Spoleto fest to offer 800 events, performances

Gustave Charpentier's opera 'Louise' promises to be one of the highlights of Spoleto Festival USA this year.

It should be quite a show this evening when some 40 trombone players give "The Music Man's" 76 trombones a run for their money during a free concert at the U.S. Customhouse.

Meanwhile, Bohemian Paris unfolds on the stage of Gaillard Auditorium in the opera "Louise," and the amorous adventures of "Don John" will fill Memminger Auditorium.

And those are just three of the more than 800 events and performances Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto have in store over the next 17 days, following opening ceremonies at noon today.

Beginning at 11:30 a.m., members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra

Brass Ensemble will entertain early arrivals as they begin to fill the folding chairs set up on Broad Street in front of Charleston City Hall.

Just before noon, the bells of St. Michael's Episcopal Church will ring out, and the brass will offer a fanfare from Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo" to start the proceedings.

During the festivities there will be a surprise performance by a company performing at this year's Piccolo. The special guest speaker will be Tony Award-winning actress Jane Alexander, who is in town to host the Spoleto Festival USA Gala on Saturday night.

This year's Spoleto is bittersweet as it marks the retirement of Charles Wadsworth, artistic director for chamber music, who has been associated with the Charleston and Italian festivals for 50 years.

Several special events are planned to honor the long-time chamber music impresario, including the gala, a musical celebration on May 31 and a high tea farewell on June 7, following the final chamber music concert.

Festival General Director Nigel Redden said he and Wadsworth "have talked over the years, at his suggestion, about his leaving, and I always encouraged him to stay.

"He decided that this was a milestone year (Wadsworth turned 80 on Thursday), and he wanted to leave on his own terms rather than being pushed. It is wonderful that he decided to leave when he is so loved and so much on top of his game."

Redden said Wadsworth has built an audience for chamber music and the festival in general over the years. "He has become identified as the public face of the festival. No one is on stage as much as he has been consistently through the years."

The festival will miss him, but Redden added, "We have weathered other departures and we will weather this one. He has left us in a strong position. I do hope he won't be a stranger though. I would be amazed if he didn't come back as a guest."

Despite the economy, Redden is optimistic about this year's festival.

"When the Dow fell, our ticket sales plummeted, but they are very much catching up now," he said. "There are good seats available for almost everything."

Perhaps more importantly, he's feeling a buzz in the community.

"The other day I stopped by a shop that I'd never been in before because I liked what they had done with the poster in their window," he said.

"I went in to tell them I thought it was a great use of the poster, not telling them who I was, and they were really excited because they were going to see 'Don John' because they remembered 'Tristan & Yseult' (the production Kneehigh Theatre presented here in 2006). There is definitely enthusiasm out there."

Spoleto Festival USA was founded in 1977 by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti as a companion to his Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. The 17-day festival, running through June 7, features music, dance and theater by artists from around the world.

Among this year's highlights are the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, "Don John" by Britain's Kneehigh Theatre, Noche Flamenca, violinist Sarah Chang, Gustave Charpentier's opera "Louise," and the 33 concerts of the Bank of America Chamber Music Series.

Piccolo Spoleto, the city of Charleston's outreach festival, began in 1979 and offers hundreds of events, many of them free, showcasing musicians, artists and performers primarily from around the Southeast.

Piccolo Executive Director Ellen Dressler Moryl is enthusiastic about this year's prospects.

"I think this year's festival is going to be really good," she said. "I think the economy is going to make people look to Piccolo as a cost-effective way to go to festival events. We hope they will go the big festival too, and see Piccolo as a way to enhance that experience with a lot of our free events.

"In tough times, people are getting how important the arts are in conquering our anxiety and fear of the unknown. The arts make everything seem better."

This weekend, Piccolo artists, staff and audiences will be taking part in a survey being conducted by representatives of the National Endowment for the Arts. Seven such festivals across the country are being surveyed to assess their dynamics, the impact they have on their communities and what makes them so successful.

The results are expected to be published in a report next year.

Tickets for Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto are available at Gaillard Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St., from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Spoleto tickets also may be purchased online at www.spoletousa.org and Piccolo at www.ticketmaster.com/artist/834645.