The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra series will present an impressive lineup of world-renowned conductors and early-career musicians at the Charleston Gaillard Center in the coming week for what is bound to be a highlight of the summer once again.
John Kennedy, Spoleto’s resident conductor and director of orchestral activities, kicks off the symphonic series June 5 with Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and the U.S. premiere of Philip Glass’s latest Symphony No. 14 , followed by the Spoleto debut on June 7 of Chicago Sinfonietta music director Mei-Ann Chen. The third concert on June 9 celebrates the long-awaited homecoming of two Charleston natives, conductor Jonathon Heyward and pianist Micah McLaurin.
“Be prepared for a lot of joy and energy in the music,” Kennedy said. “We’re so proud of our orchestra. It always is this amazing creature that comes alive for only one month a year.”
Double homecoming for former scouts
The symphonic series concludes on June 9 with Jonathon Heyward conducting pianist Micah McLaurin and the Festival Orchestra in Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.”
While it is Heyward and McLaurin’s first time performing together, it’s not the first time they’ve crossed paths. These Charlestonians met as Boy Scouts.
“Troop 79, right off of Sam Rittenberg Boulevard,” Heyward said. “I don’t think we both would have ever imagined, at that time, we would have been working together at this capacity at Spoleto Festival.”
McLaurin is happy to be home again.
“It’s funny how two young kids from Charleston are headlining the show,” he said.
McLaurin will take the stage for Grieg’s one and only completed concerto, among the most popular works in the piano concerto repertoire.
“There’s so many good melodies and a lot of drama happening,” he said. “You get to go all over the keyboard, so it’s very showy and sophisticated but not difficult to listen to. It’s a winning combination.”
Also on the June 9 docket is Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” a programmatic work featuring rainbows of harmonic colors and an innovative instrumentation that creates fantastical, psychedelic scenes.
“The story goes that Berlioz was writing this under the influence of opium,” Heyward said, “and you can almost hear it in the way it’s so free in sound and narrative.”
Following the story of an artist’s unrequited love and subsequent hallucinatory trip, “Symphonie Fantastique” paints the story in a fashion, Heyward said, “ahead of his time.”
“People must have been going crazy over the sounds they were hearing,” he added.
No other composer was experimenting with four harps and four bassoons and two tubas like Berlioz.
“‘Symphonie Fantastique’ is better than any Netflix series,” Heyward said. “There’s a visceral (quality) to it—a rhythmic energy, and so much drama that you can feel. I promise you, if you haven’t experienced it, try it, because this sort of storytelling is better than any other entertainment I think anyone can get to.”
A strong statement, considering Heyward’s skyrocketing career. As the new music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the first person of color to hold the position, he continues to lead with enthusiasm and excellence. This April, Heyward made his New York Philharmonic debut with less than two months’ notice, performing an entire set of music he’d never conducted before.
“It was quite a daredevil move, but I’m a daredevil,” he said.
Starting next year, Heyward will also succeed Louis Langrée as music director of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra for a three-year run.
His mantra, “focus on the music,” has stuck with him since he practically grew up at the Sweetwater Cafe on Market Street, waiting tables for the artists in town during Spoleto. After telling them about his own classical musical aspirations, some musicians even gave him tickets to Dock Street Theater concerts.
“I saw the richness of international culture. That inspiration behind what sort of talent was coming in and out of Charleston was always wide-eyed for me,” he said. “It’s a full circle moment in a lot of ways, and I’m quite excited.”