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Friday, January 6, 2012

Philip Glass, kd lang, Mavis Staples headline Spoleto 2012

Charlestons annual Spoleto Festival will offer an incredibly broad range of performances this year from May 25 to June 10. zoe/junipers A Crack in Everything (pictured above) will be one of the dance offerings.
  • Cheryl Lynn Tsushima
  • Charleston's annual Spoleto Festival will offer an incredibly broad range of performances this year from May 25 to June 10. "A Crack in Everything" (above) will be one of the dance offerings.
Philip Glass, Radiohead, Atom Egoyan, Mavis Staples, John Cage, Alvin Ailey, and kd lang are names that probably aren't often mentioned in the same breath, but they—and many others—will all be represented at this year's busy and diverse Spoleto Festival, the annual two-week celebration of the performing arts taking place from May 25 to June 10 in Charleston, South Carolina.

Organizers recently announced the line-up for the new season: As always, the acts represent a diverse group— it's not unusual to see jazz, Baroque opera, gospel, ballet, Cirque-style acrobats, roots musicians, experimental cabaret artists, and Noël Coward comedies sharing the limelight—but this year the emphasis seems to be clearly on the contemporary.

Composer Philip Glass' opera Kepler about astronomer Johannes Kepler will have its American premiere. Glass has maintained a long-time relationship with Spoleto: many of his operatic works had their US or world premiere there, including 2007's The Book of Longing based on the writings of Leonard Cohen and Hydrogen Jukebox, his opera based on the poetry of Allen Ginsberg which was a festival commission in 1993.

Composer Philip Glass
  • Composer Philip Glass
Typically, the festival presents a contemporary opera like Kepler alongside a more traditional production (last year saw composer Kaija Saariaho's meditative, experimental one-woman opera Émilie have its US premiere a few blocks away from a more traditional Magic Flute). But this year the Glass opera will be performed alongside another US premiere of a contemporary work: The Phoenix Pavilion by Chinese composer Guo Wenjing. It features an orchestra comprised of four traditional Chinese instruments playing with 11 traditional Western instruments. The production is directed by acclaimed film director Atom Egoyan.

The Festival Orchestra, which played works by Strauss and Debussy last year, takes an even more modern tone this year by playing a concert focusing on works by the iconic late-20th century composer John Cage and by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, who maintains a dual identity as a lead guitarist and as a composer of post-classical music.

One of Charleston's most stunning venues, the outdoor Cistern Yard, an evocative old courtyard at the College of Charleston, ringed by oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, will see a broad range of acts: New Orleans' Rebirth Brass Band from HBO's Treme, jazz vocalist Cécile Mclorin Savant, flamenco pianist David Peña Dorantes, and even ukulele virtuoso (and YouTube star) Jake Shimabukuro.

Dance was a huge catalyst at last year's event (the glamorous Corella Ballet was the talk of the festival), and this year looks to repeat that success. Two of the biggest names in contemporary dance—Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet—will perform at Charleston's largest venue, the Gaillard Auditorium. Two dance acts with connections to Atlanta—Kyle Abraham is guest artist at Emory this year and zoe/juniper will perform at the Rialto's inaugural "off the Edge" festival in late January—are also slated for this year's Spoleto.

Gospel singer Mavis Staples
Performance artist Mike Daisey, whose show The Last Cargo Cult was a big word-of-mouth hit at Atlanta's Alliance Theater in 2010, will perform two of his one-man shows at Spoleto: one about our society's tech-addiction and another about his journey across India. NPR's Jack Hitt will also perform a one-man show, and the perenially popular Gate Thatre of Dublin, which is gradually becoming a festival fixture, will present their production of Noël Coward's comedy Hay Fever. Two Grammy-winning musicians—vocalist kd lang and gospel legend Mavis Staples—will both perform concerts at Spoleto this year.

In all, the festival features more than 140 shows by 60 groups and performers. And as if that's not enough, there's also the city-sponsored Piccolo Spoleto festival, which runs alongside the main event, presenting lots of Charleston-based and regional acts, often with more of a “Fringe-festival” or family-friendly vibe, though in recent years even the Piccolo has become a big draw for some familiar, nationally-known performers.

It's possible to have an incredibly swank visit to Spoleto, staying in one of Charleston's luxury hotels, dining in the city's blossoming restaurant scene, visiting the opera and theater day and night, but it's also great to know that it's easy to arrange a far less expensive visit to one of the world's great arts festivals. Charleston is just a few hours by car from Atlanta, and although hotels in the city center do tend to be expensive, the surrounding area has plenty of budget options: downtown Charleston even has a European-style hostel. The visual arts exhibitions are free, as are some Spoleto-related events like outdoor concerts, performances and art fairs. Tickets for Spoleto shows start in the $25 range (many Piccolo events are in the $5-10 range), and as the festival approaches, organizers often offer surprise ticket discounts or 2-for-1 deals on certain shows (Follow the festival's Facebook page to stay up-to-date). Savvy Culture Surfers certainly don't have to spend a bundle to have a great Spoleto experience.

Spoleto takes place from May 25 to June 10. For more information, visit Spoleto 2012.

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