Tag Archives: Nigel Redden

The Cookers Heat Up the Cistern

Review:  The Cookers at Spoleto

By Perry Tannenbaum

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.comAfter a pandemic-induced hiatus that canceled last-year’s 17-day event, Spoleto Festival USA is back in Charleston for 2021 – but not all the way. Opera, symphony, and choral presentations remain in lockdown, Spoleto’s indoor jazz venue remains shuttered, and the long-anticipated premiere of Rhiannon Gidden’s Omar remains on hold until 2022. The festival’s general director, Nigel Redden, who has announced that he will be stepping down in October after a 26-year stint at the helm, admitted that the efficacy of COVID vaccines and the speed of recovery had wrong-footed Spoleto in their scheduling.

The only indoor events at Spoleto this year were The Woman in Black, on loan from its epic 30-year run in London’s West End, and the daily series of lunchtime chamber music concerts at historic Dock Street Theatre, always the bedrock of the festival. Live dance and music events are otherwise outdoors. With necessity as their mother, a whole brood virtual events, presented online or on your cellphone, has been invented.

Deep in the heart of Trump Country, Spoleto does impose social distancing in arranging seating, and they ask ticketholders to be properly masked until they are isolated in their seating pods. These hardships didn’t seem to dampen the rush on the festival box office, creating a quandary for omnivores like me. Press comps were unavailable for the first 12 chamber music concerts, forcing us to miss the opening weekend with its combo of New Orleans celebrations on successive nights at The Cistern. The first of these featured the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the second, a tribute to the life and music of multi-instrumentalist Danny Barker, offered Catherine Russell as its featured vocalist.

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Since I had reviewed performances by both Preservation Hall and Russell in recent years, I punted on the first weekend and opted for The Cookers on the middle weekend of Spoleto, when access to the chamber music series would also open up. Allowing us to catch up with such heavyweights as George Cables, Cecil McBee, Eddie Henderson, and Billy Hart, all of whom I knew well from recordings but had never seen live, The Cookers were anything but a consolation prize. Then there was also an opportunity to reconnect with Billy Harper and Donald Harrison, two sax greats whom I hadn’t seen on a bandstand in well over 10 years.

If the weather cooperated.

Over and over, I had checked on the forecasts. No wavering from predictions of thunderstorms slated to plague that second weekend – and no contingency plans, the press office told me, if the Saturday night concert were to be rained out. It was a nail-biter, especially after what happened to us on Friday night. My wife Sue and I were nearly finished with dinner when my iPhone beeped with a text telling me that Ballet Under the Stars had been cancelled. By then, rain was pouring down so ferociously that, after paying our bill, we told our waitress to open a dessert tab.

We could be thankful that we made it back to our hotel that night, because the floodwaters near where we had parked reached the tops of our tires at one of the intersections. We soon passed police barricades barring traffic to the streets we had just left moments before.

Ominous clouds loomed overhead as we walked past The Cistern on the night of the concert. Spoleto crew were obviously no more confident than we were. Tentpoles surrounded the bandstand where The Cookers were scheduled to perform, with a white carnival-like canopy protecting the electronics. We speculated that maybe they would perform in a light rain and let the audience fend for themselves. Or maybe The Cookers were merely having a cookout.

As we took our seats underneath one of The Cistern’s live oaks, the stage crew moved the tentpoles and canopy off the staging platform minutes before the 9:00pm start. Apparently, local radar had given the band a green light. But for how long? We’ve seen scenarios – including just two years ago, when Carla Bley brought her trio to The Cistern – when festival officials, citing an oncoming storm, forced the performers to curtail their program.

Fortune smiled on us, for the band not only stayed onstage for the scheduled hour-and-a-quarter, they overstayed, lingering longer than 90 minutes. Some might also say they overcooked, for these were mostly searing, incendiary performances. The only mellowing agents all evening long were bassist McBee, who merely smoked on his solo in his own “Peacemaker,” and trumpeter David Weiss, organizer of the group and its spokesman, whose sizzling hot solos actually seemed to cool things down amid this torrid zone of horns.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Tenor saxophonist Harper, brooding by the keyboard near Cables and playing a gruff, disconnected cadenza, clued us into how it would be. This turbulence was before Harper joined the other horns downstage for the four-barreled launch of his “Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart,” the title tune of the band’s most recent release. Within moments of this brash and brassy opening salvo, Harper seemed to have the stage all to himself, totally possessed as he unleashed a snarling, squealing, epic rant that announced he was ready for more than a cutting contest – he was geared-up for a knife fight.

