Spoleto’s Bank of America Chamber Series — with its 11 programs, each delivered three times — is not only the festival’s busiest series, but its classical heart and soul. And so it has been ever since Charles Wadsworth (who was just inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame on the Dock Street stage a few programs back) brought the series to Charleston nearly 35 years ago. Almost everybody who comes to Charleston for the festival’s copious concert music catches at least one or two of its concerts. Its performers are all among the world’s top-tier soloists and chamber players. And, as series director and host Geoff Nuttall never stops telling us, the intimate atmosphere and warm, woody acoustics of the historic Dock Street Theatre makes it — bar none — the finest chamber venue on the planet.
And you can trust Nuttall (just like we trusted Wadsworth for decades) to make the final program something extra-special. The opening work was a real rarity: a virtually unknown chamber arrangement of French impressionist master Claude Debussy’s pioneering classic, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, an ultra-famous work that we almost always hear from huge orchestras. Well, this time we heard it from a huge chamber ensemble of 11 players that included all of this year’s remaining series regulars (several others have already departed the festival). The instruments were flute, oboe, clarinet, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, harmonium, piano, and itty-bitty cymbals.
This piece comes across just about as beautifully in chamber form as it does in its big-band version. Just about all that was missing was the unique sonic shimmer that only a big orchestra’s massed strings can bring to it. Otherwise, the arrangement offers the same sort of dreamy atmosphere that evokes the relaxed mood of a lazy, hazy summer afternoon as experienced by the mythical creature we call a faun (Nuttall told us that, as a youngster, he thought it was all about a baby deer). From the flute’s pastoral opening notes, the music cast its usual magical spell on the happy audience.
We then got a radically different but equally unusual mid-concert interlude of two late works by the great romantic-era virtuoso pianist and composer Franz Liszt. Many classical fans look down on him as a composer, since he’s best known for his flashy, ultra-virtuosic display pieces that, for quite awhile, only he could play. But many are unaware that, particularly toward the end of his comparatively long life, Liszt was the most original and far-seeing composer and musical progressive of his day. He pioneered new approaches to harmony and musical methods that presaged the radical “new” compositional movements of the 20th century, like French impressionism (among others).
We heard two of his short piano pieces typical of such experimental purpose: Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort (Sleepless, Question and Answer) and Bagatelle sans Tonalité (Bagatelle without Tonality). They both offered musical premonitions of more modern compositional characteristics to come, like atonality as well as a more chromatic approach to harmony. Sandwiched in between the two numbers was another short number: Intermission I by Morton Feldman, one of America’s most radical avant-garde composers of the century just past. The purpose, as pianist Pedja Muzijevic explained to us before he played the pieces, was to demonstrate that there were real similarities between the two composers’ sounds and methods, even though they lived and worked a century apart. This was a timely and fascinating bit of advocacy in support of the contention that the role and importance of Liszt are ripe for re-evaluation. Pedja delivered the pieces to technical perfection (Liszt never stopped showing off his keyboard chops), on top of giving us a short but revealing musical lesson.
Nuttall saved the program’s distinct highlight for last: forgotten Austrian composer Ludwig Thuille’s ravishing Piano Quintet No. 2, in E-flat. We’ve already heard from him at Dock Street this year: his amazing Sextet for Piano and Winds. Thuille wrote in a distinctly late-romantic style, peppered (like Liszt’s) with hints as to various directions that music might take in the following 20th century. And its strong appeal makes most classical fans, upon hearing it for the first time, wonder where this man’s music has been all their lives. Thankfully, Nuttall and his colleagues are on an ardent crusade to spread the word (and the music) of this most amazing composer you’ve never heard of.
This quintet (or so Nuttall told us) is one of his top masterpieces. And, from the way the crowd hung breathlessly on its every note, he wasn’t just whistling Dixie. Performing it with passion and fever-pitch excitement were Nuttall and the rest of his St. Lawrence String Quartet, with the magnificent Stephen Prutsman at the Steinway. I’m surprised he had enough energy left to cope with the work’s meaty and demanding piano part, having blown us away just the night before with his almost reckless, full-speed-ahead delivery of the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 at the big festival concert.
The opening movement erupted into almost immediate full bloom, with its ecstatically rhapsodic feel and power, leavened by interludes of tender lyricism. An Adagio movement of sadly aching intensity followed, with lighter passages providing intermittent relief. The Scherzo offered a lively but intense waltz that you wouldn’t want to attempt dancing to. And, ah, the finale! Considering its massive, richly effulgent and boisterous momentum, it’s a good thing he gave us a gentle breather or two along the way. And, wonder of many wonders, Thuille surprised us all with a marvelous central pizzicato fugue that, as he developed it into a full-blown sequence, took our collective breath away.
What a way to end not only a memorable concert, but the entire series … and (being the final festival concert many of us heard) another fabulous edition of Spoleto USA.