Chamber music is Spoleto’s quirkiest delight

If you were at Dock Street Theatre early this week, you saw something that may never happen again.

Four musicians soared through Mozart’s First Piano Quartet, finding all the emotion and sprightliness in the G minor masterpiece. Just before that, a woman came onstage to tap frenetically on a zarb (a Persian lap drum) while gibbering nonsense syllables and chattering in French with the speed of an auctioneer, gazing at a half-filled glass of red wine on a velvet cloth. The instant she finished, she gulped it.

Concertgoers vigorously applauded Aiyun Huang’s virtuosity and, perhaps, the composition by Greek composer Georges Aperghis. But many might have echoed the guy in the men’s room afterward: “Was that even music?”

Programmer Geoff Nuttall, a man of many hues musically and personally, announced before the concert that some folks asked that question last year, when he invited a percussionist to play a more conventional piece. The answer is yes, by his standards and mine.

He’s in his fifth year running the chamber music program for Spoleto Festival USA. He kept some favorites found by predecessor Charles Wadsworth (clarinetist Todd Palmer, flutist Tara O’Connor) and has imported less familiar, highly skilled players.

Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan led a revelatory performance of Mendelssohn’s first piano trio, superbly accompanied by violinist Livia Sohn and cellist David Ying. That work anchored a concert with a Haydn piano sonata, played with puckish wit by Pedja Muzijevic; a violin-marimba duo by Michael Colgrass, done by Mark Fewer and Huang with wifty melancholy and spurts of energy; and a 55-second duo by Palmer and English hornist James Austin Smith. Nuttall introduced Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Hommage a Tristan” for five minutes, providing the longest buildup-to-payoff ratio in the annals of Spoleto.

Nuttall may like every piece of music he programs; he has remarkably eclectic tastes. But I’m not sure he’d say it’s important for us to like it: We’re there to learn.

That doesn’t mean a castor-oil, “this is good for you” ingestion of unwelcome new material, though I suspect Aperghis’ “Le corps a corps” qualified for many. (The title translates colloquially as “neck and neck.”) It can also mean eye-opening reacquiantance with beloved pieces we thought we knew.

I’ve listened to Mendelssohn for 40 years, but this performance revealed new emotional depths. I’ve heard great renderings of the Mozart, including a dazzling one by Paul Lewis and the Leopold String Trio at Wigmore Hall, yet this one added a layer of playfulness that reopened my ears. That’s why I never miss Spoleto.