At the halfway point of Spoleto Festival USA’s Chamber Music Series, Geoff Nuttall worries about just one thing. As director for chamber music, he thinks that presenting unfamiliar composers on his announced programs might dissuade people from attending the twice-daily concerts at the Dock Street Theatre.
Presenting lesser-known works and composers has always been an objective of Spoleto’s Chamber Music Series, but under former director Charles Wadsworth, programs were not published in advance and concert-goers didn’t know what they would be hearing until Wadsworth introduced the pieces from the stage. If audience members had never heard of the composer Zelenka, it wasn’t a big deterrent, because they were already in their seats.
Nuttall maintained this method in 2010, his first year as director, but decided to put forth the programs last year — a more traditional approach, and one many patrons and music critics called for.
“It’s more for seeing who’s playing, not what’s playing.” Nuttall said. Some musicians are only in town for a few concerts, but have been advertised as artists in this series. Nuttall didn’t want cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s biggest fan to be disappointed if she wasn’t on the program they attended.
Other musicians in the Chamber Music Series do not share Nuttall’s concern, having heard only positive reactions to their performances. The audience for Program II was one of the most responsive, despite the fact that the concert included music by two relatively unknown American composers.
“I know the announced programs are a worry of Geoff’s, but I haven’t seen it translated,” said violinist Scott St. John. “Audiences still trust the fact that they can come to a chamber program and get a quality product, even if it’s not Beethoven and Mozart.”
There are also practical perks to publishing the programs. Pianist Pedja Muzijevic had a friend tell him, “Sometimes I hear a piece and I’d like to get a CD, and now I know what I’ve heard.”
Aside from Nuttall’s concern for printed programs, the Chamber Music Series is going well, which isn’t to say without a hitch. In the first performance of Program III, Nuttall’s music floated off his stand mid-performance because of a strong current from the air conditioner. Weilerstein broke a string and had to leave the stage to replace it. But each blooper was handled with a great deal of grace — Nuttall finished his phrase and comically retrieved his music, and audience members made conversation with Weilerstein’s pianist, Inon Barnatan, while she fixed her instrument. The audience reaction to such mishaps was a testament to the comfort level in the theater.
Besides the high quality of music-making, audiences experience a hefty dose of humor. These concerts are catnip to the classical-music lover. Nuttall tells of a patron who complained about not knowing anything on the program, but that individual attends every concert.
“There have been so many years of chamber music here, and there’s a bit of good branding,” Muzijevic said. “It’s like going to a good restaurant you know and you trust. You think, “OK, even if I don’t know about this, I trust it should be interesting.”
Leah Harrison is a Newhouse School graduate student.