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Spoleto chamber music leader fills shoes splendidly

The big change finally came, and the Spoleto Festival USA has survived. Life and chamber music will go on.

This year's festival is the first without the venerable, voluble Charles Wadsworth. To him goes the No. 1 credit for making Spoleto's daily chamber music concerts its most popular component.

As artistic director, pianist and onstage host, he put his love of music and gregarious personality on display every day of every festival from Spoleto's launch in Charleston in 1977 through the end of last year's installment. He was a hit.

Now Geoff Nuttall is in charge. Since the festival's opening Friday, he has led his first two programs, playing the violin in some works and introducing all of them to the audience. And there's good news for Spoleto.

He's no clone of Wadsworth - as if anyone could be - but he's a kindred spirit. What more could anyone ask?

Of course, everyone knew that Nuttall, as a player, shared Wadsworth's zest. If he hadn't, Wadsworth wouldn't have brought him and the St. Lawrence String Quartet - of which Nuttall is first fiddle - as the festival's resident quartet for more than a decade. So that left just two main questions for his first concerts to answer.

Would Nuttall share Wadsworth's penchant for mixing masterworks with the unknown and unexpected?

Check.

Would Nuttall, when he got up to talk, be a welcoming host to his musical world?

Check.

I don't know what could've been more unexpected than the first piece on the first program. Nuttall began by telling everyone that it would be shocking.

"The doors are locked," he said. Everyone laughed, of course. But a few musicians and critics might indeed have fled if they had suspected it would be that wedding-ceremony cliché, Pachelbel's Canon. Good Lord.

But Nuttall had a reason. He had discovered that Pachelbel's son, Karl Theodor Pachelbel, settled in early-1700s Charleston, where he organized some of the town's first concerts. Because Spoleto is in a historical frame of mind this year - reviving an opera produced in 1730s Charleston - Nuttall wanted to go along. The younger Pachelbel's music wasn't very interesting, he said, so he went with the elder's.

Nuttall and a handful of players treated the Canon to a brisk, airy performance that wiped away the sonic syrup that's usually poured over it. The group also reattached the long-ignored music that Pachelbel put at the end of it, a breezy jig. The much-mistreated Pachelbel became a treat.

When it came to the unknown - at least unknown by this audience - Nuttall saved his bold stroke for the second program's closing piece. He explained that pianist Stephen Prutsman, an occasional Spoleto guest, is a fan of 1970s progressive rock. He turned over the stage to Prutsman, who tore into his solo piano arrangement of Yes' "Sound Chaser." The audience couldn't have expected that. But when the pyrotechnics were done, the crowd roared its approval.

On the more conventional musical turf, musical standards remained high. Nuttall and his St. Lawrence colleagues brought their familiar vividness, polish and electricity to Robert Schumann's Piano Quintet - with Pedja Muzijevic at the keyboard - and Joseph Haydn's full-of-surprises Quartet, Op. 20, No. 4.

Bela Bartok's "Contrasts" lived up to its name in the best way, thanks to Muzijevic, violinist Daniel Phillips and clarinetist Todd Palmer. They relished its lightness and buoyancy as much as its Hungarian abandon.

Maybe Nuttall still has a bit of settling-in to do. He got so caught up describing the delights of that Haydn quartet that the music - the opener of an 11 a.m. concert - didn't start until 11:10. Haydn may not have needed that much help. But running a concert series isn't an exact science. The important thing is that Nuttall has the right ingredients.

Spoleto Festival USA

The daily chamber-music concerts have a new leader.

When: 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. through June 13.

Where: Dock Street Theatre, 135 Church St., Charleston.

Tickets: $25-$35.

Details: 843-579-3100; www.spoletousa.org.

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