Lawrence Toppman

Chamber music still Spoleto USA’s linchpin – with old and new, familiar and far-out

Clarinetist Todd Palmer (center) performs each year at Spoleto Festival USA. Geoff Nuttall (the violinist in the brown suit) programs the chamber music series.
Clarinetist Todd Palmer (center) performs each year at Spoleto Festival USA. Geoff Nuttall (the violinist in the brown suit) programs the chamber music series. William Struhs

If it ain’t broke, rebuild it anyway. That’s the philosophy of Geoff Nuttall, who has run the Bank of America Chamber Music Series for six seasons at Spoleto Festival U.S.A.

He has programmed with more daring and variety than his predecessor, Charles Wadsworth, and with just as much love for his job. He has risked driving audiences out of Dock Street Theatre – although it’s still tough to get a ticket on opening weekend – but has introduced people with open ears to new composers, performers and sensations.

Case in point: Mark Applebaum, 2015 composer-in-residence and the star (both as author and performer) of the first three concerts.

I missed the opening day’s “Aphasia,” called “a metaphor for expressive paralysis” in its YouTube video, but he came onstage the second day to say, “Thank you for your generous applause. I can tell you didn’t see my performance yesterday. I have three more chances to alienate you.”

But he didn’t. First he gave a pointed demonstration, both in words and on the piano, of how jazz musicians improvise. Then he performed the main role (Organizer Guy) along with seven taped voices (all his) that represent the ones pervading his head – self-doubting, dreamy, impractical – when he writes a piece.

He came back the next day, still in blue spectacles that set off his mad-professor hair, to conduct the world premiere of “Control Freak.” Baritone Tyler Duncan recited, sang and gibbered nonsense sonatas – mighty funny ones – while a septet leaped in to play instruments squeakily or melodiously. The operative word here is “play.”

Or for Nuttall, maybe it’s “juxtaposition.” Duncan and pianist Pedja Muzijevic had partnered earlier for a riveting performance of Robert Schumann’s heart-rending “Dichterliebe,” a song cycle set to poems by Heinrich Heine. There’s room in the world for both kinds of pieces – and for debates about whether Applebaum’s manipulation of noises constitutes “music” at all, though he’s indisputably a composer of sounds. (As he said in a TED talk, perhaps the right question to ask is not “Is it music?” but “Is it interesting?”)

Nuttall still gives us familiar masterworks. He loves Schumann, so this season includes both his piano quartet and piano quintet. There’s a Dvorak piano quartet, a Haydn string quartet, Mozart’s unmatchable Quintet in G Minor (with two violas), Chopin’s cello sonata. The last will be entrusted to Inon Barnatan and Alisa Weilerstein, who rocked the Charlotte Concerts series last month.

Yet he’s nearly as likely to find less-known pieces by better-known composers: a string trio by Beethoven, a sonata for two violins by Prokofiev, a concerto for violin and oboe by Vivaldi.

Like Wadsworth, he’s good at spotting new talent: baritone Duncan, violinist Benjamin Beilman (who shone in the Beethoven trio). Yet he’s hung onto old favorites, too, from clarinetist Todd Palmer (who sparkled in a set of variations by Louis Spohr) to violinist/violist Daniel Phillips, who has reportedly played at Spoleto USA since it began in 1977.

Nuttall walks a fine line. He keeps old musical friends around and makes new ones; he wants to satisfy first-time concertgoers and experts, traditionalists and experimentalists. I don’t see how he could do better.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Bank of America Chamber Music Series

The concerts, most of which are performed twice, run through June 7 at Dock Street Theatre in Charleston. Details: $20-$60; 843-579-3100 or spoletousa.org.

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