When Henderson returned to his mic with his trumpet, and when Harrison followed with his alto sax, each man soloed as if Harper’s gauntlet had been tossed at him, dueling with the tenor great and with each other. After Henderson answered Harper’s fury with some awesome flame throwing, Harrison didn’t flinch, firing off a face-melting solo of his own. Arrangements for this and three other Cookers tunes from past CDs were looser live than in their studio versions, encouraging all this calculated fury and derangement. If you caught the body language of whoever was blowing and the next man up, you were hip to the fact that there was no ironclad limit to the solos.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

With relative subtlety, the rhythm section of Cables, McBee, and Hart seemed relegated to timekeeping toward the rear of the bandstand as the men with the horns jousted in the foreground. Like McBee in “Peacemaker,” both the pianist and drummer got their shots. Cables set up his own composition, “The Mystery of Monifa Brown,” which was the only tune in the set not previously recorded by the septet. On the Cistern stage, the group totally transformed the tune from what it was on the 2016 Songbook album with Cables’ trio. Not only did the addition of the horns bring fresh fire, Cables himself thundered in a way that came far closer to the sound and percussive fury of McCoy Tyner.

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As often happens in live concerts, drummer Hart got his chance to shine in the finale, Wayne Shorter’s “The Core,” after yet another searing peroration from Harper’s tenor. The sizzle of Billy’s cymbals and the barrage on his toms left scorched earth in his wake.

Paradoxically, Henderson may have received the most precious gift of the night as the Harper tune of the set, “If One Could Only See,” gave the trumpet ace an opportunity to slow the tempo – an oasis of meditative calm amid the livid flame-broiling at The Cistern. For many in the crowd, the change of pace may have come as a revelation, but for those of us who have followed the group since their genesis in 2010, it was a reminder that The Cookers can still deliver when they turn down the heat.

Jazz at Spoleto culminates this weekend with Jason and Alicia Moran’s co-production, Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration. Instead of Reconstruction, the Morans will be focusing on the music of 1910-1970 – and the key moments that forged so much of modern American music afterwards. Aside from the Morans, Wycliffe Gordon and the Imani Winds are among the talents gathered under the live oaks at The Cistern for this musical narrative.

Spoleto Ends an Era With Infusions of New Works and Artists

Review:  “Spoleto is back!”

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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When Martha Teichner spoke with Nigel Redden over the Memorial Day weekend, there were three major takeaways from the Spoleto Festival USA general director – in what will stand as his exit interview for most of us in the live or online audience. As we might have guessed, setting up the 2021 festival has been notably awkward after the cancellation last year’s 17-day event: if Redden and his staff had anticipated how quickly vaccinations would open up Charleston’s indoor venues, Spoleto scheduling could have been more robust.

Because this year’s festival is so downsized after the hiatus, Redden also stated, next year’s festival will be pivotal for Spoleto’s survival. The normal balance between popular and outré events will need to be skewed toward the cash cows. Staying on until October but keeping his hands off the search for his successor, Redden will certainly play a key role in framing the 2022 lineup.

Notably modest about his impact and achievements during his most recent 26-year tenure – and his prior stint at the helm from 1986 to 1991 – Redden was surprisingly frank about his decision to step down. He pointed unhesitatingly to the #BlackLivesMatter Movement that arose amid the turbulence of 2020 and, more specifically, to the manifesto issued by the We See You White American Theatre coalition of BIPOC theatre artists demanding radical, immediate, and long overdue reforms.

Or to those willing to overlook the often-scathing tone and occasional militancy of the 29-page “Accountability Report” and its demands, WSYWAT was offering a blueprint on how to create an anti-racist American Theatre. Though not primarily a theatre person, Redden saw himself checking two major boxes in the laundry list of justifiable grievances, the color of his skin and the length of his reign.

What Redden said back in September, that the cancellation of the 2020 Spoleto and enforced isolation had weighed heavily upon him, sounded right for a press release. This more recent elucidation sounds right for Redden. We can see a continuous line of white males at the helms of various sectors of Spoleto since its opening season in 1977, beginning with festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti leading the student orchestra, Charles Wadsworth hosting the lunchtime chamber music concerts, and Joseph Flummerfelt leading the Westminster Choir.

