Although he had no way of knowing it at the time, Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1959 decision to ask Charles Wadsworth to create a series of informal noonday chamber music concerts for the original Italian Spoleto Festival was destined to have a major impact on the future popularity of chamber music in America. Wadsworth’s entertaining and relaxed approach attracted a broad audience that, till then, had been put off by the aura of elitism that had sounded chamber music. The success of the Spoleto series played a role in Lincoln Center Director William Schuman’s choice of Wadsworth to establish an eclectic chamber music ensemble as an integral part of that new arts center a decade later. And when Menotti created the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C., in 1977, it was natural that Wadsworth would direct the chamber music series there, too. This has become so popular that, to meet the demand for tickets, all eleven programs are now performed three times. Despite red ink in other sectors during many seasons, the chamber music series has always been a financial success.

The first season of the festival involved an ensemble that consisted mostly of Wadsworth’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center members. Pianists Richard Goode and Emmanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma were among the then-new talent. By the time I first attended Spoleto U.S.A. in 1979, the daily direction of the chamber music series was in the hands of noted flutist Paula Robison and her husband, violist Scott Nickrenz. Wadsworth remained on hand to deliver his inimitable folksy yet cogent introductions. His main goal has always been to get his audiences to relax and be open to what they are about to hear. Instead of Menotti’s and Wadsworth’s original emphasis on rising new musicians, the new directors tried to arrange a mix of established and new talent such as one might find at the Marlboro Festival. The chemistry worked better in some seasons than in others. Bach presentations, for example, were often of the rapid-sewing-machine variety. Some mixes of musicians failed to bring out their best. Since Wadsworth has taken over the helm again, after Menotti departed from the American edition of the festival, there has been consistent and special artistic chemistry among all the new artists he has brought to the series. As their careers have taken off, many of his players have had to cut back on the time that they can give to the series but most still keep at least a presence.

Because of the frequent indisposition of musicians due to imperfect water systems in post-war Spoleto Italy, there evolved an early tradition that there would be no printed programs for the chamber music series. That tradition has been retained by the Charleston festival. Musical selections are chalked on a blackboard in the Dock Street Theatre Lobby and patrons mill around it before performances, jotting down the information. Critics and habitual program savers have complained about this needless secrecy but to no avail. For some, not knowing in advance who will be playing or what works will be offered is a problem, but regular patrons have learned to trust the taste of the presenters, and since Wadsworth resumed the role of coordinator he has rarely failed them.

It should be noted that while the chamber music series and smaller operas are presented in Dock Street Theatre, there has not been a Dock Street for centuries. What was once Dock Street has long since been renamed Queen Street; the theater is at the corner of Church and Queen. It occupies the site of one of the earliest theaters in America but the actual building dates from a WPA project in the 1930s. The front and lobby retain parts of the nineteenth century Planter’s Hotel to which was added the Georgian-style theater.

I attended the third performance of Chamber Music I on the afternoon of May 26. The local newspaper had reported that during the first presentation, someone received and took (!) a cell phone call. During the run of the festival there were at least three such abominations. Beeping watches and ringing hearing aids seemed less of a problem this year.

Wadsworth has always balanced his musical menu, offsetting masterpieces with light but pleasing appetizers. The program opened with a flamboyant trifle, Luigi Hughes’s Grand Concerto Fantasy on the Themes from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera , played with plenty of one-upmanship by flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, clarinetist Todd Palmer and pianist Wadsworth. The even, pure registers and exemplary diction of soprano Courtenay Budd were displayed in the aria “Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben” from Mozart’s opera Zaide , given in a special arrangement by Wadsworth, a distinguished accompanist of many famous singers. The delectable oboe obbligato was played by Australian Diana Doherty, whose breath seemed endless. She is said to have studied circular breathing with aboriginal dijeridu players.

Breath-taking and spectacular violin technique were on display during the U.S. premiere of Kevin Puts’ Arches and Aria , commissioned by violinist Chee-Yun and only recently premiered in Korea. The composer was present to comment about the origins and influences of the score, which began as an intended encore piece and expanded as he worked on it. It begins slowly with deceptive simplicity and builds to an incredibly fast section literally filled with notes. Chee-Yun easily tossed off the myriad of challenges–multiple stops, varied pizzicatos–with an amazing ability to maintain both beautiful tone and secure intonation while dashing through a forest of rapid notes. The work would be worth hearing again. The concert ended with a fiery and passionate performance of Brahms’ First Piano Trio in B, Op. 8. Stephen Prutsman played with the piano lid fully up but managed never to drown his partners, violinist Chee-Yun and cellist Andrés Díaz. I had heard this work in the Triangle at least three times during the last season, and none of those had been routine performances, yet the Dock Street trio managed to make the oft-programmed work seem fresh.

