High culture in the low country


No other city in America, and perhaps the world, turns itself over to the arts as Charleston, S.C., does during the spring.

From May 27th through June 12th, the city celebrates its renowned Spoleto Festival USA and becomes the performing arts capital of the country.

This 18th-century city — home to the first theater, the first ballet company, and the oldest musical organization in America — was chosen in 1977 to be the site of the American counterpart to the Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of Two Worlds) in Spoleto, Italy. The founder of that festival, Maestro Menotti, searched for an American city that would offer the charm of Spoleto as well as its wealth of theaters, churches, and other performance places.

Charleston was perfect. It is large and sophisticated enough to provide a knowledgeable audience and appropriate theaters, yet small enough to be dominated by the non-stop arts festival.

For 17 days, Charleston offers something for every art lover from formal opera, symphony orchestra, chamber music and ballet, to theater, jazz and modern dance. In addition, Piccolo Spoleto, the city-organized companion festival, extends the more formal offerings of the festival to include a thousand additional artists performing and exhibiting in the city’s churches, parks, playgrounds, streets and storefronts.

Tightly-woven between old Charleston’s cobblestone roadways, classic churches and elegant mansions of the Old South, the festival creates a magical combination of music, theater, painting and dance – classical to contemporary, traditional to modern.

The dramatic performances of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by the acclaimed Spoleto Festival Orchestra will fill the majestic Gaillard Auditorium. The Westminster Choir will perform a series of choral concerts in the perfect setting, the graceful, historic Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul.

The world’s top prize-winning violin, viola, cello, and piano virtuosos, such as The St. Lawrence String Quartet, Wendy Chen and Andrés Diaz, play elegant chamber music in the afternoons in the tiny Dock Street Theatre. Reconstructed according to the original 1736 blueprints on the site of the first theater in America, the building evokes images of Southern belles sweeping down staircases, which proves the perfect backdrop for the music.

There is no better way to wile away an afternoon than to listen to the harmony of string quartets or choral groups. The centuries-old First (Scots) Presbyterian Church provides a glorious setting with a wide choir loft perched on more than a dozen Doric columns encircling the audience. Cream colors and whites set off the natural hardwood floors and pews, and light filtering through stained-glass windows enhances the formal atmosphere.

Who would expect world-class ballet in an unimposing building resembling an old Woolworth’s?

The Charleston Ballet Theater only seats about 150 people in a simple, low-ceiling space with stark black staging, but their “Bolero” transforms the place. As the familiar music intensified, more dancers appeared in pairs. Eventually ten ballerinas, in bright red, and six male dancers, wearing black and white, were spinning together across the dance floor which then seemed to compare with Moscow’s Bolshoi or Naples’ San Carlo.

This year the Spoleto Festival’s performances and the Piccolo Spoleto activities will fill these same evocative venues as well as other century-old churches, theaters, courtyards and gardens in Charleston’s historic center. Musicians, dancers and actors from America’s most respected theater, opera and dance companies, will blend with the world’s best performers from South Africa, Taiwan, Italy, Brazil the Netherlands and more.

Spoleto Festival has become one of the international art world’s favorite sites of new productions and premiers. This year, the festival includes a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Another new opera production, Walter Braunfels’ Die Vögel will receive its American premiere during the 2005 Festival.

During the entire festival period, the “international high culture” of Spoleto Festival USA’s celebrated premiers and grand productions will be intertwined with the down-home artistic flavor of Picolo Spoleto, with hundreds of events showcasing skilled musicians and gifted artists primarily from America’s Southeast region. From the waterfront to the narrow back streets, this “fringe festival” has overtaken its more formal predecessor in terms of numbers of performances and artists involved.

Piccolo Spoleto includes all types of music from Jazz Cruises in Charleston Harbor to a five-hour Johann Sebastian Bach marathon, from sacred music by Tibetan monks to tunes from “Porgy and Bess,” and from Dixieland bands to a reggae block dance. Dance will include the Charleston Ballet Company and a score of different dance companies from across the country performing ballet, jazz and modern dance. Film buffs will have the chance to enjoy classic films presented daily, paintings and etchings will be judged for “Best of Festival,” and evenings of poetry readings are scheduled in the Dock Street Theater courtyard.

As if the restrained elegance of Charleston is not enough, the Spoleto Festival USA culminates on the lush terraced lawns and around the landscaped gardens of the Middleton Place Plantation on the Ashley River, 14 miles outside of old Charleston.

In this quintessential Southern setting, a massive orchestral finale, complete with the South’s largest fireworks display, ushers out the festivities with one final grand concert.

If you go …

For general Charleston Information call the Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 868-8118.

For Spoleto information or to purchase tickets visit its Web site or call (843) 579-3100. For Piccolo Spoleto information call (843) 724-7305.

By air, the best connections to Charleston, SC are with Independence Air, Northwest, US Airways, Continental, Delta and United.

Recommended Accommodations (ask for special Spoleto rates):

For the best rooms in town (luxury and location)–

Charleston Place, 130 Market Street, 800-414-2427
Embassy Suites, 337 Meeting Street, 800-EMBASSY
Francis Marion Hotel, 387 King Street, 800-433-3733
Doubletree Guest Suites, 181 Church Street, 800-577-2644
The Mills House Hotel, 115 Meeting Street, 800-874-9600
Planters Inn, 112 North Market Street, 800-245-7082
John Rutledge House Inn, 116 Broad Street, 800-476-9741

More affordable (downtown, within walking distance of most Spoleto events)–

Hampton Inn, 345 Meeting Street, 800-HAMPTON
Quality Inn, 125 Calhoun Street, 800-845-2504
Days Inn Historic, 155 Meeting Street, 800-329-7466
Best Western King Charles Inn, 237 Meeting Street, 800-528-1234

Historic Charleston Bed & Breakfast represents over 50 B&Bs, 800-743-3583

Charleston is a gourmet diner’s delight. The old downtown area is filled with excellent and affordable restaurants. Here are a few of my favorites:

Magnolia’s, 185 East Bay Street, 577-7771. A great mix of Southern cooking combined with new American cuisine served in an elegant dining room.

Blossom Café, 171 East Bay Street, 722-9200. Sister restaurant to Magnolia’s, serves innovative Italian and Mediterranean fare.

Poogan’s Porch, 72 Queen Street, 577-2337. Where the rich and famous come for excellent Southern cooking in an elegant atmosphere and prices are not sky-high.

Alice’s Fine Foods and Southern Cooking, 468-470 King Street, 853-9366. Where working folk come for real Southern cooking in an almost-cafeteria atmosphere.

Gaulart & Maliclet French Café, 98 Broad Street, 577-9797. Perfect for light fare with a French flavor. Everyone sits at shared bar-high tables on stools. Great atmosphere and very good, affordable meals. Open to midnight during Spoleto.

Sermet’s Corner, 276 King Street, 853-7775. Excellent, affordable meals with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern accents. A great people-watching spot on King Street.

Jestine’s Kitchen, 251 Meeting Street, 722-7224. Perfect for lunch with basic home-style Southern meals.

Charles Leocha