Since their inception at the original Spoleto Festival in Italy, the midday chamber music concerts have been a major attraction for both Festivals. Created by Charles Wadsworth, the Charleston series is given in the Depression-era Georgian-style Dock Street Theatre at the corner of Queen and Church Streets. Wadsworth uses a wide range of humor and wit to create an informal atmosphere and offers a cornucopia of standard works mixed with rarities and unusual combinations of instruments. The programming has been consistently stronger since he resumed direction of the series when Menotti broke with the American Festival. His Francophile taste matches this critic’s perfectly. Programs are never announced in advance but are posted on a chalk board in the lobby daily. Myth has it that this is both a relic of uncertain sanitation in early post-WWII Italy as well as a desire to give new artists a good house. Halls would have been sold out for famous artists such as Richter or Rostropovich but not for then unknowns such as Leontyne Price, Yo Yo Ma or John Browning.

This season we caught six chamber music programs spanning the middle of the festival beginning May 28 and running through June 4. Eleven programs are given three performances each over the two weeks. We choose Programs IV-IX.

Wadsworth has created a stable ensemble of vital young artists who clearly love to work with each other and with him. As their careers have taken off, they have reduced some of their time in Charleston but a solid group is available from players whose schedules overlap or dovetail over the course of the Festival. For the past two seasons, the St. Lawrence String Quartet has been the endowed quartet-in-residence. Now playing at their peak, they provide solid interpretations of the standard repertory. Additional violinists were Daniel Philips, Elina Vähälä (first week) and Chee-Yun (second week). Anne-Marie McDermott and Wendy Chen were the main pianists through the first two-thirds while Stephen Prutsman arrived for the last few programs. Soprano Courtenay Budd, flutist Tara Helen O’Conner and cellist Andrés Díaz rounded out the regulars. New this year was cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who has appeared in the Triangle on the NC Symphony series. She had left before I arrived.

A worthy world premiere of sorts was the item main interest on Chamber Music Program IV, heard May 28. Killing time once, clarinetist Todd Palmer heard a cheap cassette of ballet music for Les Deux Pigeons by André Messager. He finally traced the score to a French library where he was able to copy it; this served as the basis for a delightful 25-minute score arranged for a nonet. The five movements are: Introduction to Sc. 1, Waltz, Scherzo (Pas de pigeon), Pas de deux, and Theme and Variations with a Gypsy Dance. The St. Lawrence Quartet, clarinetist Palmer, O’Conner (flute and piccolo), and pianist McDermott were joined by two Charleston Symphony players, oboist Mark Grainer and double-bassist Scott Pingel. The colorful and enchanting score deserves wide exposure.

The concert opened with a sterling performance of the Busoni transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D Minor for solo violin. Aspects of a young woman’s love were explored in five duets by Brahms, sung by the contrasting voices of coloratura soprano Budd and guest mezzo-soprano Jennifer Dudley (from the Handel opera production), accompanied by Wadsworth on the piano. This literature gets too little exposure.

Program V, heard May 30, was wide ranging. O’Conner warbled in a lively way as the soloist in Vivaldi’s Piccolo Concerto in C, joined by St. Lawrence leader Geoff Nuttall and Daniel Phillips on violins, St. Lawrence cellist Alberto Parrini and Wadsworth on harpsichord for a short and lively opener. More substantial was the great Sonata in F Minor for violin and piano by Prokofiev. Flawless intonation and a full tone from Vähälä’s 1678 Stradivarius were carefully balanced against McDermott’s steely pianism. Continuing to impress with a new, added depth to their playing, the St. Lawrence String Quartet turned in a superb Haydn String Quartet in D, Op. 76, No. 5. To their passionate playing has been added a new mastery of slow movements.

The opening works on Program VI had their origins in an improvised recording session in which violinist Kreisler and pianist Rachmaninov arranged some of the latter’s songs, to which Wadsworth contributed a few efforts of his own. Wadsworth arranged “How Fair This Place,” “Before My Window” and “It Wasn’t So Long Ago” to which the Kreisler arrangements of “In the Silence of the Secret Night” and “Never Sing to Me Again” were added. Vähälä wove her burnished violin line about the nearly instrumental quality of Budd’s soprano while the composer’s piano parts also kept Wadsworth busy. Cellist Díaz was joined by pianist Chen for a fiery interpretation of Brahms’s Sonata in F Major, Op. 99. At the May 31 performance, a broken string led to a long break before the performance could be resumed. Perhaps extra strings ought to be kept near at hand? Phillips joined the St. Lawrence String Quartet as the extra violist for a burnished and glowing Mozart Quintet in D, K.593.