For the second program in the series, heard on the morning of May 27, the appetizer was an above-average and engaging Concerto in G Minor for Flute, Oboe, Violin, bassoon and harpsichord by Antonio Vivaldi. All the instruments had solo and duo turns (and more) in this chamber concerto played with gusto by O’Connor, Doherty, Chee-Yun, Díaz, guest bassoonist Katherine Schuh, guest double-bassist Charles Barr, and Wadsworth. Pure-toned soprano Budd was a revelation in Romance, Pierrot and Apparition from Chansons de Jeunese by Claude Debussy. Francophile Wadsworth’s pianism created the perfect backdrop for the singer’s evocations, and the two created a shimmering sound tapestry. The last song included what was described as an “unsupported intervallic leap of nearly two octaves.” A fresh and sparkling performance of an ever-popular war-horse, Franz Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A (“Trout”), ended the concert. The enthusiastic players were Prutsman (with the piano lid fully up and his sound perfectly balanced), violinist Chee-Yun, violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama, cellist Díaz and bassist Barr, on loan from the Charleston Symphony.

The morning of May 29 brought a performance of Chamber Music Program III. Budd’s even and pure soprano, used almost instrumentally, was on display in Adolphe Adam’s bravura variations on Mozart’s Ah, vous dirais-je maman (better known as Twinkle, twinkle, little star). Her voice dueled with O’Connor’s agile flute above the base of Wadsworth’s piano playing. Brilliant clarinetist Palmer was joined by virtuoso pianist Prutsman for another light showpiece, the Grand Duo Concertante in E-Flat by Carl Maria von Weber. The full range and capacity of the flute were exploited. Rich and romantic Slavic sound dominated the concluding work, Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet in D (“Accordion”). Beginning this season, an endowment will fund a resident string quartet on the Dock Street series and for this festival it was the St. Lawrence String Quartet. They have been one of two string quartets at the festival for several seasons and have been heard in Raleigh. First violinist Geoff Nuttall has been controversial because of his highly demonstrative body movement while playing. Since his marriage in Charleston at the end of the 2000 Festival, he has cut his long locks of hair severely and now when it appears that he will stamp his foot during a passionate attack, he stops his foot short of the floor. The quartet gave full romantic value to the Andante cantabile without ever becoming sentimental.

The fourth chamber music program, heard on May 30th, began with a delightful and entertaining arrangement by Todd Palmer of Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance” in which the St. Lawrence String Quartet was joined by flutist O’Connor, oboist Doherty, clarinetist Palmer, and pianist Prutsman. It was a hit. (On my way to Dock Street Theatre, I ran into Chapel Hillian David Arons who was waiting at the artist’s entrance to see Palmer about getting scores for use in his summer chamber music workshop on the UNC campus.) The Weber-Palmer was followed by a rare and limpid performance of Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F, K.370, played by Doherty, violinist Barry Shiffman, violist Ngwenyama, and cellist Díaz. Before the performance the oboist mentioned that the piece had a soft high F for the oboe. Her sound was warm, beautifully focused and without too much vibrato. 

Jonathan Berger’s recent Miracles in the Mud , commissioned and premiered by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, came next. The composer was present to give some background on his work. He is deeply concerned about the possibilities for peace in the Middle East. The title of the work is a pun on the two types of coffee used in the region, one of which is called “instant mud.” He used national or folk songs of Israel and Palestine in the middle section of the one-movement work. Quick jagged changes were inspired by the St. Lawrence Quartet’s performances of Tchaikovsky’s First Quartet. The new piece is fairly dissonant, and there was a memorable plaintive solo for the viola that featured glassy high registers. This challenging work wasn’t too long and would be worth a second hearing.

The concert ended with a stunning performance of the First Violin Sonata in D Minor by Camille Saint-Saëns, played by virtuoso violinist Chee-Yun and powerhouse pianist Wendy Chen. Virtuosity alone isn’t enough to put this work across to an audience, for it can sound meretricious. I have heard Chee-Yun do it “live” during two successive Spoleto Festivals and during a regular-season tour organized by Wadsworth. Her partners have been both Chen and Prutsman. If an artist can be said to “own” a piece, Chee-Yun has this one securely in her bank. Her Denon compact disc of French music, which includes the Saint-Saëns, has long been a personal favorite.

