When the people who program Spoleto Festival USA sit down to figure out what to present each year, they don’t typically aim to fit the festival into a thematic mold. They solicit artists they admire and take what they can get.
Still, it’s impossible to resist the temptation of looking for themes or trends once the program is announced. This time around, it seems to be the Year of the Woman.
Plenty of men are featured in every artistic category, but women do play a leading role. They are featured in one of the Westminster Choir concerts; they are well represented in the dance programs; and they are responsible for composing much of the classical music on tap.
A woman, Jazzmeia Horn, will sing jazz tunes at the Gaillard. A woman, Quiana Parler, will sing lead vocals in the Gullah folk-jazz band Ranky Tanky. A new opera by a woman, Liza Lim, will be mounted at the Dock Street Theatre.
The music of nine female composers will be performed in the Music in Time series. A woman, Lidiya Yankocskaya, is conducting one of the operas. A woman, Emma Rice, is directing Kneehigh and Bristol Old Vic’s production of “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk.” And a woman, tapper Michelle Dorrance, returns to the festival with two new programs.
Or maybe it’s the year of the piano. Jon Batiste plays one. So does Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn and Chucho Valdes and Fred Hersch and Pedja Muzijevic.
Jon Batiste, everyone knows, is the Louisiana-born, Juilliard-educated musician who has furnished “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” with its house band. A charismatic performer (Batiste also sings and plays an infectious “harmonaboard,” or small keyboard powered by one’s breath), he will take control of the Cistern Yard for two shows on the festival’s opening weekend.
The Chucho Valdes Quartet storms the Gaillard Center in mid-festival with a program of Afro-Cuban jazz. Valdes is a giant of the genre that introduced the world to the energetic dance music called timba. It will be difficult for patrons to remain still in their seats.
Come watch an ascending star at the Gaillard Center when Jazzmeia Horn takes the stage. Among the finest scat singers at work today, Horn likes to sing in the vein of her mentors, Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan, but with an energetic imprint all her own.
Charleston’s own Ranky Tanky, now with a remarkable first year of touring behind it and a CD that’s been No. 1 on the Amazon Jazz chart, will work its magic in the Cistern Yard, performing Gullah rhythms and folk songs with hints of Lowcountry jazz.
No Southern arts festival would be complete without a string band, so Spoleto is bringing Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder to the Cistern yard for a night of pickin’.
Trio 3 — jazz veterans Oliver Lake on sax, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille — will be joined by pianist Vijay Iyer for a Gaillard gig that showcases their improvisational skills.
The Fred Hersch Trio will play the bandleader’s original tunes in the Cistern Yard; the group Artifacts will play six sets at the Recital Hall; and pianist Craig Taborn will play a couple of unpredictable and improvisational solo shows, then a couple of gigs with his mates, drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Chris Lightcap. He goes with the flows.
The festival finale, this year at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park, not Middleton Place, features The Lone Bellow, a band that probably won’t bellow alone the night of June 10.
The festival is producing or co-producing two operas this year, one old, one new, and importing Carlo Colla and Sons Marionette Company to present a third.
“Pia de’ Tolomei,” a lesser-known work by Gaetano Donizetti, will be performed five times during the festival at the Sottile Theatre. This is its U.S. premiere. The production, directed by Andrea Cigni and conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya, was first developed for the Teatro di Pisa by festival veteran Stefano Vizioli, who was here to direct the 2013 double bill “Mese Mariano” and “Le villi.”
Liza Lim raises existential questions in her unusual opera “Tree of Codes,” which is based on a work by American author Jonathan Safran Foer, who based his work on a collection of stories by Polish author Bruno Schulz called “Street of Crocodiles.” Foer excised certain words from Schulz’s book to create a sculptural work of omission, and it’s this cut-out quality that pervades the contemporary opera. It’s directed by Ong Keng Sen, who was last here in 2014 for “Facing Goya.”
If it’s more traditional operatic fare you crave, consider Carlo Colla and Sons’ version of “Il matrimonio segreto” (“The Secret Marriage”) by 18th century Neapolitan composer Domenico Cimarosa. This is arguably the most popular of his many operas. It will be performed by members of the Westminster Choir and a chamber orchestra, conducted by Marco Seco.
Among the big classical music offerings is Brahms’ German Requiem at the Gaillard, featuring the Westminster Choir, Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra and soloist Natalia Pavlova, who was here last year starring in “Eugene Onegin.”