Mastery of instrumental color and intonation and a rich variety of pizzicatos dominated the opening Ravel Sonata for Violin and Cello on Program VII. The experienced duo was Chee-Yun, violin, and Díaz, cello. It would be hard to imagine a more nearly perfect performance in which so much artifice was concealed in beauty. In complete contrast, the dark night of the soul was conveyed by the St. Lawrence String Quartet in a somber and almost unbearably probing Quartet No. 8 by Shostakovich. Cellist Alberto Parrini brought a rich tone to his mournful solo and violist Lesley Robertson produced a burnished tone throughout. I hope this means that the composer’s works will get more play both by the ensemble and in future Spoleto programs. All fifteen quartets deserve regular exposure. The audience was sent away in a lighter mood with the lively Scaramouche Suite of Darius Milhaud, arranged for piano and clarinet by Todd Palmer, who donned a straw hat and made his water cup look like a snazzy mixed drink. Chen brought out the sultry piano part.

Program VIII was the last appearance for Elina Vähälä, so she convinced Wadsworth to schedule a real rarity, the Sonatine for Violin and Piano, Op. 8, by Jean Sibelius. Spare piano chords from Wendy Chen’s left hand opened the piece austerely. Rapid violin notes were then set against a repetitive piano figure. The second movement was bright and cherry with a long-breathed violin melody and some extraordinary high notes executed with exact intonation. The third movement began with the “throaty” low range of the violin set against spare piano chords. The texture lightened with fine trills as well as rapid bell-like writing for the piano. Wadsworth noted that Elina played a 1678 Stradivarius that had been purchased for her use by the Finnish Cultural Foundation. The St. Lawrence played a small gem by Mozart, the Quartet in C, K.157, which had three movements in the gallant style with lots of focus on the first violin except for a lovely cello theme near the end of the slow movement. Francophiles were sated by Fauré’s Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 15, played by violinist Chee-Yun, violist Philips, cellist Díaz and pianist Chen. They blended beautifully and gave full value to the hues of the score. Balance between the strings and piano were ideal even though the lid was fully up. The fleet scherzo came off with gossamer delicacy and perfect pizzicatos.

A major focus of the concluding programs was the chamber music and songs of Ned Rorem, who was present for the performances and who was quizzed about the music by Wadsworth. Besides being witty, Rorem proved at least as enigmatic as a sphinx or Delphic oracle, preferring not to impose his “meaning” of a work on the listener or even care about “meaning” at all in music. Alas I was only able to catch Program IX on June 4, missing the last two. The Rorem works sandwiched a wonderfully glowing and autumnal performance of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115, played by Palmer and the St. Lawrence String Quartet. A lively and dynamic early chamber piece by Rorem opened the program; the Trio for flute, cello and piano was played by O’Conner, Díaz and Stephen Prutsman, who had arrived to finish the festival. Rorem said he had wanted the pianist to use his full strength to make the loudest possible forte at one point. Five songs ended the program, sung with perfect clarity by soprano Budd and with Wadsworth coping well with the by-no-means-easy piano part. The composer is highly regarded as an accompanist in his own right as well as being a master of setting English texts to song.

Both Triad and Triangle music lovers will have chances to catch the St. Lawrence String Quartet on tour with clarinetist Palmer next fall when they appear at Duke University and on the Wake Forest University series. The Spoleto Festival USA Chamber Music Tour will be in Pinehurst next spring with Wadsworth, Chee-Yun, Díaz, Palmer and probably Stephen Prutsman. Don’t miss a chance to sample the unique flavor of the Dock Street series. A number of the performers – Chee-Yun, McDermott, Prutsman, and Palmer – have been soloists with Piedmont-area orchestras or on recital series and we look forward to their frequent return.