The fifth program, heard on June 1, began with a lively Sonata in C Minor for flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord by the prolific Georg Philipp Telemann, which was more interesting than some of his works. Played by O’Connor, Doherty, Díaz and Wadsworth, the most appealing scoring, for cello and harpsichord, came in the concluding movement. Typically, Telemann gave each player plenty to do and often arranged interesting pairings. While introducing Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, Wadsworth mentioned how uneven the composer’s output was. He said that “Hindemith could get a not-so-good idea and treat it contrapuntally at great length.”Prutsman was the pianist and the viola soloist was Nokuthula Ngwenyama, who produced rich and sumptuous sound and was able to project this work, for an often-understated instrument, beyond the stage. Wadsworth mentioned that she is in the process of getting a theology degree from Harvard. The one-movement work, which resembles a fantasia, opened with a somber heartfelt meditation by the viola. The piano part began in the same dark vein but later became light and crystalline. The two players wove an eerie tapestry in sound. Prutsman and the St. Lawrence String Quartet joined for a fleet and joyful performance of Mozart’s
Piano Concerto No. 12 in A, K.414, arranged by the composer for piano and string quartet. The clear interplay between the parts was a constant delight.

June 3 brought the third performance of the sixth chamber music program. It was also Chee-Yun’s last concert in Charleston before she left for the Pablo Casals Festival. She was joined by the just-arrived Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä for a superb performance of J.S. Bach’s Double Concerto in D Minor, which was accompanied by a chamber orchestra that consisted of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, guest bassist Barr and harpsichordist Wadsworth. There was no “sewing-machine Bach” here; well-chosen tempos allowed for full and natural expression. Vähälä had impressed us at the 2000 Spoleto Festival series. She has a large tone and matches the high musical standards of her colleagues.

For several festival seasons in a row, Argentinean Osvaldo Golijov has seemed to be composer-in-residence as he actually was in 1996. In his compositions, he draws upon influences that range from his Jewish heritage (Klezmer-like sounds abound) to the rich tango tradition, most notably from the work of Piazzolla. His Lullaby and Doina was premiered in April by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players who gave permission for its performance at the Spoleto Festival. The music was derived from a score Golijov had done for The Man Who Cried , a film about gypsy musicians. The single-movement was divided into lullaby, free improvisations and a finale–the Doina. The players were flutist O’Connor, violinist Vähälä, clarinetist Palmer, violist Ngwenyama, cellist Díaz, and bassist Barr. This is one of Golijov’s easier works to appreciate upon first hearing. The lullaby was gentle and melodic while the free improvisation featured rollicking rhythm, flute trills and shrill Klezmer-like writing for the clarinet set against a lush viola. The fast Doina section featured themes that sounded like Romanian or Jewish folk music–or both.

A passionate and skillful performance of Bedrich Smetana’s Piano Trio in G Minor, brought the audience to its feet for a prolonged standing ovation. The dynamic players were pianist Chen, violinist Chee-Yun and cellist Díaz. Full value was given to the Bohemian folk music elements.

The third performance of the seventh chamber music program, heard June 4, began with Bartók’s Improvisations, Op. 20, which served to introduce the gorgeous and multitalented Canadian pianist Naida Cole. She has degrees in performance not only for the piano but also for the flute. She excelled in all the difficulties of Bartók’s complex take on Bohemian folk tunes. The piece started slowly and plangently, with more than a hint of bells in the piano tone. It then became faster, the beat becoming irregular; the music was at times slow and mournful but elsewhere wistful. I relished the trills in the sixth of eight sections. Cole had a beautiful and richly variegated color and tone with a wide dynamic range. Her only “fault,” not uncommon in young artists, is that she is too reticent and shy about accepting her well-earned ovations.

When Wadsworth originally set up the chamber music series in Spoleto, Italy, Menotti always insisted that the series end with Schubert’s heavenly Quintet in C. It has seldom if ever not been a part of the series in Charleston, and this program ended with an epic performance by the St. Lawrence String Quartet joined by cellist Díaz. The cello playing and tone of Marina Hoover and Díaz were unusually well matched.

On the afternoon of June 5, a performance of the eighth program opened with an effervescent reading of Dvorak’s Terzetto in C for Two Violins and Viola. The warm, folk-tune-drenched work was played by violinists Vähälä and Nuttall joined by newly-arrived violist Kristen Johnson. Menotti’s Suite for Two Violoncellos and Piano, commissioned by Wadsworth for cellist Gregor Piatigorsky’s 70th birthday celebration at Lincoln Center (where Piatigorsky was one of the performers), has complex and erratic tempos, well managed by cellists Díaz and Hoover, and syncopated piano pyrotechnics, provided by pianist Wadsworth. Díaz was then joined by Cole for a deeply moving performance of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4. Cole balanced her dynamics so as not to drown the cello, and Díaz projected extraordinary opulence, particularly in the last movement. Cole’s kaleidoscopic musical palate was fully disclosed during her performance of the subtle and languid First Gymnopedie of Satie and the delightful Scherzo-Waltz of Chabrier, a work that was new to this listener. According to the local paper, a cell phone interrupted the magical tapestry she wove during the Satie at the first performance of this eighth program; the presentation we heard was not thus marred. Based on these two pieces, I bought Cole’s French recital on a London CD and the first volume of Naxos’ Chabrier series.

