Hundreds of years of history, tradition, and stunning architecture surrounded us as we approached the famed Dock Street Theater in Charleston. To give it even more of an authentic southern feel, the temperature was approaching 100 degrees and not a cloud was in sight to give some shelter from the heat. This trip was my first to the Spoleto Festival, and the name of the Dock Street Theater resonated in my imagination from radio broadcasts, articles, pictures, and even an episode of A Prairie Home Companion that took place there. Like many of the theaters in Charleston, this one does not bulldoze you with frontal extravagance: you might even walk right by it if not for the modest engraved name. However, once inside, the unique character of this historic venue was immediately evident.
But for the lessons from several of my colleagues, I would have been like the country bumpkin coming to the big city as I would have naturally asked for a program of the afternoon's concert. There are none. Programs are written just prior to the start of the concert on a small blackboard in the lobby, and that is the first and only revelation of what is to come. There are no program notes, no glossy, large-print pages, and not even composers' dates! That is all left to the wisdom and wit of Charles Wadsworth, Artistic Director for Chamber Music.
This was the tenth chamber music program of the festival and truth be told it did not look too promising. First was a piano quintet by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, followed by something called "Sherlock, Jr." by a guy named Prutsman. My intuition proved right for the first part, but what followed was one of the most enjoyable moments I had ever spent in a concert hall. The two works were connected in an indirect way by their relationship to film, although that may not have been the intent of the presenters.
Korngold was a prodigy almost on par with Mozart, but he ended up being primarily known as a composer for major Hollywood films of the '30s and '40s. His Piano Quintet seemed to cry out for some visual stimulation as the majority of it was mired in a meandering, thick goop of late Romantic clichés. Sloshing through this muck was the St. Lawrence String Quartet, made up of violinists Geoff Nuttall and Scott St. John, violist Lesley Robertson, and cellist Christopher Costanza. Joining them was pianist Stephen Prutsman. I tried to keep an open mind and ears for this work, considering there are only a handful of piano quintets played, but I was not convinced. This composer who made his riches and fame from the movies was about to be upstaged.
Prutsman is a triple threat as pianist, composer, and film-maker – and incidentally bears an uncanny resemblance to Mikhail Baryshnikov. His love of the great silent movies led him to compose a score to Buster Keaton's great film "Sherlock, Jr." He and the quartet moved off to the side of the stage, the screen came down, the theater darkened, and we were transported back to a neighborhood movie house in the 1920s. This is one helluva hilarious movie, and Prutsman's score was nothing less than a masterpiece. He captured the storyline, punctuated the pratfalls, and even invented some effects for the string players that I have never heard before. Cellist Costanza also displayed some great chops as a slide whistle player, and they all blended beautifully during one section as a kazoo quartet. There was hissing, booing, and shouting at the screen from audience members and musicians.
This is the kind of inventive programming that has come to exemplify Spoleto, and this was one of the best.
Exactly 24 hours after the previous chamber music concert, the eleventh and final presentation of chamber music of the 2007 Spoleto Music Festival took place. It was even hotter than the previous day, and audience members stumbled into the lobby sweating and thirsty.., but they headed straight for the blackboard. We were given a hint yesterday that the main work would be Schubert's monumental C major string quintet and indeed that was true. Wadsworth told the audience that when he was given the position of Director of Chamber Music by Gian Carlo Menotti back in 1958, he was given complete and unrestricted freedom in programming. Menotti had only one request: the final work played every year would be Schubert's Quintet.
Like the opening acts to headliners, the works scheduled before such an epic creation can feel like throwaway time-fillers. However, this was far from the situation here. Two movements from The Telephone Book, an early work by the young American composer Michael Torke, delighted everyone. Written for the rare combination of violin, cello, flute, clarinet and bass clarinet, and piano, these are works written by someone who really understands jazz and knows how to integrate it into a "classical" setting. "Blue Pages," the second selection, was especially effective as it sounded like a Gil Evans arrangement straight out of the famous Miles Davis "Birth of the Cool" sessions.
Next was a performance of Edward MacDowell's greatest hit, "To a Wild Rose," in an arrangement by Charles Wadsworth for flute and piano. Well, what can you say about something like that? It sure was pretty.
Schubert was not the first or the last composer to add a second cello to a string quartet, but his C major Quintet is of such transcendence that any comparisons are absurd. This is a work of such supernatural eloquence that mankind can only weep at the thought of what was denied to us with Schubert's death at age 31. Joining the members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet was cellist Edward Arron. It would be an insult to label him as the "second" cellist since his part in the second movement is one of the greatest moments in all of chamber music. This is a mammoth work nearly 50 minutes long with the first two movements being the longest and the most complex, introspective, and otherworldly.
With no lessening of creativity and brilliance, the last two can probably be labeled as more accessible. Without putting down prior performances of this foursome – they have played in the Triangle area several times – what I heard at this concert was completely unexpected. They had it all: profound insight into the depths of Schubert's tortured soul, deftly executed technical expertise, and remarkable ensemble communication. They controlled the dynamics with alternations of intimate subtlety and muscular outbursts that literally propelled players out of their seats.
I have no way of knowing if some extra or extra-natural effort was given in this performance as acknowledgement that Menotti would for the first time be hearing this in a non-mortal state. Whatever the reasons or your beliefs may be, if this performance did not reach past human bounds, then nothing can.