Saturday’s Chamber XI program offered yet another choice array of chamber delights, emphasizing works that feature clarinet. The reason for that was that the concert was planned as a tribute to Todd Palmer in celebration of his 20 years of distinguished service as resident clarinet virtuoso in Spoleto’s vaunted Chamber Music series. Having covered much of this series for 15 years now, I recall no edition of the festival when Todd wasn’t there to delight our collective ears with charming chamber confections for his instrument, as well as some of the greatest works ever created in the chamber genre. And this program gave us marvelous examples of both.
But before I get to those, let me make brief mention of the other selections we were treated to. First up was Richard Strauss’ glowing single-movement string sextet that begins his opera Capriccio, serving as a sort of prelude to the stage action. As series director Geoff Nuttall told us, it’s essentially a work of autumnal nature, expressing bittersweet sentiments. But I also picked up on episodes of melodrama, excitement, melancholia, and tender romance. Delivering it to perfection was Nuttal’s St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ), reinforced by the viola-cello family team of Gabriela and Andrés Diaz. The program’s third selection was a perky rendition of Johannes Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1 for piano four hands, delivered in perky and virtuosic fashion by series regulars Stephen Prutsman and Pedja Musijevic.
Between those pieces came Palmer’s first chance to shine, in opera master Gioachino Rossini’s mostly bright and bubbly Introduction, Theme, and Variations for Clarinet and Orchestra. Composed when Rossini was only 18, this showpiece is a kind of “coloratura aria” for clarinet in the Bel Canto style of his day. The work — presented here in Todd’s own arrangement for 10 supporting chamber players instead of an orchestra — was every bit as delightful as the original. Todd got to strut his virtuoso stuff repeatedly in the piece’s five variations: glittering runs, scampering arpeggios, fearsome leaps, and staccato execution. And that’s not all. We got passages of surpassing sweetness and ardent sentiment, too. There’s hardly a clarinet trick in the book that was missing here, and Todd more than mastered every last one of them. For fear of filling up another paragraph, I won’t list all of the 10 other players; suffice it to say that all of them were supremely accomplished series regulars.
Finishing the program in profound and heavenly fashion was one of the all-time smash hits of the entire chamber music repertoire: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s deep and radiant Clarinet Quintet in A Major. It was inspired by (and written for) Anton Stadler, who was probably the greatest living clarinetist of his era. This and Mozart’s marvelous Clarinet Concerto (also written for Stadler) are among his final works; they stand among the Austrian master’s greatest masterpieces in any genre.
I’ve heard this one at Spoleto (also from Todd) before, back in 2009. In the middle of the second movement, his instrument’s single reed broke (an occupational hazard), bringing the performance to a halt while he replaced it. No such bad luck today; the piece came off with nary a hitch. Todd and the SLSQ, his trusty collaborators, took their fortunate Dock Street audience on one of the most blissful and enchanting musical rides to be found in Mozart’s rich cornucopia of amazing music.
I can’t think of a better way to bring the 2014 edition of Spoleto USA to a happy close. Speaking for all of Charleston’s chamber music nuts (and countless Spoleto-goers): Thank you, Todd, for all of the unforgettable musical blessings you have brought us over the years. We love you dearly. Here’s hoping that you will continue to grace our cherished festival for many more years to come.