A stunning performance of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano opened the first outing of the ninth program, heard on June 6. Finnish violinist Vähälä ably provided the string pyrotechnics and her equal partner was the powerhouse pianist Chen. An octet of cellists then joined the brilliant soprano Budd for the beloved Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Villa-Lobos. Her vocalism was pure and lyrical, but instead of humming the last repeat of the aria, she alternated between the vowel sounds “ooo” and “ah.” Lead cellist Díaz was joined by the St. Lawrence String Quartet’s Hoover, Wadsworth’s assistant Clare Bryant, and Herine Coetzee, Ian Maskin, Philip Von Maltzahn, Lydia Rubrecht and Amy Laing, all from the Spoleto Festival Orchestra. A finely balanced performance of Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat ended the concert. With the piano lid fully up, Cole scaled her dynamics so as not to drown the spirited playing of the St. Lawrence String Quartet. She was an unusually attentive partner, constantly watching (and listening to) the rest of the ensemble.

At the second performance of the tenth chamber music program on June 8, dramatic license made lemonade of the festival’s plague of cell phone interruptions. After Wadsworth gave the background of the first work, Lucy’s aria from Menotti’s opera The Telephone ,called the soloist Budd to the stage, and took his place at the piano, a cell phone rang on the front row. It took the stunned audience a moment to realize that it was intentional; the device was handed to soprano Budd, who seamlessly slipped into character, stuck in a Sisyphean phone call. Amid a veritable epidemic of cell phone breaches in this season’s festival, this was an altogether positive moment.

Violist Johnson then joined the St. Lawrence String Quartet for a heavenly presentation of Mozart’s Viola Quintet in G Minor, one of the two best. Balances were perfectly judged and intonation crystal clear. Ravel’s scintillating Piano Trio in A Minor, a work I can never hear too often, ended the concert. Cole was in her element, joined by cellist Díaz and violinist Daniel Phillips of the Orion String Quartet. The latter’s quartet had appeared on the Dock Street series in the ’80s, and he had been a member of the first Spoleto Festival USA chamber ensemble that Wadsworth put together in 1977. 

For the first run of the eleventh and last chamber music program, given on the afternoon of June 9, Cole got to display her skill on her other instrument, the flute, when she joined a chamber ensemble made up of flutist O’Connor, cellist Bryant and harpsichordist Wadsworth that ably supported soprano Budd in “Sheep may safely graze,” from Bach’s “Hunting” Cantata (No. 208). O’Connor’s kaleidoscopic flute colors were on display in Oliver Messiaen’s “Le Merle Noir” as Cole, returning to the piano, ably supported the composer’s suggestion of the blackbird. The 2001 series ended with a dynamic, lushly romantic rendition of Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D Minor, known as “The Souvenir of Florence.” In his introduction, Wadsworth explained that St. Lawrence Quartet second violinist Shiffman had made a specialty of this work, so he took the first chair, switching with Nuttall, the SLSQ’s customary leader. Cellists Hoover and Díaz and violists Johnson and Lesley Robertson rounded out the ensemble. There was no lack of rich string sonority and Shiffman was outstanding in the many opportunities for the first violin. The Tchaikovsky provided a fine end for a very memorable season.

Overall, the eleven chamber music programs of the Twenty Fifth Anniversary Spoleto Festival USA added up to an extraordinary artistic achievement. In the 1980s and 1990s, one learned to expect to catch some routine performances during the runs. This time, while not every work played was a masterpiece (which wouldn’t be desirable anyway), I found that all the performances came across as fully engaged and fresh, and slight imperfections weren’t troubling in the heat of the moment. More or less “exact” performances can be heard on recordings, but engaging live concerts are where music may truly be found. 

In addition to his own broad network within the world of chamber music, Charles Wadsworth also benefits from the activities of his wife, Susan, who founded Young Concert Artists, a non-profit agency, in 1961. Over the past 40 years more than 150 musicians have begun their careers under its nurturing umbrella. A glance at their alumni list posted on YCA’s web site at reveals many illustrious names-pianists Emanuel Ax, Richard Goode, Murray Perahia, Ruth Laredo, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet; violinists Pinchas Zukerman, Ani Kavafian, and Chee-Yun; cellists Colin Carr and Carter Brey, etc. The Charleston series is an ideal place to hear the best and brightest on the way up.