Attend a Spoleto Festival chamber music concert at the Dock Street Theatre and you enter a self-contained sphere of music- and merry-making.
It’s not that the rest of the festival disappears altogether. Hints of it seep into the space, in the form of, say, a guest artist involved in the opera production, or a surprise musical reference, or a chamber composition by someone whose work is featured on one of the grander stages.
But here one experiences a pleasant sense of detachment, and the enjoyment — I’d call it a kind of relief — that comes with delivering yourself into the care of these accomplished musicians. Think of it as therapy that costs less per session than any shrink.
One thing director Geoff Nuttall manages to do very well at the Dock Street Theatre is present all kinds of obscure or contemporary music and, in so doing, he softens up some stubborn listeners who think they mostly like the three Bs plus a few others.
In Program IX, cellist Joshua Roman and double bass player Doug Balliett performed a 21st century piece by Matthew Aucoin called “Duel.” It followed a pristine rendition of Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat Major, and its flurry of articulated 16th notes and angular melodies surely caused the average blood pressure level in the building, already a bit high, to spike.
Faure’s lovely Piano Quartet in C Minor came as a balm of sorts. Structured in four movements that adhered to classical forms, and often developing its musical material from just a short series of notes, the piece unfolded like lush flowers in an alternative tonal universe, where the language is, well, French!
Program X began with some old fashioned string band music. Because, why not? Paul Holmes Morton brought out his banjo and, joined by Roman and Balliett, offered a four-song set that included the traditional Appalachian folk song “Shady Grove,” The Beatles’ “I Will” and two originals the band worked up called, I suppose, “House on a Hill” and “Smokey Mountain Elegy.” All three fellas sang the tunes and vocal harmonies.
It was a quirky intro to Schubert’s big, six-movement Octet in F Major, featuring two violins (Nuttall, Owen Dalby), viola (Meena Bhasin), cello (Nina Lee), bass (Balliett), clarinet (Todd Palmer), French horn (David Byrd-Marrow) and bassoon (Amy Harman).
Here is a great piece of early Romantic chamber music, with its creative juxtapositions, catchy tunes, pleasing harmonic progressions, drama and humor and joy. Listen to the interplay between the first violin and clarinet in the second movement. Note how the melody shifts from player to player in the fourth. Enjoy the musical colors that result from this wonderful mix of strings and winds.
Each of the six movements are substantial, each has its fascinations of theme, form and arrangement. Schubert might have lived in Beethoven’s shadow, but he was certainly a product of his place and time. Vienna in the early 1800s was a party town whose residents loved to get together and make music. Schubert obliged with transcendent works.
And as Nuttall pointed out, Spoleto Festival, and especially the Dock Street Theatre, is a little like early 19th century Vienna. It’s akin to a big salon where friends and colleagues gather to make and enjoy music, except the seats are less comfortable.