By Carol Antman for The Island Connection
If all the Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto Festivals did was provide us with entertaining ephemeral moments it would be enough. Moments of joy, harmony, insight or beauty: enough. Strengthen our economy with tourist dollars: enough. Fill our streets with more colorful and artistic visitors hauling musical instruments, painting in the parks, leaping onto stages: enough. It would be enough to spend an evening out, see a great show, enjoy ourselves and go home to soon forget it all. Many of life’s best moments are this fleeting. But sometimes there’s more. Sometimes the festivals rock our world.
It could be the timing. In 1993 Lynn Riding was finding her foothold in Charleston after emigrating from England. On a balmy Charleston evening walking with new friends towards Marion Square she began hearing the Drifter’s tune “Under the Boardwalk.” As they got closer she choked up. The songs she had danced to as a teenager were playing in her new hometown.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was a moment of pure happiness with new friends that said to me ‘everything is working out,’” she said.
It could be a glimpse at art’s cutting edge. In 1988 my children and I emerged from a piano lesson at the College of Charleston and noticed a cherry picker looming in the Cistern. It had been transformed into a giant ant puppet. Of course we had to go watch this rehearsal for “Warrior Ant.” What a spectacle!
Music critic Daniel Webster described the show as “An ant becomes a god, and all kinds of mock obeisances are performed. Singers improvise, drummers frisk and …the stage becomes a town in the rain forest.”
There were actors perched in the Cistern’s trees and a Caribbean procession that led the entire audience to dance in the streets.
In 2012 when Theater Company 1927 performed “The Animals and Children Took to the Streets,” it was a revelation for Lila Trussler.
“It was an entirely different art form than I had ever seen. There were so many different things going on at once. It seemed brand new.” It was dark, edgy, innovative, creepy and unique.
Anne Birdseye was captivated by the 2008 “Monkey: Journey to the West” that combined a circus of cartoons, acrobats, Chinese music and a tribe of monkeys flying among bamboo poles. Not the kinds of thing you can see every weekend in Charleston but exactly what the festivals bring to our doorstep. “It was very engaging. I like things that are so different, that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see,” said Anne. Then there’s the star power.
Like many Charleston women, I’ve delighted in extemporaneous hugs from Charles Wadsworth. I became embarrassingly tongue tied upon being introduced to Jean Yves Thibaudet. I once mustered my courage to approach Gian Carlo Menotti in a parking garage, tell him he was my hero and that I’d studied his opera “Amahl” in grade school.
Barry Goldsmith who was the director of arts instruction for Charleston County Schools for many years said, “For me, the most exciting part of Spoleto was, because of my position with the school district, getting to know Gian Carlo Menotti….I admired him and could not have imagined I would one day work with him to develop programs for students.”
Twenty years ago Corday Rice was playing the recorder and became transfixed by a Renaissance opera record she nearly wore out until she learned to play the motifs. She and her mother Beth went to that opera and then to many more in a yearly mother-daughter tradition that they cherish. Our son Philip and his friend Derek Cribb still talk about the Latin band Bio Ritmo they saw twenty years ago at a Piccolo Finale. “It was monumental,” Philip recalls “A whole new musical language.” They both grew up to be professional musicians. The festivals have given our children the foundations to build their artistic lives.
Most of all it’s the transcendent moments that grab our hearts. These we remember most. “I was at a Chamber Music performance several years ago, and Charles Wadsworth was introducing the piece about to be played,” Nancye Starnes recalls. “He told us that the composer was very much in love but restricted by her family from moving ahead with the relationship. So, he wrote a chamber piece to express his love. As I sat there listening to the work, I could feel, actually physically feel, his desire, his agony at not being able to be with her, how heartbroken he was. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. I’ve not had such a reaction to a composition since…but since I’m still attending the Chamber series–there’s always hope!”
Have fun, be entertained. That’s enough. But art can change lives. It’s happening right now, right here in Charleston.