Spoleto’s 40th-Season Celebration Concert in 2016 was a tribute to the festival’s history. On Tuesday, the festival will once again celebrate its traditions at the Gaillard Center, where the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, the Westminster Choir and musicians from the Bank of America Chamber Music Series will recall more of the festival’s highlights.
John Kennedy, the resident conductor and director of orchestral activities at Spoleto, said he wanted to continue this idea of tribute and tradition after last year’s well-received program.
“This year, we are sort of answering that call because the concert last year was so successful and our audience loved it so much,” Kennedy said. “(We want) to do a festival concert that’s a little bit more loosely conceived, but just drawing upon different elements that speak to Charleston and the festival together.”
The concert will open with the overture from the opera “Le Villi” by Giacomo Puccini, which was presented four years ago. Arias by Puccini and Mozart will be performed, as well as “Charlestonia,” a work composed by Charleston’s own Edmund Thornton Jenkins.
Jenkins was a clarinetist and studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where he won prizes for clarinet, piano, voice and composition. He died in Paris in 1926 at the age of 32.
To close the celebration concert, the orchestra will play the Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story” to salute the friendship between composer Leonard Bernstein and the Spoleto Festival’s founder, Gian Carlo Menotti. Bernstein and Menotti both studied at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music.
This year’s concert will be conducted by Evan Rogister, a young German-American conductor who studied classical music at Indiana University and received a master’s degree in voice and conducting from Juilliard. He is also leading Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin" at this year’s festival, and will conduct his first "Ring Cycle" with Göteborg Opera in Sweden in 2018.
The Spoleto Festival is a great opportunity for young international artists to gain performance experience. Every year, musicians attend nationwide auditions to apply for a spot in the orchestra and the chance to work with Kennedy, as well as guest conductors like Rogister.
Kennedy said about half of this year’s orchestra is made up of newcomers and half alumni.
“It’s a very tight knit group of people,” Kennedy said. “The alumni have, for the most part, only been with us for one of two seasons before, so there’s still an extremely high level of excitement to participate in the festival and a love for what we do.”
Cellist Blake Anthony Johnson, who studied at the Manhattan School of Music and recently finished a fellowship with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, is back for his third season. Johnson said he looks forward to participating in the pop-up concerts, which are casual performances located in intimate spaces around Charleston. For Johnson, this idea of embracing non-traditional norms in the orchestra is what makes Spoleto special to him, he said.
“There’s a very strong spotlight on new music and not just new music but leaning away from the standard repertoire, like music from female composers or music from people of color,” he said. “There’s definitely a much wider spectrum of sources in terms of what we put on stage compared to what you would normally play during a season with an orchestra.”
Alice Hong, 24, can't dispute that. Last year, the violinist played in the U.S. debut of a challenging opera by Helmut Lachenmann called "The Little match Girl."
Hong received her master’s degree from Shepherd School of Music at Rice University and is currently a student at University of Toronto. When she is not performing, Hong composes music and helps organize annual ATL Symphony Appreciation concerts in Atlanta to celebrate musical contributions within her community. Returning to Spoleto this year, Hong said she’s happy to reunite with her orchestral group.
“Spoleto was instantly a more vibrant team because everyone is around the same age, around the same caliber and also take a lot of pride in what they have to offer, and I think John Kennedy does a great job of finding those types of people,” she said. “It’s not just a mentoring kind of environment because everyone pitches in equally and has a lot to say as an orchestra member.”
Other Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra performances this year include Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 alongside Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Dreaming” on June 3, and Mozart’s “Great Mass” in collaboration with the Westminster Choir and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus on June 6. Select orchestra members also perform in the “Music in Time” series and the opera productions. A few will lend a hand at the “Cinema and Sound” event on June 7.
“All of this gets put into the larger context of a multi-arts program, with the theater and the dance and all the other opera and music that’s going on,” Kennedy said. “It’s why Spoleto is such a beloved place, not just for audiences, but also for those of us who are privileged to perform here.”
Hailey Clark is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.