The chamber music series, led by Geoff Nuttall, features 11 distinct programs, the return of countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, newcomers Peter Moore (the series’ first trombonist), tenor Paul Groves and the Brooklyn-based JACK quartet.
Conductor Steven Sloane returns to the festival to lead a concert at the Gaillard, a program that includes Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat Major, performed by Muzijevic, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.
Three concerts in the Music in Time series, directed and hosted by John Kennedy, will showcase contemporary classical music, much of it composed by women, including Liza Lim.
The oddest of the classical music offerings is “You are Mine Alone,” a concert with a concept. The music is Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. The conductor is Kennedy. The soloists are Pavlova and Alexander Dobson. The poetry is by Bengali writer Tagore. The narrative is a love story. All of it is tied together conceptually by movie and stage director Atom Egoyan, who returns to the festival after his triumphant debut in 2012 directing the opera “Feng Yi Ting.”
Last year, Spoleto Festival USA went out of its way to present some especially fine dance productions, and this year it seems to want to keep the bar it raised where it is. It all begins with an opening gala at the Gaillard that celebrates Jerome Robbins and the pas de deux. Robbins was resident artist at the inaugural Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, in 1958. He presented a pas de deux program there in 1973. This year, the centennial of his birth, Miami City Ballet recreates that program.
Then the dancers of Miami City Ballet put on three more shows featuring works by George Balanchine and Justin Peck, as well as a backdrop by Charleston native Shepard Fairey.
Michelle Dorrance returns to the festival for more innovative tap, presented in two distinct programs over eight days at Memminger Auditorium. The first program involves an electronic floor and the manipulation of sound.
Three New York City Ballet dancers — Jared Angle, Gretchen Smith and Sara Mearns — perform without pointe shoes in the intimate setting of the Emmett Robinson Theatre. Mearns, a Columbia native, collaborates with choreographer Jodi Melnick. The group presents two postmodern works: “One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures” and “New Bodies.”
Finally, A.I.M — short for Abraham in Motion, Kyle Abraham’s company, which made its Spoleto Festival debut in 2012 — returns to Charleston with new work at once thoughtful and flamboyant.
Kneehigh and Bristol Old Vic collaborate to present “The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk,” written by Daniel Jamieson and directed by Emma Rice. It tells the story of the life and love of Marc and Bella Chagall. The play runs throughout the festival at the Dock Street Theatre.
“Borders” is the latest of Henry Naylor’s theatrical pieces, this one about the refugee crisis and war photography. It should be as compelling and provocative as Naylor’s last play, “Angel,” which impressed audiences in 2017.
Carlo Colla and Sons has a second show up its sleeve, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” a Brothers Grimm fairy tale performed in English.
The National Theatre of Scotland will occupy the Woolfe Street Playhouse with its production of “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart,” by David Greig and directed by Wils Wilson. It’s not your typical journey of self-discovery, to say the least. But it is this theater company’s festival debut.
Finally, no arts festival would be complete without some physical theater. Spoleto Festival appeases the craving this year by presenting Gravity & Other Myths, an Australian company last in Charleston to perform “A Simple Space” in 2014. This time around it’s a show called “Backbone,” of which the troupe has plenty.
Spoleto Festival USA will once again partner with the Charleston Horticultural Society to show off select city gardens for self-guided tours, and it will present a series of “Conversations With” programs in which host Martha Teichner talks with Henry Naylor, Ong Keng Sen, Natalia Pavlova and Lidiya Yankovskaya, and members of the cast of the National Theatre of Scotland.
Two music conversations led by critic Larry Blumenfeld also are planned, one featuring Artifacts and another featuring Ranky Tanky.
Speaking of Ranky Tanky, its drummer Quentin Baxter has been tapped by the festival as master of ceremonies for the jazz programming. Expect him to introduce Batiste, Valdes, Horn, Taborn, Hersch, Trio 3 and Artifacts.
So maybe 2018 also is the Year of the South Carolina Artist, since the festival features Baxter and Ranky Tanky, the CSO Chorus, dancer Sara Mearns, a stage element by Shepard Fairey and numerous artful urban gardens.
Whether themed or not, the festival surely does value one thing above all others: artistry.
For a full schedule of performances, tickets and more, go to spoletousa.org or call 843-579-3100.