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Hearing host Charles Wadsworth firing folksy quips at the Dock Street Theatre audience or trading gibes with musicians and stagehands was a reassuring sign that another normal Spoleto Festival USA season was underway in the lovely historic district of Charleston, South Carolina. Now celebrating its thirtieth year, the series of eleven chamber music programs (each played three times) given at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. daily has always been a consistent favorite with music lovers. When CVNC covered the entire two weeks of the festival in 2001, it was not unusual to see a half-empty hall for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday concerts with sellouts only on the weekends. This year, even mid-week performances were near-sellouts.
With his humor-sweetener over, Wadsworth had some real news before the Chamber Music Program IV on May 31. He had just come from an important festival board meeting. The complex of buildings known as the Dock Street Theatre is long overdue for major renovation and restoration. After the close of the 2007 festival, the facility will be closed until a grand reopening scheduled for the 2009 festival. An interim facility has been a hot local issue and is yet to be settled. The faux Restoration style of the theatre will be retained but more comfortable seating is planned. A loss of seating to create legroom – such as happened during the refurbishment of Duke's Page Auditorium and UNC's Memorial Hall – was not mentioned.
Wadsworth's lineup for Program IV was typical, consisting of two light trifles featuring virtuosity and refined style, surrounding a major work. Saint-Saëns' Fantasy, Op. 124 (1907), for violin and harp, was a delight for both the ears as well as the eyes. A wide palette of instrumental color was paired with contrasting timbres. Known for her stunning gowns, Chee-Yun hit every note in her spectacular violin part. Welsh-born harpist Catrin Finch played with aplomb while displaying a wide range of facial expressions. The resolution in the last three measures was worthy of Wadsworth's high praise.
The St. Lawrence String Quartet was the quartet-in-residence again this year. Retiring founding second violinist Barry Shiffman was on leave, awaiting the imminent birth of a child. In his place was Daniel Phillps, a member of the Orion String Quartet and a frequent guest on this series since its founding in 1977. First violinist Geoff Nuttall still squirms a lot but no longer stomps the floor. Cellist Christopher Costanza and founding violist Lesley Robertson provided the rich lower sonorities. Violist Masumi Per Rostad joined the ensemble for Mozart's joy-filled Quintet in D, K.593. Nuttall is superb when giving succinct oral program notes. He emphasized that until 1967, the composer's radical chromatic passages in the last movement had been "corrected" in 19th-century romantic editions. This performance gloried in Mozart's innovations.
Unusual and rarely performed works were the focus of Program V on June 1. Wadsworth planned to have Mozart on every program this year. He needed a short score to go with two large works. Clarinetist Todd Palmer played his own arrangement of "Ave Verum Corpus," K.618. The choral line of the Eucharistic hymn was spun out by Palmer over the transcription of the orchestral parts, played by the St. Lawrence String Quartet.
Festival favorites Chee-Yun, violin, and Andrés Díaz, cello, played the socks off Zoltán Kodály's Duo, Op. 7. Kodály, like Bartók, recorded and studied folk music, and these elements are blended perfectly into this work's formal structure. Both players are given ample opportunities for flights of virtuosity, exposed high notes and exotic harmonies. The trio-like middle of the slow movement is striking. The cello provides a bowed melody in its soprano range and a plucked bass simultaneously, supporting a counter-melody played in the violin's alto range. The work bursts with such innovations and demands the finest musicians. Wadsworth recalled hearing a disastrous performance that had kept him from programming the Duo for decades.
Pianist Paul Wittgenstein, a World War I amputee, commissioned many important concertos such as those by Prokofiev and Ravel. His commissions extended into the lesser known world of chamber music including Wolfgang Korngold's Suite in G, Op. 23, for two violins, cello, and piano left hand. The music is readily accessible and abounds in melodies. The five short movements are a lush and romantic Prelude and Fugue, a Waltz that is reminiscent of his later film music, a harsher Grotesque with a moto perpetuo, a slow movement with a theme taken from "Was du mir bist?," Op. 22, and a Rondo set of variations. Rich string tone was conjured by violinists Chee-Yun and Daniel Phillips, and cellist Díaz. Pianist Wendy Chen gave a spectacular show, playing the elaborate left-hand part while bracing with her right arm, which was free to turn pages! The Suite was an instant hit with the audience.
Two chamber works by Composer-in-Residence Kenji Bunch were featured in Program VI on June 3. He writes confidently in an accessible eclectic style that draws on many influences including his membership in a bluegrass band. He is also a first-rate violist. His "Drift" (2006) received its world premiere. The 10-12 minute work consists of three continuous sections titled "If," "Rift," and "Drift," inspired by the fact that Bunch gets his best ideas in those moments just before he drifts off into sleep. The composer wrote the trio with the skills of clarinetist Todd Palmer and pianist Jeremy Denk in mind. Aleatory elements in the score mean that no two performances will be the same. The extremes of dynamics and range of the instruments are fully exploited along with complex rhythms, trills, and unusual harmonics. All of this is skillfully interwoven, creating a sound-world immediately attractive to an audience hostile to academic modernism.
