soprano Melanie Henley Heyn as Salome. The production is co-directed by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, and the musicians are led by conductor Steven Sloane. If you want to see the head of your lover on a platter, this is the show for you.
Redden said patrons might want to bring a folding fan with them.
“Oscar Wilde’s version is describing a kind of world that’s overripe, a hothouse atmosphere of sensuality, sexuality, narcissism and allowing one’s emotions or desires to get so beyond what is acceptable,” he said. Now that sounds good.
The last few festivals have included some remarkable dance performances, and this year promises to offer three more spectacles worth discovering. Indeed, “discovery” might be the unifying theme here. These productions, the result of intense artistic explorations, surely will open the eyes of patrons. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company returns, this time to contemplate emigration and family history in three pieces called the “Analogy Trilogy.”
Two other dance shows, Herve Koubi’s “What the Day Owes to the Night” and Caracalla Dance Theatre’s “One Thousand and One Nights,” each are unique tellings of the famous legend of Scheherazade, who manages to shirk death by telling stories. French-Algerian choreographer Koubi combines break dancing, acrobatics, capoeira and contemporary dance in ways that explore his heritage. Caracalla, a Lebanese company, will require the Gaillard Center stage to present its 40 performers.
More “Thousand and One Nights” is on tap on the drama stage: an inventive work from Brooklyn’s Target Margin Theater called “Pay No Attention to the Girl” that draws from various translations of the classic work. Five actors play multiple roles; festival veteran David Herskovits (“Porgy and Bess”) directs.
This year we get not one, but three, Shakespeare plays, “Twelfth Night," "Pericles” and "The Comedy of Errors," performed in rotation by London-based Shakespeare’s Globe theater. This ought to fulfill your craving for iambic pentameter and keep you sated for a while.
The experimental New York troupe 600 Highwaymen will occupy Woolfe Street Playhouse to present “The Fever,” which examines the notion of individual vs. collective responsibility and makes its magic thanks to audience collaboration.
Festival curators always can be sure to find something interesting at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to introduce to Charleston audiences. This year, we get to see “What Girls Are Made Of,” a U.S. premiere of an autobiographical work by Cora Bissett, who recounts the years she performed as lead singer of the indie rock band Darlingheart, and toured with others, including Radiohead and Blur. That should rock.
Two world premieres are on the calendar: “Roots” from the English company 1927, which presents folk stories accompanied by live music and animation, and “Letter to a Friend in Gaza,” the most politically charged of the theater offerings. “Gaza,” by Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, features four actors (two Israeli and two Palestinian) who discuss the ongoing conflict.
No Spoleto Festival would be complete without a troupe of acrobats maneuvering in ways you didn’t think possible. The Australian group Circa takes the stage at the Emmett Robinson Theatre to present “What Will Have Been,” created by Yaron Lifschitz and relying on live violin music.
One of the more ambitious musical performances this year is a presentation of Bach’s monumental, exquisite St. John Passion, featuring the Westminster Choir, Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus and conductor Joe Miller.
Another big concert features the festival orchestra, led by Evan Rogister, performing Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. And you’ll get a chance to hear Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C at an intimate Dock Street Theatre concert. Felix wasn’t the only musical prodigy in that family.
Filmmaker Bill Morrison and composer Michael Gordon collaborate to present a trilogy of 30-minute works that will likely satisfy both those who are visually inclined and those who like good music.
The stellar Westminster Choir, the festival’s chorus in residence, will offer its typically eclectic and mesmerizing program of works that range from the Renaissance era to the 21st century.
And then there’s the Music in Time series, packed with all sorts of musical goodies, some presented at the Woolfe Street Playhouse, some at the Simons Center Recital Hall, and the chamber music series, led by curator and violinist Geoff Nuttall. Both ought to attract the musically curious.
The festival finale has moved about recently, abandoning the lawn at Middleton Place for The Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park and, this year, Riverfront Park in North Charleston. The outdoor event, overlooking the Cooper River, will accommodate picnickers and feature singer-songwriter Curtis Harding.
All of this rich buffet is meant to stir the imagination, to get you “to think about the things that you might not otherwise think about,” Redden said.
For more information about venues, performance times, tickets, conversations with artists, dance master classes and more, go to spoletousa.org.