Charles Wadsworth, Spoleto USA's artistic director for chamber music for over 30 years, will retire from the festival this year.
How to encapsulate what he's done over the years? This man's history could (and should) fill a fat book. I'm honored that Wadsworth has shared much of his story with me in pre-festival interviews over the years.
To put it plainly, Wadsworth, in addition to being a keyboard virtuoso, is the greatest chamber music impresario and advocate the world has known. Late Spoleto founder Gian Carlo Menotti must've seen that potential in him when, around 50 years ago, he asked a young Wadsworth to organize and direct the chamber music end of his new arts festival in Spoleto, Italy. Twenty years later, Menotti brought him to its new "little sister" festival here in Charleston — and the rest is history.
Back then, chamber music was considered a lofty and arcane art: appreciated by only the musical elite, with snoots and pinkies held high. Wadsworth's mission was to bring this corner of high culture down from its ivory tower and make it accessible to anybody with good ears and a sense of adventure.
After all, up until about a century ago, chamber music belonged to regular, middle-class folk. Before the days of radio, the boob tube, and the internet, ordinary people gathered in somebody's home and did chamber music together (most educated people could play an instrument back then). Music publishers sold mountains of sheet music. How to get us back on track?
While reminiscing together on the phone a few weeks back, Wadsworth reminded me of the three-pronged approach he and Menotti came up with. First, you pick out music that has broad appeal, but never tell your listeners what they'll be hearing until they show up at the concerts. After all, few folks (aside from stuffy geeks) will care, once they learn to trust your musical judgment. Next, you round up the finest musicians you know to perform it. And that's never been a problem for Doc W., especially since he ran the chamber music program at New York's Lincoln Center for 20 years. Finally, you simply talk to your audiences about it: warmly, informally, and with irreverent humor.
"Tell them they're going to like it," he told me, "and chances are they will."
And this very formula has worked like a charm here in Chucktown, just as it did in Italy, despite several embarrassing gaffes (due to his imperfect Italian) that he laughingly shared with me. Charleston can now claim a horde of local fans, with a ravenous year-round appetite for chamber music.
And so this year's festival is going all-out to honor his life and work. It will throw an opening gala dinner plus a high tea farewell on the final day. Most exciting (and the one I've got a ticket for) is Wadsworth and Friends: A Musical Celebration. The occasion will also mark his 80th birthday.
Parts of this event remain shrouded in mystery as we go to press: It's been rumored that possible surprises are in store, like the appearance of his early protégés, such as Paula Robison, Joshua Bell, and Yo-Yo Ma. Wadsworth told me French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet will perform Cesar Franck's Piano Quintet with the St. Lawrence String Quartet, whose Geoff Nuttall will later be featured on Bach's brainy and bubbly double concerto. Nuttall may end up taking over the chamber music series, as he was named associate director last year, fueling speculation that Wadsworth would soon step down.
All Wadsworth has ever asked of us is attentive ears, plus open minds and hearts. The art of chamber music is as easy to love as the wise and wonderful man who has joyfully fed it to us over the years.