The younger men carrying on their tradition are notably more adventurous in their programming, Joe Miller leading Westminster, Geoff Nuttall hosting the chamber music at Dock Street Theatre, and John Kennedy wearing one of the two hats worn by Menotti as resident conductor of the orchestra. Since the Westminster is a separate entity from Spoleto and Nuttall was Wadsworth’s hand-picked successor, Redden’s hand in pushing the festival to a fuller embrace of new and contemporary music was most emphatic in his appointment of Kennedy.

Yet the international tone and resources of the festival have led Kennedy to widen his horizons in recent years, and an unmistakable tidal shift has occurred in the choral and chamber music programming as well, now permeated with contemporary repertoire and studded with world premieres. COVID restrictions have kept Kennedy and Miller away from Spoleto for two seasons now, relegated to digital presentations on YouTube during this year’s festival – video self-portraits and bite-sized performances that will linger online through June 18. So it has been Nuttall’s responsibility to carry the torch in live events for the 2021 season, reasserting the festival’s right to be recognized among the world’s preeminent champions of new music.

Nine of the 11 programs at this year’s festival (each one is repeated three times) are showcasing works by living composers, including five pieces by composers appearing live at Dock Street Theatre, and four world premieres. Most of these were clustered at the top end of the schedule, making tickets – tough to score on opening weekends of all Spoletos – particularly tight in this atypical year of social distancing. So we were obliged to miss all four live performances of works by this year’s composer-in-residence, Jessica Meyer, and asked to limit our requests for press seats to one concert.

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Turning my attention to the second of Spoleto’s three weekends, I had little difficulty settling on my choice: Program VII, the return of cellist Alisa Weilerstein to the festival in the world premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s Milonga. With Beethoven’s Septet in E flat on the same program, I would also get to see five players I’d never seen before at Dock Street.

Hoping against hope, I also requested Program VIII: more Alisa Weilerstein – again paired with pianist Inon Barnatan – and the return of Anthony Roth Costanzo, the superstar countertenor, beloved at Spoleto years before the huge éclat of his Met Opera debut. “Nothing ventured…,” right? My first choice was granted. Although Costanzo’s return was solidly sold-out for all three of its iterations, my chutzpah was rewarded with an offer to choose between two additional programs.

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Had I known that violinist Livia Sohn, Nuttall’s spouse, would be returning from a hand injury in Program III to premiere a Meyer composition written specially for her, From Our Ashes, my choice of her subsequent appearance in Program V would have been easier to make. That concert included the Handel Oboe Concerto in G minor and Saint-Saëns’ fearsome “Hippogriff” violin sonata, with a contemporary wildcard in between them, Kenji Bunch’s The 3 Gs for solo viola.

Whether he’s anticipating next season’s make-or-break festival or simply realizing that much of what he does on the Dock Street stage will endure in perpetuity on YouTube, where excerpts of every concert are streamed as little as one day after a program bows out, Nuttall has noticeably sharpened his emceeing. Simply watch the streamed excerpts of Program VII and you’ll see.

To gin up excitement for Golijov’s Milonga, Nuttall not only hailed the return of the Weilerstein-Barnatan duo and the stature of the composer, he brought on hornist David Byrd-Marrow to help demonstrate the two rhythms clashing with each other in the piece. These two rhythms, the 3-3-2 pattern of the milonga and the 4/4 of Joseph Achron’s “Hebrew Melody” (written for Jascha Heifetz), repeatedly diverging and converging, personify the composer himself and his Argentinian/Jewish heritage.

Before bringing Byrd-Marrow on, Nuttall mocked himself a little by confessing that Barnatan had suggested that he demonstrate the milonga beat with one hand and the 4/4 with the other – a “total fail,” he recounted, when he made the attempt. At the end of the demo, having said that the two rhythms bumped against each other, Nuttall and Byrd-Marrow actually finished back-to-back, bumping each other.

In short, Nuttall scorns the seriousness of “setting the mood” in favor of trying to make his enthusiasm contagious. Remarkably, this humorous approach worked for a melancholy piece, cuing us to look for something we would surely find. That turned out to be chiefly Achron’s tune and Golijov’s variations on it, for Weilerstein is such a mesmerizing and rapturous performer that I gladly dwelled in the soul of Jewish melody while I was at Dock Street Theatre, mostly oblivious to the countercurrent of Barnatan’s Argentinian flavorings at the keyboard. That friction was more readily savored a day later when the YouTube replay was released.

