Chamber Music Series' new director has some changes in store 

Jazzy Geoff

We'll all miss Charles Wadsworth, Spoleto's beloved chamber music guru for more than 30 years — and that's not even counting his decades-long stint at the original Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. But we're all keenly looking forward to the future of this cherished series under the fresh directorship of Geoff Nuttall.

Nuttall was known to be Wadsworth's heir apparent during recent festivals, and nobody questioned his qualifications for the job. But some Spoleto regulars held out hope for certain stylistic and public relations changes once Nuttall was officially in charge. Such changes are indeed forthcoming, though nothing terribly radical has happened (yet).

A proud Canadian, Nuttall grew up in a family that loved music. He played in his first string quartet at the age of 10 and decided early on to pursue a career in chamber music. He's one of the founding members of the vaunted St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ), Spoleto's resident chamber ensemble and one of the world's truly great string quartets. This fab four has been part of Spoleto since 1995.

But the main reason he was picked to direct the series — besides his deep reverence for chamber music — is the laid-back and often irreverent way he presents it to his audiences. Like Wadsworth, Nuttall doesn't act as if he's perched on some exclusive ivory tower, casting his artistic pearls before public swine. He turns chamber music into something that belongs to all of us, and he relishes the chance to bring his lofty art down to earth with jokes and funny anecdotes — even the occasional bad pun.

Yet Geoff doesn't see himself as a carbon copy of his illustrious predecessor. In fact, he sounds downright humble — almost self-effacing — when asked about the daunting prospect of filling the shoes of such a legendary personality.

"I've learned so much working with Charles and picked up on quite a few of his tricks for working a crowd and making them feel involved in what's going on," he says. "But there was a quickness, a perfect sense of timing to his style that nobody else can duplicate, me included."

He hastens to add that the series' hallmark informal spirit and intimacy will remain intact. "Everything's about the music," he says. "We start with that and talk to the audience about what makes it human and how it reflects the listener's own humanity. And a joke or two can't hurt."

In addition to his engaging personality, Nuttall is quite the showman, whether intentionally or not. He's invariably coiffed to the nines: He dyed his hair bright blonde last year, inspiring the new press nickname of "hair apparent." He regularly appears in Western-style garb, complete with cowboy boots that often seem to dance independently as he plays. That and other habits make him one of the most physically exuberant classical performers you'll ever see. He gets totally carried away as he plays, often seeming to be on the verge of levitating out of his chair. At least one critic has commented that he "needs a seat belt."

"I can't help it," Nuttall explains. "It's a totally involuntary response to what the music is doing to me inside." But his physical (and musical) enthusiasm rubs off on his fellow players; the SLSQ is repeatedly acclaimed as one of the most intense, spontaneous, and energetic groups of its kind anywhere.

So what makes Nuttall tick, as both a musician and a series director? For one, he's obsessed with the concept of outreach as it applies to his beloved chamber music. The SLSQ seeks — and wins over — fresh converts to their art wherever they can find them. "We love to perform in unconventional venues, like college dorm lounges," he says. Maybe it's his experience in introducing great music to classically unschooled audiences that has honed his down-to-earth, irreverent public approach. He reveals the music's essence in terms of its least common denominator: how it makes people feel.

That's why, over the years, we've heard Nuttall spout things from Spoleto stages like, "You might just want to go out and shoot yourself," distilling the impact of a particularly doleful movement from a Mozart quintet.

He does the same for happier music: "Feel free to get up and dance," he once told us, describing the lilting beauty of a Dvorak quintet movement. His endearingly irreverent approach spans the entire classical spectrum; not even musical gods like Bach or Beethoven are spared from his precious "old dead guys" category. Despite whatever zingers he comes up with, he always adds pertinent musicological or historical tidbits that explain what inspired the composers.

His performing philosophy, shared by his SLSQ colleagues, isn't bound by stuffy traditional standards, either. "You often hear a kind of formalistic detachment from some musicians," he says. "We want to avoid that and concentrate on exploring new possibilities for ourselves as performers. If we succeed, listeners will pick up on it and experience the music in a way they never have before.

"Our goal of making music as freshly and spontaneously as possible means that new members must share our strong sense of musical excitement and adventure and be willing to take risks," he adds. "And it doesn't hurt to be just a little crazy." This approach is what invariably keeps their listeners enthralled, not knowing what's coming next. "Sometimes we even surprise ourselves in performance with some new interpretive stroke that never came up in rehearsal."

Speaking of surprises, prospective Chamber Music Concert attendees (mostly those who are afraid of modern music) have long chafed at having to shell out money for a program they might end up hating. But the series' steady variety and appeal over the years taught regular audiences to trust Wadsworth's musical judgment. It's a safe bet that Nuttall's selections will do the same for most of us. "It's also a Spoleto tradition to take chances on certain cutting-edge, modern repertoire," he says. "But that's inevitably going to rub some folks the wrong way, and you're never going to keep everybody happy. So you've also got to achieve a balance between that and more traditional music."

But there's a minor concession this time: Not only will Nuttall continue Wadsworth's habit of revealing some "coming attractions" from the stage, but each program's playbill will be posted on the festival website two days in advance. So you'll still have to take potluck if you book early, but it's good news for those who insist on a peek at the program before they pay. But beware: There's no guarantee that tickets will still be available by then.

"Another new direction this year will be an increased emphasis on Baroque-era music," Nuttall says. "I think that early music has gotten short shrift in years past." The very first program will thus include a fresh arrangement of Johann Pachelbel's smash-hit Canon in G. "Just wait till you hear how we do it," he adds. Later programs will feature other gems from that period, including J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 as well as a chamber version of his Orchestral Suite in B Minor.

The only other notable change is the series' return to the newly refurbished Dock Street Theatre after a two-year hiatus. "The place is better than ever," he says. "Warm, woody acoustics ... cool and comfy, great seating ... It's the perfect chamber venue," he says.

Otherwise, the series will proceed pretty much as usual. Eleven different programs will be offered three times at the rate of two concerts per day throughout the festival. Many of the stellar musicians we have come to know and love at past festivals will return, like cellist Alisa Weilerstein, pianist Stephen Prutsman, clarinetist Todd Palmer, flutist Tara Helen O'Connor, and double threat violinist-cum-violist Daniel Philips, among others. You'll be reading a lot more about them as Spoleto progresses. The same goes for this year's primary guest artist, global superstar soprano Dawn Upshaw.

One thing's for sure: Wadsworth knew what he was doing when he appointed Nuttall as his successor. He's a kindred spirit, and this wonderful series should continue to prosper under his inspired (and sometimes nutty) guidance. Geoff, we're all ears.

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