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The highlight of the eleven-program Chamber Music Series, held in Dock Street Theatre, came with Program VI, whose third performance was June 2. Its centerpiece was the world premiere of Tenebrae by composer-in-residence Osvaldo Golijov. The work, for soprano, clarinet and string quartet, was commissioned by the Festival and Director Charles Wadsworth. Golijov's works have grown in depth and significance since his appointment as composer-in-residence at the Festival in 1999. We have been moved by previous performances of his Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind and an excerpt - "Tears of St. Peter" - from the multi-cultural La Pasion Segun San Marcos , which has been warmly received internationally. The Argentine's style draws upon a mix of Latin American music that blend Spanish, Creole, African slave and Native American sources, klezmer riffs from his own Jewish heritage, and the tango.
Before the performance, Golijov said that the title, Tenebrae , which means "darkness illuminated by candlelight," also reflected the style of similar works by Couperin. He was inspired by a simple image, an extended visit to Israel, and the view of the Earth from Space. He wanted to combine a sense of suffering with the distancing effect of the view from space and the perception of time. The work consists of melismatic treatments of letters of the Hebrew alphabet, culminating in the word "Jerusalem" at the end,
The purity of soprano Courtenay Budd's voice was remarkable throughout the performance. The work begins slowly with austere low notes, provided by the cello and viola of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, soon joined by the two violins in almost static tremolos and followed by clarinet (Todd Palmer) and then the beginning of the soprano's stream of melismas. The chaste tones of the viola and cello often evoke the sound world of a viol consort. Some of the scoring is reminiscent of the sense of timelessness conveyed by chant. There is a breathtaking "pp" line for the clarinet and a solo for the cello in its highest register. All these elicit a deep sense of prolonged suffering. After a stunned silence, the audience awarded the artists and composer a prolonged standing ovation. Earlier, Budd and Palmer had joined avuncular pianist and host Wadsworth for two vocal works by Schubert and one by Meyerbeer. In the most interesting of these, an aria in Schubert's one-act opera Die Verschwarinen, Budd's firm, clear soprano line was elaborately decorated by Palmer's obbligato clarinet. The concert ended with a vigorous reading of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata in which violinist Elina Vähälä's intonation was flawless and pianist Wendy Chen never once drowned her partner.
The two extremes of compositional length occupied Program VII on June 3. The St. Lawrence String Quartet had hardly warmed their chairs when they left the stage after a deft and tart performance of Webern's Six Bagatelles. Unlike Glass, Webern always knew when to stop! The rest of the concert was taken up by a wonderfully lush performance of the uncut version of Tchaikovsky's sprawling Piano Trio in A Minor. With the piano lid fully up, Chen delivered a full palate of color without ever covering her colleagues. Despite passionate attacks and heavy bowing, the violin part has seldom been heard so cleanly played as by Chee-Yun. The rich cello of Andrés Díaz perfectly matched the give-and-take of his partners. The variation movements were well organized and seemed to be more of an organic whole than is often the case.
Program VIII, on June 4, began with the view of a dimly lit engraving of 18th-century Charleston on the drop curtain, in the otherwise dark hall. From the darkness, Palmer's clarinet illuminated "The Abyss of the Birds" movement from Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time . After several seasons of solo excerpts, host Wadsworth promised a full version in 2003. Beethoven's light and joyful Serenade in D, Op. 25, was winningly dispatched by flutist Tara Helen O'Connor, violinist Geoff Nuttall and Daniel Phillips, whose viola sometimes evoked the sound of a horn. The concert ended with a rare performance of Chopin's last composition, the Sonata in G Minor, Op. 65, for cello and piano. One could hear why pianist Chen, with her beautiful singing line, was a Chopin Competition winner. She never masked Díaz's cello line, given with a full, rich patina and romantic temperament.
On June 5, Program IX opened with a light Sonata in f minor by Telemann featuring flutist O'Connor and continuo realized by cellist Marina Hoover and harpsichordist Wadsworth. Next came a thrilling treat, a stunning performance Stravinsky's Suite Italienne, for violin and piano, based on Pulcinello and arranged by the composer. Wadsworth drew attention to the fact that violinist Chee-Yun would play the Scherzino movement, often omitted in performances and recordings. It held no apparent traps for Chee-Yun's unflappable technique, and every note was clean and tart. Chen matched her closely. The concert ended with the most interesting and promising revival of an old work to be heard in many years. This was the Quartet in D Minor of Carl Czerny, a pupil of Beethoven and a composer of numerous piano exercises. The themes were interesting and attractive, as was the distribution of the scoring for the parts. The theme of the slow movement was memorable. With the St. Lawrence String Quartet's committed and well-prepared performance it seemed to equal any of the Op. 18 quartets of Beethoven.
Program X, on June 7, was relatively lightweight. Budd's pure and even voice was ideal for two of Handel's German arias; she was joined by O'Connor, Hoover and harpsichordist Wadsworth. The program's most substantial work was a nearly perfect performance of Mozart's Quartet in E-flat, K.428, by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. With ideal balancing of technical precision and just the right amount of emotion, this was the finest early classical playing that I have ever heard from the ensemble, playing that has been equaled by few others. The concert ended with the world premiere of a spirited encore piece, "Fantasie Brillante" on themes from Bizet's Carmen, by a past Spoleto regular, pianist Stephen Prutsman. The themes were fragmented and mixed together in unlikely and often hilarious ways and it received an appropriately over-the-top performance from the players Prutsman knows well, indeed: the irrepressible clarinetist Palmer, violinist Ruggero Allifranchini (former second violin of the Borromeo Quartet), cellist Díaz and pianist Chen. Humorless critics will groan but the average concertgoer will split his (or her) sides in laughter. A diverse lineup ended the series with Program XI, heard on June 8. Jazz and Spanish musical influences were heard in a lightweight and pleasant Suite (for violin, clarinet and piano) by Darius Milhaud, undertaken by Allifranchini, Palmer and Wadsworth. The latter was then heard as both performer and composer in a "Song Without Words," for flute and piano, a "Vocalise" and "Spanish Steps." After the bagatelle for flute, played by O'Connor, Budd joined the proceedings for the vocalise. During "Spanish Steps," Palmer - without clarinet but dressed like a toreador - leaped onstage and did a flamenco dance with a large flower between his teeth. This last piece was based upon a theme from Bernstein's West Side Story.
Despite being frequently programmed at the Festival, Brahms' Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25, which ended the season, will always be welcome when it receives an extraordinary well-balanced performance, as it did on this occasion. Chen never once drowned her passionate and sensitive colleagues, violinist Chee-Yun, violist Phillips and cellist Díaz. The full range of instrumental color they projected sometimes evoked thoughts of the Schoenberg orchestration, and there was plenty of Hungarian flavor in the fast finale.
The Post and Courier (Charleston) provided extraordinary print coverage of the Festival, collected at http://www.charleston.net/entertain/spoleto/, and of course Spoleto USA's own site (http://www.spoletousa.org/) remains a useful resource, as do the home pages of various artists cited herein, which may be found with any reliable search engine.