Spoleto Festival’s Chamber Music Series has a wonderful way of closing its concerts with important works from the standard repertoire. Credit Geoff Nuttall’s programming sensibilities. He knows that in order to get away with introducing obscure, contemporary, dissonant, not-always-immediately-accessible pieces, he’s got to reward audiences with something familiar and, musicologically speaking, monumental.
So Program I ended with Dvorak’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, for example. Program IV concluded with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major. Schumann’s glorious Piano Quartet in E-flat Major wrapped up Program VI. And the great Alisa Weilerstein finished Program IX with Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G Minor, partnering with a sparkling Inon Barnatan on piano.
But every once in awhile, Nuttall pitches a change-up. Two of this year’s programs ended with a different sort of bang. Soon after Weilerstein arrived in Charleston, at the mid-point of the festival, she was the one — all alone on stage — to bring Program VII to a close. And the way she did it will linger in the memory for a long time.
She performed “Omaramor” by Osvaldo Golijov, who was composer-in-residence among the Spoleto chamber players in 2011. This was a tango-tinged burst of energy, as much a technical showpiece as an innovative melding of contemporary classical style and Argentine sentiment.
Watching Weilerstein, one could not help admire her utter command of the cello. Composers can rest assured that they have a capable player who can do just about anything, however unorthodox, they might ask of her.
As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Weilerstein consented to play an encore, the 3rd movement of Zoltan Kodaly’s Sonata for Solo Cello, a truly virtuosic display. She was up and down the fingerboard in the blink of an eye, her fingers fluttering every which way. Sometimes she used the bow, sometimes she plucked the strings, sometimes she bowed and simultaneously plucked the strings with the same left hand that was producing the sustained notes, and sometimes she slid her fingers along the strings to create flurries of harmonics.
And when later in the series she assumed an ensemble role, playing other, less demanding works, such as Carl Stamitz’ Clarinet Quartet in E-flat Major, one’s appreciation for her range and sportsmanship only increased.
As flashy as the Kodaly was, Weilerstein’s performance of the Chopin sonata must be counted among the highest of the highlights this year. It helped that Barnatan was her equal, imbuing the work with heartfelt emotion and keen musical perspective.
Program X, too, ended not with Mozart or Schumann, but with one of the 20th century’s greatest composers of chamber music, Dmitri Shostakovich (whose music should become as regular at these concerts as that of Nuttall’s beloved Joseph Haydn).
Two Pieces for String Octet were written when Shostakovitch was a 21-year-old student. Performing this music was a thrilling way to end a show that included an impressive rendering of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F Minor by Barnatan and the band. The first of Shostakovich’s pieces, a prelude in the style of Bach, was lyrical and lush, showing off the warm sounds of the string octet. The second piece was a rhythmic, dissonant scherzo that seemed to contain a touch of perversion, a certain dare, as if the young composer already was inclined to thumb his nose (albeit in a masked way) at convention. It was a gutsy and exciting conclusion.
The final program of the series, offered Saturday at 1 p.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., will offer a mix of new and old. It includes the superb baritone Tyler Duncan, who will sing some Telemann and Bach, more lute from Kevin Payne (a welcome addition to the lineup), and a well-deserved tribute to Robert Schumann.
It will end with one of those monumental standards of the chamber music repertoire: Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, performed by the St. Lawrence String Quartet and pianist Inon Barnatan. Not a bad sendoff.
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