Defining chamber music can be tricky. Of all the musical offerings at Spoleto Festival USA, chamber music is the only genre identified by its venue (you won’t be hearing the orchestra play auditorium music).
The term is necessarily elusive because it casts a wide net: Chamber music includes music written for one musician per part, and usually includes a small group of people. The numbers aren’t as important as the concept, though. Intimacy is at the heart of chamber music, so much so that its nomenclature pulls the walls in closer.
Charleston’s historic Dock Street Theatre hosts Spoleto Festival USA’s Bank of America Chamber Music series, where Geoff Nuttall and the St. Lawrence String Quartet perform the core role in 11 programs (each performed three times). This is Nuttall’s third year as Director for Chamber Music.
Aside from being performed in one of America’s most historic theaters — an appropriately intimate venue — Spoleto’s chamber series has a few other signature characteristics. Here’s what to expect from the chamber:
Charles Wadsworth, Nuttall’s predecessor and founder of the Spoleto chamber series, didn’t release program information prior to the concerts during his tenure. The idea was to present lesser-known works alongside canonic classics without frightening audiences away with unfamiliar composers. Though the programs are now available before concerts, Nuttall maintains the same programming objective, mixing Mozart and Stravinsky with living composers like Osvaldo Golijov and Hooshyar Khayam. Every concert provides the opportunity to hear an old favorite as well as works that are either new or have evaded the limelight.
Along with exposing audiences to works outside the expected repertoire, Spoleto chamber music often provides its listeners with technical insight — whether it be an iteration of a theme played during the verbal program notes, or a musician slowing their blistering technique down so the mechanics are more easily understood. In the opening concert May 25, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor performed “Great Train Race” and followed her performance with a demonstration of her tricks. The piece called for perplexing percussive sounds that were unintelligible at performance speed, but her tutorial showed how a flute could sound like a train.
To open the season, Nuttall plopped down sideways in a chair for a few opening lines, legs extended and exposing his striped socks (color coordinated with his polka-dotted tie). He offered some fashion tips, like breaking in your new shoes before walking on stage in them, only to find you can’t walk in them — followed by a gangly strut and Wadsworth leaning over the balcony yelling, “I’m glad to see you got the material I sent!” Though the genre specifies a more intimate space, Nuttall’s personality is large enough for the Gaillard Auditorium, and then some.
Chamber music is frequently likened to a conversation: When the cello asks a question, the viola answers it. Themes are communicated around the semicircle, complete with eye contact and symbiotic body language. Chamber music’s intimate culture is evident, though, in the way the audience members interact with the performers, asking questions and making suggestions about what Nuttall should do about his uncomfortable shoes. This type of audience/performer relationship is more common in Europe than in the U.S. where the term classical music is, for better or worse, equated with formality.
As the final chord resonates through the audience, concertgoers erupt in a response usually reserved for a winning touchdown or home run. The whooping, bellowing and whistling accompany raucous applause, thumbs pointed upward and pumping fists. At the May 25 concert, applause continued for a third curtain call, eroding into a pounding rhythm like a rehearsed cheer. In comparison with so many classical crowds, there’s something raw and almost savage about the Spoleto chamber fans and their hunger for more.