In “Precipitous” Move, Spoleto Festival USA Replaces Music Director

A seismic shift of the baton is underway at Spoleto Festival USA, with the organization announcing the appointment of a new music director as one of its longtime artistic leaders departs.

Timothy Myers will step into the role — and onto the podium — to conduct what the festival characterizes as “one of the world’s most prestigious ensembles for emerging musicians.” Since the festival’s inception in 1977, it has annually gathered hundreds of classical musicians who each year audition for Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra to perform in festival productions and concerts, with many eventually powering some of today’s most venerated orchestras.

“I am thrilled to welcome Tim to the artistic leadership at Spoleto Festival,” said Mena Mark Hanna, general director of Spoleto Festival USA. “He is an exceptionally talented musician who is passionate about fostering next-generation talent, producing innovative new works and re-envisioning the classical canon, all core tenets of Spoleto’s mission.”

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Myers’ first foray into Charleston’s heralded international arts festival came via the 2023 production of “Vanessa,” an acclaimed and stylized take on Samuel Barber’s work that was infused with cinematic flourishes of both the visual and sonic variety.

No stranger to the opera house, Myers has worked on productions at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Santa Fe Opera, Washington National Opera, Opera Philadelphia and the Wexford Festival, in repertoire of varied works. As a symphonic conductor, he has led numerous orchestras internationally, from Brooklyn to Beijing, from Milwaukee to Malaysia, in keeping with Spoleto’s globe-trotting programmatic mission.

He currently serves as the Sarah and Ernest Butler Music Director at Austin Opera, also driving projects including PBS Specials “Bella Noche de Musica” and “An All-Star Concert,” a production of Puccini’s “Tosca” at the Circuit of the Americas; a film of David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s “Vinkensport” that was co-produced with Houston Grand Opera and “Beethoven in VR: Fidelio,” a virtual reality collaboration with Washington National Opera.

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Under the music director’s leadership, Hanna said, audiences can expect more creative interplay between the Festival Orchestra with its jazz, chamber and choral programs, as well as across the artistic continuum of Spoleto. For the coming festival, he will do so for two yet-to-be-announced concerts, affording him mere months ahead of its May 2024 opening. The full schedule will be announced in January.

Myers’ appointment marks the departure of John Kennedy, the former resident conductor and director of orchestral activities who served that role in 2011. It is a high-profile shuffle of classical musical chairs that has reverberated through Charleston’s cultural world and well beyond.

Among the many works Kennedy conducted at Spoleto was the world premiere of “Omar,” with music by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels garnering a 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Music. He also founded the forward-thinking Music In Time series, which offered members of the orchestra and audiences alike a chance to engage with avant-garde compositions.

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Kennedy has framed the recent artistic parting of ways as “precipitous,” broadcasting as much both via social media as well as in a letter to the editor of The Post and Courier that he penned to bid a warm farewell to the Charleston community.

Had I known during this year’s festival that my tenure would come to a precipitous end, I would have taken the opportunity to say goodbye to the people of Charleston, who have so warmly welcomed and embraced this festival and those of us who have called it a home,” Kennedy wrote. 

He told The Post and Courier it “was no surprise,” but the lack of a “caring, respectful transition plan” was disappointing.

“As someone who has seen a lot of the festival’s history, I am reminded of when a board member once remarked that although Gian Carlo Menotti founded the festival, not even he was allowed to colonize the festival as his alone,” Kennedy shared. 

Hanna told The Post and Courier that, as director of orchestral activities at Spoleto since 2011, Kennedy has served as a “dedicated steward of the festival’s ambitious classical music program,” adding that his contract concluded at the end of last season.

“I am deeply grateful for his passion for Spoleto and his many contributions,“ said Hanna. 

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The appointment of Myers represents a crucial cog for Hanna to engineer his curatorial vision and managerial style at the festival. He joined Spoleto in 2021, succeeding General Director Nigel Redden, who had served in that role for 35 years. At that time, Hanna was described by The New York Times as a “scholar who has spoken forcefully about the legacy of colonialism in classical music,” an article that also reported him as saying “he would make it a priority to use culture to confront the legacy of slavery in the United States and build an inclusive environment.”

Since then, Hanna has followed suit, championing productions that have recontextualized canonical works, while also collaborating on new works including the much-lauded “Omar.”

Spoleto is also expected to announce a new leader of its hallmark Chamber Music Series. In 2022, the former Charles E. and Andrew L. Volpe Director of Chamber Music, Geoff Nuttall, died after undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. The 2023 series was co-curated by members of his ensemble.

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