Geoff Nuttall has a name for his cadre of chamber musicians this year: "If it ain't Baroque, don't fix it!"
The Bank of America Chamber Music series at the Spoleto Festival USA opened Friday to a full house at the Dock Street Theatre. The concert, dedicated to the late Ted Stern, the first Spoleto Festival chairman of the board, kicked off with three festive pieces.
First was Georg Philipp Telemann's Concerto for Oboe in E Minor, featuring James Austin Smith, a veteran of the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center.
In his introduction, Nuttall dubbed Smith "the world's greatest oboist." After his performance, that's difficult to dispute. Sporting a fitted suit and a dashing smile, Smith demonstrated a mastery of Baroque technique, with crisp articulation and sparse but adroit use of vibrato. His passion for music was written on his face and in his body language.
The ensemble behind Smith, which included Geoff Nuttall and Olivia Sohn (violins), Gabriela Diaz (viola), David Ying (cello), Anthony Manzo (double bass) and Pedja Muzijevic (harpsichord), was equally impressive. Though the solo-versus-ensemble contrast is characteristic of the Baroque era, each musician's talent shone. Together they weaved a flawless tapestry of Telemann's score, which Nuttall called "totally cosmic." The audience agreed.
Pablo de Sarasate's "Nouvelle Fantasie sur Faust" op. 13 for solo violin and piano came next. Based on the opera "Faust" by Charles Gounod, the performance validated Nuttall's colorful descriptor: "pyrotechniques."
Sarasate wrote the piece for himself to show off his virtuosity. Sohn performed it with a precision and fervor that left the audience breathless. In particular, her masterful command of counterpoint (multiple voices that are harmonically related but rhythmically divergent or independent) was astonishing. On the piano, Muzijevic deftly controlled the tempo, which easily could have run away given the frenetic pace set by the violin. Following Sohn's standing ovation, Nuttall, her husband, bowed at her feet.
A short addition was made to the program to celebrate the birthday of Charles Wadsworth, the former artistic director for chamber music at the Spoleto Festival. Wadsworth, who turned 85 on Wednesday, was in attendance, laughing and conducting from the balcony as Nuttall and Sohn performed Bruce Dukov's "Variations on a Birthday Theme in the style of Paganini."
The program concluded with Franz Schubert's Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667, "The Trout." Of particular note was the pianist Inon Barnatan, whose fingers floated over the keys with a dreamlike grace. It was almost as if the notes were not coming from the mechanism striking the strings, but from Barnatan himself, gently extracting them from the piano with each nuanced gesture.
The musicians' exuberance during "The Trout" was infectious. At times Nuttall's argyle-clad feet lifted off the floor, as if the music's elation would not allow them to stay put. A quick survey of the audience revealed a sea of grins. The ensemble revitalized this well-known work with such spirit that the audience - mindful of classical etiquette but no doubt swept up in the moment - applauded at Schubert's famous false ending.
The effect of Schubert's musical joke drew laughter from the musicians, who are clearly more interested in the joy of music than in keeping with the strictures of concert decorum. For those who have never experienced chamber music, or who feel intimidated by its high-brow reputation, the laid-back atmosphere of the chamber music series at the Spoleto Festival is a great place to dip a toe in the water.
Sarah Hope is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.