“That second piece was just a waste of talent!” is what I heard mentioned on the way out of the third program of the Chamber Music Series at the Dock Street Theatre Tuesday. “But the first was wonderful, and the last was sublime,” she continued.
This patron had just summed up what is so alluring about this series: familiar, or at least easily accessible music, sandwiching more challenging or newer music. Cleverly developed and programmed first by Charles Wadsworth and now by Geoff Nuttall, the series is one of the most engaging and consistent at Spoleto.
The first piece was by Giovanni Bottesini. Though not so well known now, in his time he was considered the “Paganini of the double bass.” As a composer of operas, and a virtuoso performer, Bottesini wrote the Gran Duo Cocertante for two virtuosi bassists and orchestral accompaniment, Nuttall explained in his easygoing and humorous introduction. Over time the piece has come to be more often performed with bass and violin, a pianist providing the harmony.
Pedja Muzijevic covered the orchestral parts on the piano, while Livia Sohn on violin and Anthony Manzo on bass played from the lowest registers to the highest extremes of their instruments. Manzo spent the better part of the piece playing harmonics at the very end of his fingerboard, and beyond, notes not often heard, nor easily played on the bass. Sohn played with a perfect mix of intensity and sensitivity.
The crowd clapped and yelled their hearts out. The performers reflected the energy from the audience with smiles and levity. Nuttall could be seen waltzing in the wings. At the conclusion, palm frond roses, mixed with real roses, showered the stage.
Then Geoff Nuttall introduced percussionist Steven Schick, who put together a performance of Variations II by John Cage. Schink explained that Cage was inspired by the unpredictable sounds of nature to create an experimental composition in which the players are given certain parameters, such as when to play, how long to play a note, or when to rest, but not which specific notes to play, or even the instrumentation.
Today’s group consisted of Schick on vibraphone, the Brentano String Quartet (functioning as one instrument), Pedja Muzijevic on piano, Anthony Manzo on bass, Geoff Nuttall on violin from the back of the audience, Livia Sohn on violin from the left side of the house, and Alisa Weilerstein on cello from the right. Schick, intrigued by hearing multiple pieces being rehearsed backstage simultaneously, had asked his ensemble to chose exerpts from two to four compositions they had recently been working on, to use as a framework for this performance.
He began with the “ritual starting of the stopwatches.” Snippets from Mozart and Beethoven mixed with not so recognizable tunes from all directions, overlapping in random ways. The effect was strangely mesmerizing. While trying to pick out specific composers or compositions one couldn’t help but sense all of the music as a whole and new experience.
Then just as we were feeling hypnotized/confused/irritated/elated, the piano played the first bits of ragtime to “The Entertainer,” prompting laughter. After the conclusion of the piece, there was a great deal of chatter among concert goers, which I think is the point of such a composition.
Geoff Nuttall returned to introduce the final piece. He gave a brief overview of French Romantic music and the influence of Wagner on composers such as Cesar Franck and his pupil Ernest Chausson. Franck’s use of cyclic form, where motifs develop and return, inspired Chausson to write his Piano Trio in G Minor, he said.
Next Nuttall introduced cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Pavel Kolesnikov. Nuttall completed the trio on violin. This being a well behaved and learned audience, there was no applause between movements. There was, however, an audible gasp and exclamation of “wow” to my left after the first movement. Another gasp or two were heard in the second movement when Weilerstein’s endpin slipped and the cello seemed on its way to a collision with the floor. She didn’t skip a beat. In one firm motion she grabbed the cello by the neck, rammed the endpin back into the stage, and continued to play as if nothing had happened.
If you haven’t seen Weilerstein, you are missing one of the most exciting and passionate musicians of our time. Her facial expressions, while playing, range from a furrowed brow of beautiful sadness, to a head thrown back in rapture, to an intense stare, to a look of shock and amazement, to a mischievous smile before the start of a new movement.
Nuttall, not to be outdone, shifted in his seat, raised his feet, and rocked forward and backward, while playing beautifully, and somehow keeping a very cool demeanor. Kolesnikov played wondrously between the tumultuous and lush string parts.
The final piece truly was sublime. And while I don’t agree that the second was a waste of talent, I appreciate that some may feel that way. But that’s what makes this series so good. You may get a double bass antipasto which, though never heard, seems somehow familiar. And then, for the primo, something wild. (If you don’t like it you can simply say, “No thank you,” or try it again — sometimes tastes change.) And then you get a secondo that doubles as the dolce. The important thing is to come to the family table and enjoy the meal.
Jonathan Gray is a musician in Charleston.