Ashley on the Arts

By Dottie Ashley

Euphoria, mingled with a tinge of suspicion, might well have been a response of classical music devotees last week, following the release of the official 2016 Spoleto Festival USA program, scheduled for May 17-June 12 in Charleston.


The 17-day performing arts extravaganza, consisting of 155 performances and events in 13 venues, will also include celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of Spoleto USA’s founding in Charleston.

Major festival changes

The 2016 edition of Spoleto appears to be the culmination of various major challenges involved in the mounting of the festival. In a phone interview from his New York office, Spoleto Festival General Director Nigel Redden, who has served in various capacities at the festival for nearly 30 years, is forthright concerning significant changes that Spoleto has undergone both in the productions selected as well as behind the scenes.

“Almost everything could use a change, now and then and that was the case with Michael,” said Redden, who, following the 2015 festival dismissed Michael Grofsorean, director of Spoleto’s jazz program for nearly three decades.

Luckily, prior to his departure, Grofsorean, already planning the 2016 festival’s jazz, had recently signed on Freddy Cole, the famous pianist and singer, who, at age 84, is the much younger brother of the late Nat King Cole. Oddly enough, Grofsorean had been introduced to the music of Cole by Charleston ace drummer Quentin Baxter.

In an interview from Washington, D.C., where he was touring with Cole’s quintet, Baxter explained that he had persuaded Grofsorean, a Michigan resident, to come hear a Freddy Cole concert performed in Detroit last year.

“Michael came to the concert and really loved Freddy’s truly different style, especially his jazz sound that he makes by mixing jazz with timeless standards,” Baxter explained.

At the festival Cole’s quintet, including Baxter, will perform eight concerts. “They’re turning the College of Charleston’s recital hall into ‘Freddy’s Club,’ said Baxter, describing the arrangement that will be another type of “first” for Spoleto. “Every one of Freddy’s shows is different, which means all the musicians have to be on our toes every second, because sometimes Freddy will change songs in the middle of a medley,” added Baxter.

Redden emphasizes that jazz has become an increasingly important element of the festival and that, temporarily without a jazz program director, he called on Larry Blumenfeld, the jazz critic for the Wall Street Journal for his suggestions.

Another major Spoleto staff change took place 18 months ago to fill a vacancy partly caused by the resignation (five years ago) of a longtime key advisor to Redden. The director for artistic planning and operations, Nicole Taney, served as general manager of the Trisha Brown Dance Company from 2003-2008 before becoming company manager for the New York City Ballet. She was most recently the director of producing for the Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company.

“I wasn’t with Bill T. Jones for that long because I have been in New York for 15 years and saw that Nigel had a vacant position that required my experience,” explained Taney, a Connecticut native who once visited Charleston and thought she might like to live here someday.

Taney’s influence and experience is evident in the 2016 festival. She was responsible not only for bringing back the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company for its fourth Spoleto visit, but was also responsible for the Jason Moran Fats Waller Dance Party, the band that will perform at The Cistern at The College of Charleston.

Reached at his family home in Harlem, Moran said he was inspired to form his Fats Waller Dance Party band because, while attending the Manhattan School of Music, he became fascinated by the rock/jazz type music that Fats Waller introduced to the nation in the 1930 and early 40s.

“Fats’ music made him a commentator on the times he lived in, a time of speakeasies,” Moran explained. “Although Waller died in 1944, the songs he wrote live on, like ‘Ain’t Misbehavin,’ which was made into a Broadway show in 1978.”

Moran frequently travels to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where he is director of the center’s jazz program. “It’s a wonderful job and I credit (the late) Dr. Billy Taylor for training me for it,” he remarked. Moran is responsible for planning 30 jazz programs a year in such diverse Kennedy Center venues as the Eisenhower Theatre, the Opera House and the Terrace Theatre.

“When I perform in Charleston, I sure hope people will jump and dance, because that’s the kind of music we play. We were in Prague and they screamed and when we toured to Paris, it was all dance.”

Porgy and Bess at the Gaillard Center

This season’s festival promises to be especially intriguing, as it will offer not only an astonishingly varied mélange of theater, dance, opera, chamber music, jazz, country and even rock’n’roll, but additionally will include celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the founding of the festival in Charleston.

Not only will the quintessential Charleston opera “Porgy and Bess,” penned by native DuBose Heyward, headline the festival, it will also serve as Spoleto’s inaugural performance in the Charleston Gaillard Center following the building’s renovation. In a twist of fate, the first production of “Porgy and Bess” ever performed in South Carolina was staged in what was then the “new” Gaillard Auditorium in 1970.

Of that, Redden remarked, “Considered a civic landmark by Charlestonians, that remarkable event represented unity, pride and artistic achievement that we at the festival hope to emulate.”

He said that serving as director of Spoleto’s production of “Porgy and Bess” will be David Herskovits, the artistic director of New York’s Target Margin Theater, with the opera’s starring roles performed by Lester Lynch, recently praised for his operatic vocal prowess by Opera News, as Porgy; Alyson Cambridge, described in the Washington Post as “vocally assured, compelling and imaginative” will be Bess.

Performing the music of George and Ira Gershwin, the Spoleto Festival Orchestra will accompany the singers of the Johnson C. Smith University Choir of Charlotte. Redden also invited Lowcountry native Jonathan Green as the visual designer for the opera.

On his selection of Green, Redden explained, “Jonathan will demonstrate through his artwork the roots, strength and character of the Gullah culture in which he grew up.”

Record-breaking budget

Even though the festival is months away, Julia Forester, director of development, is thrilled that Spoleto boasts its highest budget to date at $9.1 million. The 2015 budget was $7.1 million, in line with recent past festivals. “Much of this additional funding has come from the Wells Fargo private bank, which has designated this as a gift to the community,” says Forster, who adds that generous donors Robert and Janet McNair contributed heavily to “Porgy and Bess” though a matching grant of $333,000, a third of what was required to be raised.

“The wonderful support of the production of ‘Porgy and Bess’ by our loyal followers has been totally heartwarming,” said Forster.

Tributes to Emanuel AME

Although Spoleto is usually associated with a time of celebration, this season it will also allow time for reflection. Since the festival will end only five days before the anniversary of the Emanuel AME tragedy, Redden said Spoleto will present several performances to acknowledge and commemorate the victims.

One of the memorial events titled, “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now” was conceived by artist Mae Weems, curated by Harvard University professor Sarah Lewis and inspired, in part, by President Barack Obama’s singing of “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy held in Charleston for his personal friend, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. It will be performed using song, spoken word and video projection at the Sottile Theatre for two performances.

The festival also commissioned a song, “Be the Change,” composed by jazz singer Rene Mare, who will perform it in concert at the Gaillard Center. About the commemorative events Redden said, “As a festival that has called Charleston home for forty years, we wanted to demonstrate how are can help people to heal as well as to provide an important voice in times when it is difficult to find the right words.

Although the closing concert was for decades largely comprised of classical or semi-classical music played at the outdoor celebration at Middleton Place Plantation, it appears this year may be different. Very different, as the finale concert will feature Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, an eight-piece soul band.

“Yes,” says Redden with a laugh, when asked about changes he has made. “There have, indeed, been some changes made. And perhaps more are to come.”

For further information concerning the festival, call (843) 722-2764 or go to Tickets go on sale to the public on January 14.

Dottie Ashley is the arts columnist for the Charleston Mercury and the only newspaper journalist to win the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, which she received in 2003, for her statewide coverage of the arts. She is also winner of the American Dance Festival fellowship at Duke University and of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Critics Fellowship in Connecticut.



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