Preview: Classical music off the beaten path

Choral Orchestral Concert Spoleto Festival USA 2012

Julia Lynn

Spoleto Festival USA consistently presents a diverse offering of traditional and contemporary classical music performed at the very highest level. While this season’s headliners, the Puccini/Giordano operatic double bill, the Japanese opera “Matsukaze,” and Verdi’s Requiem are sure to receive the most attention, I am intrigued by some appealing, yet less publicized concerts.

Over the years, the festival seems to have favored Phillip Glass of the “big three” minimalist composers (Glass, John Adams, Steve Reich). This season’s Spoleto Festival Orchestra performance of Adams’ “Harmonielehre” may be a revelation for listeners only familiar with Glass’ take on minimalism.

Especially “shocking” will be the lyricism and lack of overt repetition in the second movement. The score also includes Adams’ trademark rhythmic drive that makes his style attractive to those with a more popular-music orientation.

While perhaps best known for operas such as “Nixon in China” and “Doctor Atomic,” Adams’ well-crafted and accessible orchestral music has quickly become, to many, part of a contemporary classical canon.

Also featured will be Latvian composer Peteris Vasks’ lushly beautiful “Credo” and Pierre Boulez’s orchestral reworking of Ravel’s eerily shimmering “Frontispice,” originally for two pianos. This should be a very exciting concert.

Igor Stravinsky may be the most successful musical chameleon in history. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the premiere of his “The Rite of Spring.”

To honor this groundbreaking and iconic work, John Kennedy has cooked up a musical birthday party featuring excerpts from “The Rite” interspersed with contemporaneous works by Debussy, Bartok and Webern, along with compositions by composers influenced by Stravinsky, including Varese, Andriessen, Xenakis, and Reich. The entire concert will be performed without pause.

This unusual event, part of the Music in Time series, will be an intriguing contrast to the May 27 Intermezzi concert featuring Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella Suite.” Written seven years after “The Rite,” the ballet “Pulcinella” seems to exist in a sound world more closely related to the early 18th century than the early 20th century. Simply put, it sounds nothing like “The Rite.”

The work is considered by some as the beginning of his neoclassical period because of its smallish orchestra, tonal harmonic language and “borrowing” of early 18th-century music by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and others. Careful listeners, however, will recognize that, despite its delicate antique charm, this music is full of Stravinsky-isms and belongs squarely in the modern era.

On the same program is Aaron Copland’s youthful “Music for the Theatre.” This early work, written in 1925, is one of the first to use his “American sound,” better known in later works such as “Rodeo” and “Appalachian Spring.”

Although Toshio Hosokawa’s new opera, “Matsukaze,” is sure to garner a great deal of interest in the year’s festival, his recent “Im Fruhlingsgarten,” featured in the Music in Time series, may be a better chance to hear and see the music of this award-winning Japanese composer.

One of the hallmarks of contemporary classical music is the use of extended techniques, which are non-traditional and often unusual methods of playing instruments in an effort to broaden the timbral palette, a significant feature of Hosokawa’s compositions.

The intimate environment of the Simons Center Recital Hall is the perfect venue to get a good look at how some of these striking and often beautiful sounds are made. Compositions by American composers Missy Mazzolli and William Duckworth also will be performed.

While there are far too many wonderful Piccolo Spoleto events to mention, I tend to have a soft spot for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s annual Customhouse concert for its festive and civic flavor.

This year’s concert, conducted by concertmaster and artistic adviser Yuriy Bekker, will feature selections from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” and the overture to “Candide.” It is worth noting that the late David Stahl, longtime director of the CSO, studied with Bernstein and conducted “West Side Story” on Broadway.

This is a wonderful way to enjoy a balmy late spring evening while taking pride in our beautiful city and its accomplished resident orchestra.

Edward Hart is a composer and incoming chairman of the music department at the College of Charleston.