Nuttall analyzed the Septet in a manner that would have pleased Wadsworth, but he added a couple of layers: the wild popularity of the piece, which eventually annoyed the more mature Beethoven, and his own iconoclastic preference for early Beethoven over the more widely admired masterworks of the middle and late periods. The sunniness of the music and the fecundity of melody, Nuttall extravagantly predicted, would surely send us off into the streets singing and dancing.

The Septet was a wonderful chance to see most of the newcomers in action, including bassoonist Monica Ellis, violinist Jennifer Frautschi, violist Ayane Kozasa, cellist Arlen Hlusko, and Byrd-Marrow. While this genial romp gave Byrd-Marrow a merry workout on the French horn with repeated hunting calls, the chief protagonists were Frautschi and clarinetist Todd Palmer, facing off at opposite sides of the stage. Palmer was as jocund and propulsive as ever, leading the woodwinds, while Frautschi was liveliness, intensity, and joy leading the strings. Anthony Manzo, like Palmer a longtime fixture at Spoleto, stood like a pillar between the two sections, genially keeping time on the double bass.

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Frautschi had already distinguished herself in the “Hippogriff,” lavishing her bold fruity tone on the Saint-Saëns sonata with even greater intensity, zest, and decisiveness, bringing Program V to a triumphant conclusion. Peak ferocity was reached minutes after the notorious torrent of 704 sixteenth notes that begin the closing Allegro Molto, when Frautschi and pianist Pedja Muzijevic, already red-lining the tempo, turned on the turbojets.

Ignoring the note count of the frantic Allegro Molto, Nuttall cited it as among the greatest moments in all of chamber music and asserted that Saint-Saëns is inexplicably underrated in the pantheon of great composers, a genius in the Mozart mold. His intro for the Handel concerto was more droll, embarrassing oboist Smith by floating the idea of celebrating his manly beauty by making him a centerfold in a Spoleto swimsuit calendar. Then he prevailed on Smith to demonstrate how Handel expected his featured soloists to improvise. To contrast, Nuttall now invited all the musicians onstage, instead of playing their written parts, to improvise behind Smith as he repeated his little performance.

Cacophony. A bad idea – illustrating the Baroque balance Handel adhered to. One of Nuttall’s cornier shticks.

Like Wadsworth before him, Nuttall doesn’t scorn pedagogy altogether. He seemed to revel, in fact, in teaching us the concept of scordatura, purposeful mistuning, as violist Hsin-Yun Huang prepared to make her Spoleto debut soloing on Bunch’s The 3 Gs. Nuttall and Huang showed us the normal tuning of her instrument from top to bottom, A-D-G-C, and how Bunch would be obliging the violist to retune two of strings to an A-G-G-G configuration.

Then a parting shot for us to mull over as Nuttall exited to the wings: “Hsin-Yun will never be closer to Jimi Hendrix as you are about to see her.” We soon realized what he had meant – and why there was a piano bench onstage next to Huang. Strums on the strings were the easiest of Bunch’s demands on the violist’s right hand in the hectic opening section of his piece. A sprinkling and then a barrage of finger taps on the four strings and along the fingerboard launches the solo, utilizing three or four fingers and making it impossible to grasp a bow.

When the piece did permit Huang to pick up her bow from its resting place on the piano bench, the music moved slightly closer to Hendrix, settling in a region somewhere between jazz and bluegrass, a bit funky and definitely appealing – with plenty of ricochet and double bowing to test the soloist’s mettle. In the video excerpt, which remains free online through June 18, Huang’s exploits on viola are followed almost instantly by Frautschi’s bravura in the Saint-Saëns finale, a rather remarkable sequence.

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Three of the four Jessica Meyer works featured at Spoleto this year are also preserved on the streamable excerpts. Sohn’s comeback is predictably captured, as is “American Haiku,” cellist Paul Wiancko’s touching tribute to his wife, Kozasa, and their mixed heritages, which the couple performed in a memorable cello-viola duet. Kozasa is even more impressive in Program IV, where she teams with Palmer – at the top of his game – and Muzijevic in Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” Trio. None of that performance is omitted. Nuttall’s intro, a typical mix of humor and nostalgia, will tell you why.

