Every day for the rest of the Spoleto Festival, there will be chamber music in Memminger Auditorium in the late morning and early afternoon, under the artistic direction of Charles Wadsworth.
Wadsworth has a remarkably gifted group of performers with which to work this year — the St. Lawrence String Quartet, plus pianist Stephen Prutsman, violinist Daniel Phillips, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, flutist Tara Helen O'Connor and tenor Paul Groves, among others.
For those listeners who love chamber music — all chamber music — these events may be warmly recommended. Still, at the risk of stepping on what one friend called a "proud Spoleto tradition," I wish that the concerts were promoted and documented more thoroughly than they are.
The way it works now, a listener merely shows up at the theater to be greeted by a board listing the music and musicians, in rather the way that a fancy restaurant might announce its daily specials.
There is no printed program, and you can't get advance information online. Are Spoleto listeners really so open-minded? Or are there some patrons who would prefer to know when they could hear Beethoven and not Poulenc, or Brahms and not Bernhard Henrik Crusell?
Bernhard who? My thoughts exactly. As it happens, Crusell, whose Clarinet Quartet was played Wednesday morning, turns out to have been a decidedly gifted and fluent 19th century Finnish composer of Swedish ancestry whose work deserves an occasional hearing, especially when played with the seamless lyricism that Todd Palmer brought to the clarinet part.
But this is an obscure composer and the audience deserved a proper introduction to his work. As it happened, neither Wadsworth nor St. Lawrence violinist Geoff Nuttall even mentioned Crusell's first name!
The performances I've heard (and I've now dropped in and out on three of the programs) have been vigorous and elegant, and the Memminger acoustics are welcoming. Wadsworth is something of a character; with his charming, folksy long-windedness he reminds me increasingly of Sen. Sam Erwin of the long-ago Watergate hearings.
But he also remains one of the best chamber pianists around, a full partner in anything he plays, assertive and deferential by turn, as any partner should be.
I will, under protest, mostly uphold the Spoleto policy of keeping the programs for these chamber concerts a state secret.
But I will also follow in the equally venerated Washington, D.C., tradition of the "leak" and suggest oh-so-casually that those listeners who are particularly drawn to Franz Schubert's sublime "String Quintet in C" (the so-called "Cello" Quintet, D. 956) may want to be in the Memminger vicinity either for the afternoon concert on June 7 or the morning and afternoon concerts on June 8. Just trust me.
One of the rising stars of the 2008 Spoleto Festival USA is the composer and conductor John Kennedy, who is the director and host for the "Music in Time" series and is also participating in some of the "Intermezzi" programs.
Last year at Spoleto Kennedy led the American premiere of "Faustus, the Last Night" by Pascal Dusapin, probably the most interesting French composer since Pierre Boulez.
Kennedy also has worked with a number of leading American composers, including Steve Reich, Philip Glass and the lamented John Cage, Lou Harrison and Henry Brant, and served as a guest conductor with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the Santa Fe Opera and the New York City Ballet.
Kennedy began Music in Time's Tuesday afternoon concert at the Simons Center Recital Hall with one of his own works, the "Baghdad Variations" (2006) for string orchestra.
Acknowledging that his own association with the United States' invasion of Iraq was "abstract" (in that he knew nobody who was fighting in the war and that the hostilities had not affected him personally), yet feeling the imperative to create a "meaningful response" to world events, Kennedy opted to create seven interrelated miniatures on the notes B-A-G-H-D-A-D (the letter "H" stands for B-natural in Germany, while our B is their B-flat).
The result is a solemn, stirring succession of tone clusters, drones and reiterative fragments that still manage to be deeply lyrical and surprisingly accessible.
This is hardly a political work in the manner of the more explicit anti-war compositions from the 1960s, some of which called for direct action.
Instead, I was reminded of the weary character in Malcolm Lowry's novel "Under the Volcano" who reflects that he had few emotions about an impending outbreak of war except that it was bad. Fair enough, and powerful music too.
Somei Satoh's "Glimmering Darkness" combines sparse, chant-like writing for strings with poised, pensive solo passages for clarinet — Messiaen meets minimalism. For all the dark sounds from Satoh's palate, the effect of "Glimmering Darkness" on a listener is curiously restorative. It is like a musical meditation that leaves one restful and alert. I was sorry to have it end.
After the Satoh faded away I walked about 20 feet and was immersed in the very different world of "The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," which was starting up at the Emmett Robinson Theatre. What other festival offers such diversity within such close proximity?
Music in Time will be back on Saturday with works by Kaija Saariaho, Anthony Davis (the composer of "Amistad") and Ingram Marshall; on Tuesday the group will present a rare performance of Morton Feldman's "For Philip Guston," a four-hour work for piano, flutes and mallet instruments that will be played without intermission. Brave musicians — and they deserve a brave audience.