Spoleto Chamber Music Sizzles

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Geoff Nutall’s many transformations

THE ONE CONSTANT each year at Spoleto USA, and the one show that everyone should try to get to, is the Chamber Music Series at The Dock Street Theatre. The performances are world-class sublime and the Dock Street’s size and setting could not be better for the occasion. When you step inside those walls you step out of time into a rarefied atmosphere of sizzling music by some of the world’s finest musicians. For 75 glorious minutes, the world falls away, you get engulfed by enchantment, and you marvel at how chamber music can be so damn good.

All that would seem like enough, but as Spoleto enthusiasts know, the spark plug that fires this series is its enigmatic director and wildly entertaining emcee, Geoff Nutall, who also performs with his brilliant St. Lawrence String Quartet, as well as with other guest musicians.

For many years, the mystery of Spoleto used to be which pieces would be included in the chamber program, but that finally got remedied as the programs starting being announced in advance, which was a welcome change. Now the only mystery is what Mr. Nutall will be wearing, what hair style he’ll be donning, and what new stories and surprises he’ll bring to the stage.

Program X this year featured an array of complexity, emotional depth, and humor. It began with J.S. Bach’s Musical Offering Trio Sonata in C Minor, BWV 1079 which has a fascinating history as a challenge from Prussia’s King Frederick for Bach to improvise on a 6-part “royal theme” which the king had presumptuously written. Needless to say, Bach’s response featured a dizzying display of 17 intricately layered fugues and subtle variations on the theme. A gorgeous piece that demands repeated listening, it was beautifully brought to life by Tara Helen O’Connor (flute), Daniel Phillips (violin), Joshua Roman (cello), and Pedja Muzijevic (harpsichord).

Benjamin Beilman

The mood then shifted to two equally potent musicians: the Belgian “King of the violin,” Eugène Ysaÿe, and his Sonata No. 3 “Ballade” for Solo Violin, op. 27 which was performed by the prodigiously talented, 25-year-old Benjamin Beilman who, even though he is well known, seems poised to become Spoleto’s next stepchild of musical fame. Ysaÿe’s solo work is an early twentieth-century blockbuster that is one of six solo works he wrote in the image of—that’s right—J.S Bach’s six violin sonatas. The Opus 27 is less lyrical and more abstract than Bach’s compositions, but it’s no less technically challenging. And even though it’s modeled after Bach’s sonatas, it contains a little of his cello suites, too, particularly the sixth suite which is uncannily modern for Bach. Mr. Beilman, dressed impeccably in black, stood expressionless at center stage and swayed slightly back and forth as he tore through the Ysaÿe work, which starts sublimely and then builds in intensity and virtuosic opportunity. This young violinist is already gifted and bold. I just hope we get to hear him more at Spoleto so we can watch first hand the inevitable evolution of his musical interpretation and expressiveness.

Two other works in the program featured pianist Stephen Prutsman. For the first, he was accompanied by the “twin sisters” of Gilles Vonsattel and Pedja Muzijevic in Wilhelm Freidreich Ernest Bach’s humorous Das Dreyblatt for Six Hands. Later, Mr. Prutsman performed Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, at the end of which he melded in entertaining variations on a popular melody, a jazz theme, and a show tune.

Amidst the fun and performance excellence of the program, Geoff Nutall and the St. Lawrence String Quartet played the emotionally stirring third movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, op. 132. As Mr. Nutall explained, Beethoven wrote this work as a sign of gratitude—effectively a thanksgiving to God—after recovering from what he thought was a fatal illness. The third movement is particularly delicate and heart felt. It is Beethoven at his most sensitive. Even the normally garrulous and flamboyant Mr. Nutall seemed quietly touched by its emotional impact, which the quartet captured with aplomb.

It perhaps goes without saying that Spoleto audiences owe their own thanksgiving for the continued presence of this outstanding chamber music series that keeps surprising and pleasing year after year.



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