Redden’s valedictory season will have a momentous afterword when the curtain goes up fully again in 2022. Then we will finally behold the world premiere of Omar, the new opera by Rhiannon Giddens. Originally scheduled for a 2020 premiere, Omar is based on the autobiography, written in Arabic, of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim-African man who was enslaved and transported to Charleston. The twice-postponed premiere will be a final testament that Redden’s vision for Spoleto is grounded in diversity – and firmly rooted in Charleston’s chequered history.

 

Gitai’s Elegiac and Abrasive “Letter to a Friend in Gaza” Strikes a Nerve

Review: World Premiere of Letter to a Friend in Gaza at Spoleto Festival USA

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By Perry Tannenbaum

 

A rarity in the US, anti-Israel theatre pieces are nothing new in Europe – more than a couple were running when I first visited the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2005. So it wasn’t surprising to me that the artistic team for the world premiere of Letter to a Friend in Gaza were flying in to Spoleto Festival USA from across the Atlantic; hailing from France, Germany, and Israel; some with Syrian, Iranian or Palestinian roots.

What was surprising was that documentary filmmaker, theatre director, and actor Amos Gitai, the creator of this multimedia piece at Emmet Robinson Theatre, is a native Israeli who resides in Paris and Haifa. He served in an Israeli military helicopter unit during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, was shot down by a Syrian missile, and the 8mm film footage he shot during his service triggered his career.

As a lifelong supporter of Israel, now planning my third trip to the Holy Land late this summer, what really rattled me was hearing the most damning descriptions and denunciations of Israeli military actions spoken in Hebrew – with substantiating film projected behind the performers with English captions. What we heard in Arabic, mostly from poet Mahmoud Darwish, was comparatively benign, lyrical, and poignant. Touching, really, as delivered by father and daughter Makram and Clara Khoury, Israeli actors with Palestinian roots.

Sarah Adler’s Hebrew descriptions, quoted from Ha’aretz newspaper correspondent Amira Haas, were read in a just-the-facts Dragnet monotone that probably shortchanged the journalist. Another Hebrew text by Yizhar Smilansky (also known as S. Yizhar) is more confrontational, children asking their parents tough questions about their horrific deeds or acquiescence and getting weak answers that echoed Nazi war criminals responding to their accusers.

Before the actors took their seats at a long table outfitted with microphones and video cameras, there was a curious and chaotic film representing the sacking of the Holy Temple by the Romans and the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem. Lots of darkness, flames, and fleeing people, with a narrator reading from Jewish historian Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities – written under the watchful eye of the Roman Empire and its emperor.

That account eventually dovetailed with a litany of Arab villages remembered by the Khourys that had suffered a similar fate and survived only in nostalgic memory. What Gitai was obviously sketching was a Palestinian Diaspora that should resonate deeply with Zionists and Jews, whose storied Diaspora lasted 19 centuries from Roman days until the hotly disputed founding of Israel.

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Palestinian nostalgia was sweetened – and saddened – with elegiac music played on violin and oud, with singing from assistant director Madeleine Pougatch, who filled in for one of the performers whose visa was held up in administrative red tape. While Pougatch was singing, the multimedia presentation was most effective as the cameras facing the Khourys sprang into action and their video images were projected behind them – processed so that the live actors looked rather ghostly behind themselves.

Gitai didn’t join the actors onstage until late in the action when he read what sounded like an Israeli apology to the Khourys but was actually an excerpt from Albert Camus’ Letters to a German Friend. Just in case you had missed the Nazi analogy earlier.

While Letter to a Friend in Gaza was often cogent, powerful, and convincing, it was also one-sided and abrasive at times. There was plenty slingshots-versus-tanks and David-Goliath imagery following up on bombed-out footage shot Gaza and/or Occupied Territories, but not a single image of terrorist actions or carnage inside Israel. At the Sunday matinee I attended, people walked out during the show and afterwards while Gitai was sitting down for a talkback moderated by festival director Nigel Redden.

Undoubtedly, kindling controversy and sparking discussion were prime aims for Gitai in creating this piece and for Redden in staging the world premiere at Spoleto. They’ve definitely hit the bullseye on those counts with a piece that deserved more than five performances in Charleston. Letter to a Friend in Gaza is slated for another brief run at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris, September 4-7, and Gitai is reportedly in talks with Cal Performances at UC Berkeley.