Bunch's "Three G's for Viola" gave the composer a showcase for his formidable skills on that inner-voice instrument. The title refers to the retuning used by bluegrass fiddlers, called Bonaparte's tuning, that results in three strings tuned in G. The bowing was remarkably varied, sometimes creating a bluesy sound and sometimes almost percussive. Rhythms were complex, and Bunch's palette of pizzicatos was astonishing.
The concert opened with a fine performance of the Handel/Halverson Passacaglia by violinist Chee-Yun and cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Chee-Yun's cool poise made a fine foil for Weilerstein's mimed emotions.
The St. Lawrence String Quartet gave a solid, mainstream performance of Mozart's Quartet in C, K.465 ("Dissonant"). The choice of tempos was excellent, an improvement over a tendency toward extremes early in the SLSQ's existence.
A typically Wadsworth eclectic mix was heard on Program VII on June 4. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, in B-flat, opened the concert. Violists Lesley Robertson and Masumi Per Rostad were joined by cellists Christopher Costanza, Alisa Weilerstein, and Claire Bryant (Wadsworth's assistant), double bassist Jessica Grabbe, with Charles Wadsworth on the harpsichord. The tempos were unrushed, allowing time for the music to breathe.
Composer Osvaldo Golijov was in residence for the chamber music series during the 2002 season, and his works have been frequently programmed ever since. He is particularly fond of working with the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which has recorded a CD of his commissions. Golijov often draws upon his roots in Argentina. He paid homage to the legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel in the solo cello work "Omaramor" (1991). The young singer died in a plane crash in 1935. One of his hits was "My Beloved Buenos Aires," and Golijov uses it as the basis for his cello work. On his webpage, the composer writes "the cello walks, melancholy at times and rough at others, over the harmonic progression of the song, as if the chords were the streets of the city. In the midst of this wandering the melody... is unveiled." Weilerstein threw her whole body into a passionate yet precisely controlled performance.
Todd Palmer's seamless control of melodic line and refined dynamics were highlights of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A, K.581. Ably matched and supported by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, this was one of the finest performances that I have yet heard of this much beloved work. It deserved the prolonged standing ovation it received.
Program VIII, heard on June 6, featured two duos and a trio. Wadsworth made a mock threat to imprison those who failed to silence their cell phones in a dank basement full of "palmetto beetles." Several festival concerts were plagued by thoughtless owners.
Schubert's Variations on the song "Trock'ne Blumen," Op. 160 (D.862), for flute and piano, opened the program. In an exchange with flutist Tara Helen O'Connor, Wadsworth said that it was the finest 19th-century work for flute. She played with superb breath control, creating a smooth melodic line, with every high note hit dead center no matter the speed or the interval. Her agile partner, pianist Jeremy Denk, was alert for every twist and turn while maintaining tight control over dynamics. Denk replaced Wendy Chen as pianist for the rest of the series.
Denk's gorgeous arpeggios in the Schubert were the perfect appetizers for Mozart's early Sonata in G, K 379 (K.373a). Violinist Corey Cerovsek's laid-back manner belied the gorgeous and intense string sound that he generated. A somber adagio leads directly to a trenchant allegro followed by set of variations on a theme. The more extensive keyboard part benefited from Denk's clear articulation, refined timbre, and mastery of classical style.
The chamber music of Anton Arensky (1861-1906) is unjustly neglected. His tune-filled Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 32 proved to be one of the highlights of the festival, generating a lot of positive audience buzz after the concert. The piece overflows with lyricism, with very song-like themes. The magical middle of the third movement ("Elegia") is the heart of the trio: its intimate dialogue evolves as themes are passed from muted cello to violin to piano. Pianist Denk and violinist Cerovsek were joined by cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and the resulting chemistry swept up listeners in one of those performances that make live music making so rewarding.
The final concert that I heard at the festival on June 7, Program IX, ended with the most serious work heard. Dmitri Shostakovich composed his String Quartet No. 3 in F, Op. 73, in 1946, and it was premiered by its dedicatees, the Beethoven String Quartet, in Moscow on December 16. Like so many of the composer's works of the period, it was quickly withdrawn. This was his first application composing in continuous movements, in this case five, for chamber music works. This score exploits the widest ranges of the instruments and makes unusual use of harmonics, muted strings, and unusual bowings. It opens with a striking low F played by the cello alone. The second movement is a macabre and sardonic waltz while the third movement bursts with savage slashings and a march-like rhythm. The fourth movement, a passacaglia, is the heart of the piece. Jewish-sounding folk music is worked into the finale, which manages to end with a hopeful note in a major chord. The St. Lawrence String Quartet was masterful, playing it with brilliance and mounting intensity.
The Nocturne and Allegro scherzando for flute and piano by Phillipe Gaubert (1879-1941) served as an appetizer for the concert. The French flutist, conductor, and composer crafted a pleasant trifle that gave Tara Helen O'Connor plenty of scope for fast runs and wild leaps. Charles Wadsworth's stylish accompaniment provided a firm net for O'Connor's aural acrobatics.
Mozart's Trio in E-flat, K.498, for clarinet, viola, and piano, called "Kegelstatt" or skittles, received a superb performance from Todd Palmer, Masumi Per Rostad, and Jeremy Denk. Legend has it that the trio was composed while Mozart was playing a game of skittles.