CHARLESTON Why is the Bank of America Chamber Music Series consistently the most satisfying element of Spoleto Festival U.S.A.? New ideas, new faces, new music.
Concertgoers Sunday morning found music director Geoff Nuttall and three compatriots fiddling away in the lobby of Dock Street Theatre, as if welcoming people to a Viennese salon in the 19th century.
The next day brought John Cage’s “Variations II,” in which 10 musicians around the auditorium played snippets of favorite pieces with no regard for what the others were doing, timing performances to synchronized stopwatches. The weird effect worked: I felt I was walking past practice rooms in a conservatory or listening to ghostly vibrations across time.
Nuttall, first violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, has revolutionized chamber programming here since taking over from beloved Charles Wadsworth in 2009. (Wadsworth will be back this year to play piano in a Poulenc trio for the final concerts on June 8-9.)
The New York Times called him “the Jon Stewart of chamber music” in a long profile last week, and that’s partly true: He’s unself-conscious, witty, extroverted and techno-savvy: Last year, when Iranian composer Hooshyar Khayam couldn’t attend the premiere of his Rhapsody for Clarinet and Piano, Nuttall brought a laptop onstage and Skyped with him.
Yet Nuttall isn’t as cerebral as Stewart: His playing of a trio by Ernest Chausson Monday had Nuttall all but swooning, as he filled the air with the perfume of French romanticism.
Nuttall has enough confidence in his own group to invite another string quartet to his turf: The Brentano String Quartet came in this week. It played on the soundtrack of “A Late Quartet,” supplying string sounds for Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman; this quartet has a sound that’s less sinewy and more elegant than the St. Lawrence, though both groups summon all the intensity they need.
In fact, Nuttall has almost cleaned house artistically. Only flutist Tara O’Connor, clarinetist Todd Palmer and violinist Daniel Phillips (and, of course, the St. Lawrence) were regulars in the Wadsworth era.
Nuttall keeps making discoveries: This year he imported 24-year-old Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, who sensitively accompanied him and cellist Alisa Weilerstein in the Chausson. (Charlotte Symphony fans will remember the cellist from her playing of Edward Elgar’s concerto here in 2010.)
Nuttall had accompanied Kolesnikov last year in Canada, during the sonata part of the competition for the Honens Prize. “I thought he was great,” Nuttall told the Dock Street crowd. “That usually means he’d come in about eighth, but he won.” Spoleto fans caught him before his recital at Carnegie Hall and appearance with the London Philharmonic.
Maybe the best thing about Nuttall is his willingness to experiment with programming.
He’ll pair Greek composer Iannis Xenakis’ thorny “Rebonds” for solo percussion with Franz Schubert’s heavenly string quintet. He’ll pluck a trio for violin, double-bass and piano out of obscurity; I never need to hear Giovanni Bottesini’s schmaltzfest again, but it was a pleasure to see Anthony Manzo all but waltz with his bass. The big works that anchor concerts may still be by Brahms or Dvorak, as in the old days, but they might also be by Carl Maria von Weber.
Nuttall broke with a 32-year tradition by insisting all concert programs be announced in advance, so ticket-buyers would know just what they were getting. I looked at all 11 programs this year out of jealous curiosity and wished I could have attended every one.
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