Spoleto Festival USA: May 27, 2103

Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find.  It is remarkable how we are rewarded for our mind-sets.  For instance, if you live your life believing that you are a victim, you brain will consistently hunt for and find evidence that your beliefs are correct.  Likewise, if you live with the idea that life is a beautiful gift for which to be thankful, the ever-present reward is constant evidence of your great fortune.  This is not to say that sorrow is absent, but the experience of it is altogether different depending on the filter through which you meet it.  I ventured down a road of memory today in the chamber music performance, and the rest of my day (and days after) was informed by my thoughts.

The string quartet (with members from the Brentano Quartet and the St. Lawrence Quartet) began the performance while the audience was in the lobby, waiting for the house to open.  They wandered like minstrels to create a context historically based on the world of Johann Strauss Jr. and Joseph Lanner, the waltz kings of early 19th century Vienna.  Once we were all seated in the Dock Street,  Die Romantiker Waltz, Op. 167 by Lanner opened the program.  It was delightful, performed by Geoff Nuttall and Livia Sohn (married) on violin, Misha Amory from the Brentano Quartet on viola, and Anthony Manzo on bass. 

The Lanner ended, and the audience was buoyant.  As the crew was setting up for ‘Mariel’, a duet for cello and marimba performed by Alisa Weilerstein and Steven Schick, Schick told the audience a little about the inspiration for the composition.  Composer Osvaldo Gulijov (b. 1960) sought with this commission to encapsulate in sound the moments just before death – the moments where peace and maybe ignorance to that which is looming form a bubble of innocent joy.  The oscillating themes traded back and forth between the marimba and the cello, and though I tried to keep my mind clear, it defied me and swam through memories of a dear friend I lost this year.  I played pictures in my mind as the duo on stage wove through the score, and by the time it had ended I was grateful for the release.

It was not to last, though, because if the Gulijov piece opened the door to the memories of a painful loss, the Antonín Dvořák Piano Quintet in A Major served as soundtrack to my memories.  I was already in the mind-set to be thinking of my friend, and death, and what art does or does not do to help explain this human event.  The first movement opens with a quiet, lyrical cello theme, accompanied by the piano, and it is transformed and reworked a number of times before the viola brings in a second theme, a little more frenetic than the steady cello. This was a birth – a creation – an artistic rendering of the beginning of a life. The second movement (Dumka, which means literally ‘thought’) was melancholic, with a slow refrain with variations alternating with a bright major section and a quicker version of the opening refrain.  This seemed to me like the gathering of knowledge – using the senses to gather what is needed to survive, and thrive in this human condition at this particular time. The third movement then, in true Greek tragic fashion, was the climax of the tension introduced in Dumka

In III – Furiant, which is a fast Bohemian folk dance – the cello and viola trade driving, unwavering pizzicato strokes under the violin’s theme.    The fury and rigor of the movement is balanced by a slower trio section of the scherzo, wherein the piano and violin pair and alternate the main melodies.  The dance returns at the end – aggressive and vehement.  By this point, I was fully invested in the story I was creating for myself, and the composer and performers kept fueling my imagination and memories.  I felt the pain of the loss, and the anger. 

When the fourth movement began, I was fully enrobed in my grief.  The spiritedness, the light-heartedness of the Finale took me to a place I didn’t expect.  I felt elation. When the second violin led the ensemble into the development of the fugue, it seemed clear as day that the choice to be joyous with the knowledge of sorrow adds a depth and wonder (is this wisdom?) that could not have been possible in the first movements.  I didn’t know how to express my feelings for the performance, though the pictures and philosophical clarity were so poignant in my thoughts. Instead of spending a lot of time talking to my friends afterwards, we went to see another performance (a stage play this time, Mayday Mayday. More on that in the next post).  

In the meantime, here are your Westminster Choir tenors in the cast of Mese Mariano and Le Villi:

Michael Bennett
MM, Composition 2013

  • Favorite Charleston Restaurant:  Co, for the great happy hour
  • If you were any instrument in the orchestra: I would be a clarinet because they have many registers and can adapt to many different environments.
  • Favorite Spoleto memory so far: The Westminster Choir takes over Pantheon

Matthew Brady
MM, Choral Conducting, 2014

  • Favorite Charleston Restaurant: Husk because of the soft shell crab and cheese grits
  • If you were any instrument in the orchestra: I would be a cello because it plays a supportive role but it also has warmth, depth, and beauty.
  • Favorite Spoleto memory so far: Dr. Flummerfelt’s ‘Nobody move’ moment in rehearsal

Ryan Cassel
BA, Theory and Composition, 2013

  • Favorite Charleston Restaurant: Kickin Chickin because of the CHICKEN!
  • If you were any instrument in the orchestra: I would be a trombone because slurring is fun.
  • Favorite Spoleto memory so far:  Flum telling us to not move in rehearsal.

John Hudson
MM, Choral Conducting, 2013

  • Favorite Charleston Restaurant: Fig, because it is just the best food
  • If you were any instrument in the orchestra: I would be a violin because they lead the whole orchestra.
  • Favorite Spoleto memory so far: Singing in the opera because you have to act, sing, and dress up

Justin Su’esu’e
BM, Voice Performance 2014

  • Favorite Charleston Restaurant: Husk – the service is fantastic and the food is sinful it was so good.  It literally felt like someone had to wheel me out after I was done.
  • If you were any instrument in the orchestra: I would be a cello because I just like how sexy and sultry the sound is.
  • Favorite Spoleto memory so far:  Probably my one-on-one conversations with people – the private moments I’ve had here at the dorm.

Shane Thomas
MM, Choral Conducting, 2014

  • Favorite Charleston Restaurant: 82 Queen because the food was delicious and the seating was all outside and made it look like we were sitting in a giant veranda
  • If you were any instrument in the orchestra: I would be a harp because of its intimacy and the romantic power it brings to large orchestral works.
  • Favorite Spoleto memory so far: It has to be the laughing fit with Maggie on the plane on the way back to Charleston

Kyle VanSchoonhoven
MM, Voice Performance and Pedagogy, 2013

  • Favorite Charleston Restaurant:  Kickin Chickin because it is a spot that we all can hang out together after performances
  • If you were any instrument in the orchestra: I would be a cello because it can be incredibly expressive like the voice.
  • Favorite Spoleto memory so far: Playing Zelda with Jordan while singing the Super Mario Brother’s theme with Johnny

Johnny Wilson
BM, Theory and Composition, 2014

  • Favorite Charleston Restaurant: Hominy Grill because the Big Nasty is a wonder to behold, and all the vegetables are really good there.
  • If you were any instrument in the orchestra: I would be a French horn because of its rich, warm tone.
  • Favorite Spoleto memory so far: Getting caught in a down-pour when I walked out to East Bay



Matt Brady, Ryan Cassel, Michael Bennett, Johnny Wilson, John Hudson, Shane Thomas, Justin Su’esu’e, Kyle Van Schoonhoven

About Westminster Choir

Westminster Choir is composed of students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, a center for music study in Princeton, N.J.
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