For many people who visit Charleston from late May through early June, the heart of the Spoleto Festival USA is the Chamber Music series. The concerts – eleven this year, each given three times – are held in the middle of the day – at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. – in the magnificent reconstructed 18th-century Dock Street Theater, on the corner of Queen and Church Streets. The ambience of the theater is cozy and charming, graced by the harbor mural curtain, painted by Christian Free. For the past 28 years, these concerts have been done without advance announcements of the music to be played or a printed program; they are introduced live from the stage by the informative and entertaining Charles Wadsworth. The seats are almost always filled because of the well-established reputation for excellence, diversity and – in no small part – Wadsworth's personable and witty comments.
Wadsworth caught the eye of Gian Carlo Menotti and was called upon to create the Midday Concerts in the original Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy, in 1960. The pianist was founder and director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center from 1969 to 1989. He has created or inspired chamber music concert series literally all over the world. It is no wonder The New York Times called him "The man who brought chamber music to the masses." In an interview in his Charleston Spoleto Festival residence, he said with characteristic humor and humility that his biggest problem these days is whether to become a legend or an icon. He said he put it to an audience vote recently and they chose "Icon".
Chamber Music III, on Tuesday, May 31 was given over to the works of The Red Priest – Antonio Vivaldi. Guitarist Frederic Hand was the featured soloist in the Guitar Concerto in D, and he provided a technically and artistically gratifying performance. The up-tempo outer movements charmed and delighted the Spoleto audience. The middle movement, the familiar andante, was liltingly beautiful. Hand was joined in the performance by Daniel Philips and Barry Shiffman, violins (of the Orion String Quartet and the St. Lawrence String Quartet, respectively), Alisa Weilerstein, cello, Matt Heller, bass, and harpsichordist Wadsworth.
The familiar favorite, The Four Seasons, was performed in a transcription prepared and performed by America's First Lady of the Flute, Paula Robison. This ubiquitous work, so easily taken for granted, was unknown to American audiences until the late 1940s. Nowadays it is heard in restaurants, elevators, grocery stores – almost everywhere imaginable. But it belongs in concert halls and large rooms where it can be heard with attentiveness and appreciated for all its charm, inventiveness, and beauty. Robison gave a virtuosic and loving performance that brought the full house to its feet. She was joined in this performance by Hand (playing lute), the St. Lawrence Quartet supplemented by violinist Philips, bassist Heller, and harpsichordist Jeremy Denk.
Chamber Music IV, on Wednesday, June 1 was of a different character. As far as that goes, if you attend a sampling of three or four of the Spoleto Chamber Music concerts you are likely to hear music ranging from the renaissance to the 21st century – vocal, keyboard, and almost any and all instruments in many different combinations. The concert began with early songs for guitar/lute and flute performed by Hand and Robison. There were five Italian love songs by different composers dating from early baroque to the late 19th century. The performances of Robison and Hand were as one, and they evoked all the passion, yearnings and sweetness that a good love song is wont to embody.
Whenever three or more cellist get together you are likely to hear "Requiem" by David Popper (1843-1913) a famous Czech-born cellist. The piece is scored for three cellos and piano, and if you are partial to the warm, rich, romantic tones of this middle-voice instrument, you will love it. The cellists – Chris Costanza from the SLSQ, Weilerstein, and Claire Bryant (whom Wadsworth described as his assistant) – were joined by pianist Denk in a magnificent performance.
The precious jewel of this concert, however, was the Piano Trio in E Flat by Franz Schubert. Performed by violinist Corey Cerovsek, cellist Weilerstein, and pianist Denk, it was infused with Viennese charm as its indescribably beautiful melodies unfolded and as the masterful art of development that was Schubert's gift was displayed. The outer two movements sparkled and moved in a dance-like quality as naturally as wildflowers in an Alpine valley. The middle movement spoke in a spiritual depth that transcended anything on this earth but connected perfectly with the yearnings of the human spirit.
These intimate and glorious performances attest to the reasons why the Spoleto Chamber Music Concerts at the Dock Street Theater are the heart of the festival. When you are in Charleston at Spoleto time, don't miss a sampling of them!
Note: This is the second of a series of reviews of Spoleto USA and Piccolo Spoleto events by CVNC critics. For an interview with Charles Wadsworth, conducted in Charleston by WCPE announcer (and CVNCer) Ken Hoover, click here [inactive 2/10].