The members of the progressive bluegrass band the Punch Brothers had a sense of humor about performing Monday night in TD Arena, the home for College of Charleston sporting events.
“There’s actually a full basketball game going on behind us,” joked banjo player Noam Pikelny. “They are just being so mindful of our music over here, and dribbling the ball so gently.”
The music that night was exceptionally well-mixed, as polished as a studio production. Gabe Witcher played violin at “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” speeds, every strike of the bow ringing out crisply, even during a string battle against Chris Thile’s mandolin.
This is the first year Spoleto Festival USA has offered shows in the arena. Compagnie Kafig performed there early in the festival, and Ballet Flamenco de Andalucia, Angelique Kidjo, Rosanne Cash and a grand performance of Verdi’s “Messa Da Requiem” also are scheduled to appear there.
Normally these concerts would be at the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium a block down George Street, but that cavernous space is undergoing extensive renovations and improvements and won’t be ready for patrons until 2015.
The renovation project, announced in 2009, includes a significant reshaping and downsizing of the concert hall — the number of seats will decrease from about 2,700 to 1,700 — and a badly needed acoustical redesign.
The Punch Brothers said it was pretty impressive how Spoleto had transformed TD Arena into a stage, and the audience seemed to agree. Thick black curtains cut the arena in half and enveloped a platform stage. With the houselights down, it looked like a sprawling version of a proscenium theater. The Gaillard Foundation’s large canvas banner advertising “The new Gaillard Center” stands in the lobby of TD Arena just beyond the front doors, as if to reinforce the idea that this arrangement is temporary.
But some concert goers don’t seem to mind it.
“The sound was surprisingly good for such a large space,” said Brian Leach, 45, of Charleston, “The Gaillard is a little more intimate, but as a temporary measure, the arena was very enjoyable.” Leach and his sons Nathan, 19, and Ben, 20, saw the Punch Brothers perform from the back of the center section. They raved about the show.
Other patrons expressed some concerns.
Sitting left or right of center on the floor affords a view straight through to the wings. At a Compagnie Kafig performance Saturday afternoon, Teri Richmond, of Charleston, noted ushers using lights to seat people in the bleachers after the show had started. “I thought it was very distracting,” she said. Richmond, a first-time Spoleto attendee, was at the Kafig performance with her friends Kate Dolan, of Charleston, and Gayla Reilly, from Boston.
“Considering this went from a gym to a theater, it wasn’t bad,” despite some distracations, said Dolan, a Spoleto veteran. She thought the festival managed to transform the arena so that the Kafig performance sounded different from the sports events she has attended there.
Prerecorded music broadcast over large speakers sounded fine from up close, but Dolan and another spectator, Bailey Davis, visiting from Middleburg, Va., said they heard an annoying static sound. It was an intentional part of Kafig’s soundtrack, but for some it didn’t carry well enough to the bleacher seats for it to register as anything other than a technical difficulty.
The Punch Brothers, with their intricate live music, proved much more of a challenge for the arena’s sound designers. But Thile seemed impressed, mentioning during the band’s encore that the concert might well have been “the quietest show in an arena ever.” He added, “It’s emboldened us to play something completely acoustically.”
Without the microphone, the sound of his voice didn’t quite reach the nose-bleed seats, but the tapestry of plucked strings carried with crystal-clarity through the arena.
Paige Cooperstein is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.