The Spoleto Festival chamber music series is a glorious phenomenon, one that is perhaps too successful for its own good.
Hosted brilliantly by Geoff Nuttall, a violinist in the St. Lawrence String Quartet, the series has cultivated loyal audiences that exhibit a rare degree of enthusiasm at each of these concerts — 11 programs each performed thrice at the Dock Street Theatre.
Nuttall and his colleagues have fans — nay, groupies — akin to those one finds at a rock concert. Except the average age is around 62.
Why is the series so successful? Mostly because the musicianship is extraordinary. Nuttall books colleagues at the top of their game, players with international careers and fine reputations. Many of these musicians are well-known to regular patrons of the series. Some have been coming to the festival for more than two decades.
The concerts (short ones, only about 75 minutes each) never linger on a particular style, period or composer. One might hear Henry Purcell, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Philip Glass on the same program.
This is a significant strategic choice with happy consequences: Audiences that might not otherwise listen to challenging 20th century music or works by living composers end up relishing the innovative textures and tonalities they experience at the Dock Street Theatre. Indeed, I have witnessed numerous standing ovations after the final notes of a difficult new work die away.
This is not merely polite applause because the composer himself happens to be present or because Nuttall insists that this music is good. He and his co-conspirators have found a genuine way to open ears and minds.
That explains the giddy glee that erupted when countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo took the stage in the first three programs of the series. A charismatic and articulate presenter, he sang a range of repertoire from Bernstein tunes to da capo Handel arias to John Dowland songs. Costanzo event offered a Stephen Prutsman-arranged rendition of the Cooley-Blackwell number “Fever,” originally sung by Peggy Lee. (Pop music increasingly is finding its way into the series.)
It also explains the warm reception received by the JACK Quartet, which specializes in new music, some of it quite esoteric, and by Doug Balliett, a talented double bass player and this year’s composer-in-residence. They lent some fresh excitement to an already charged atmosphere, performing old and new work alike, including Balliett’s terrific “Gawain’s Journey.”
That piece, written for two string quartets (the St. Lawrence joined the JACK on stage), includes supertitles describing the knight’s journey through the cold woods to a northern castle. It was evocative program music whose style clearly referenced its medieval setting yet, with its expressive effects, managed to be fresh and engaging.
During the first five programs, the chamber group presented a superabundance of music, much of it extraordinary, but I couldn’t help think of that line in the Pixar movie “The Incredibles”: “Everyone can be super!” evil Syndrome says. “And when everyone's super... no one will be.”
The Haydn string quartet performed by the St. Lawrence was super, but it was difficult to contextualize it historically and musically when, preceding it was a weird cell phone piece by Pauline Oliveros and following it were those Dowland songs.
Composer Mark Applebaum’s piece “Darmstadt Kindergarten,” performed by the JACK Quartet, was mesmerizing, as physical gestures little by little replaced the music, but was it representative of his work? Was it more than a brief diversion between a concerto grosso by Handel and Costanzo singing “I Feel Pretty”? The late Beethoven quartet that closed that program seemed oddly anticlimactic.
A particularly serious moment came when, in Program II, Pedja Muzijevic performed a chamber version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major. It was pristine loveliness. Another came at the top of Program V, when Mozart again was featured, this time his Oboe Quartet in F Major, performed by James Austin Smith, violinist Owen Dalby, violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Joshua Roaman. One got lost is Mozart’s beautifully played spinning melodic lines, clear structure and thoughtful harmonic shifts.
And when Livia Sohn ended that program with Jeno Hubay’s fantastical arrangement of tunes from the opera “Carmen,” her impressive display of virtuosity seemed reassuringly traditional.
More of the music is worth mentioning: the intense performance of Barber’s “Adagio,” the evocative soundscape that was Joshua Roman’s “Tornado” for string quintet, the earnest performance by the JACK Quartet of Philip Glass’ hopelessly pedestrian and uninteresting String Quartet No. 8...
The advantages of this kind of programming are evidenced by the audience’s reactions. Surely, Nuttall should not consider fixing something that isn’t broken. But advantages come with certain disadvantages, a price that must be paid. The chamber series, for my money still the best ticket of the festival, has become something of a classical music variety show.