I spent the majority of last week in Charleston, South Carolina, where the 2007 Spoleto Festival USA was in full swing. This was only my third trip to Charleston, and my second during Spoleto. But this time around I witnessed firsthand what the festival’s General Director Nigel Redden meant when—during a talk with the Music Critics Association of North America—he stated that the most appealing aspect of Spoleto to him was that it completely took over the entire town in a way that other, similar-type events like the Lincoln Center Festival (which Redden also oversees) could never hope to do.
Everywhere I went, I was reminded of both the Spoleto Festival USA proper and its humbler, more fringe-ish sibling, Piccolo Spoleto—a second festival, completely independent from its namesake, which happens every year at the same time and more than doubles the total number of cultural offerings available to audiences who happen to be in Charleston a few weeks prior to the beginning of summer. Virtually every storefront sported either this year’s Spoleto poster, which reproduces the famous Chuck Close rendering of Philip Glass, or the luminous Piccolo Spoleto poster which reproduces a painting by local artist Elaine Berlin, or both. I was so entranced by Ms. Berlin’s paintings that I bought one of them.
But I had an even bigger epiphany with the Philip Glass image. While I was having lunch with colleagues at the outdoor café of one of the local hotels and talking about music (what else), an elderly couple came up to us to ask a question. They had stayed overnight at the hotel to break up a long car ride back to New York from Florida and were wondering who that man was whose face seemed to be everywhere in Charleston. They figured out it was the Spoleto poster and assumed it had to be some sort of musician and since I was talking about music, they assumed I might know who it was. What remarkable publicity for a living composer! I believe that if more people were exposed to such images, more interest would be generated in this music almost instantaneously.
I’ve often commented that the reason everyone in America knows Britney Spears is because it is impossible not to: her image literally saturates the American landscape. Imagine if the landscape of America could similarly be saturated with an image of an important living American composer. This week, at least in Charleston, it is. Now, perhaps, is the time to traipse across the rest of the country and put up posters of Steven Mackey, Joan Tower, John Corigliano, Chen Yi, Ornette Coleman, and countless other folks whose music could and should be reaching more folks than it’s currently reaching.