Geoff Nuttall leads chamber music fans from the classics to the unusual 

Chamber Couples

Hard-working, high-profile chamber musicians present popular twice-daily concerts at The Dock Street

William Struhs

Hard-working, high-profile chamber musicians present popular twice-daily concerts at The Dock Street

Geoff Nuttall is entirely excited and enthusiastic about this year's Spoleto Festival Chamber Music Series. Of course, the chamber music director is always excited and enthusiastic about the series, and anyone who has heard him speak or perform knows he is excited and enthusiastic about music in general.

We got caught up in Nuttall's excitement (and his enthusiasm) during a phone call to his San Francisco Bay area home one recent morning as he was preparing to rehearse Ludwig Thuille's Piano Quintet with his fellow members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet and pianist Stephen Prutsman. Although Thuille isn't exactly a household name, it is not surprising that Nuttall is eager to share his music with those who may never have heard it. "He was very successful in his day and was friends with Richard Strauss," Nuttall says. "Sometimes things are unknown and unplayed for a good reason, but that's not the case with him. He wrote this very lush and romantic music."

Not only will Thuille's Piano Quintet be part of the series, so will his Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet. "I dare anyone to find another festival with two works by Thuille on it," Nuttall says.

This year winds play a more prominent role than ever before, appearing in the Thuille sextet, Beethoven's Quintet for Piano and Winds, Poulenc's Sextet for Wind Quintet and Piano, and several other pieces. "It's kind of a mini-wind series," Nuttall says. "It's hard to get enough great wind players, especially in Charleston, with the limited budget we're working with. We always have wind players, but it's rare that we have flute, clarinet, oboe, horn, and bassoon all at the same time."

One of those players lives in South Carolina: bassoonist Peter Kolkay, who performed at the series in 2008. "This will be the first time I've played in the Dock Street, because it was being renovated when I was there before," says Kolkay, who for the past six years has been on the faculty of the University of South Carolina School of Music. "That's the thing I'm looking forward to the most — and of course working with this great group of musicians."

Nuttall's enthusiasm also extends to Franz Joseph Haydn, who he says "is basically God," and the musicians will play several of his masterpieces: the first concert opens with Haydn's String Quartet Opus 76 No. 2. (Quinten) and later concerts include his Trio in D major and the Symphony No. 101 (The Clock). The Clock is one of the composer's so-called London Symphonies and got its nickname from the ticking rhythm throughout the second movement. "We've been trying to do that for a long time and finally got the chance this year," Nuttall says.

Among the more familiar works in the series are Stravinsky's Suite Italienne; Mozart's String Quartet in D minor; Brahms' Clarinet Trio; Bach's Concerto for Oboe and Violin; Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; and Ravel's Piano Trio. Most of the musicians performing have long been part of the series, among them clarinet player Todd Palmer, pianists Inon Barnatan and Pedja Muzijevic, flutist Tara Helen O'Connor, violinist Daniel Phillips, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Although Kolkay has played at Spoleto only once before, he has recently performed with several of the musicians he'll soon join at the festival. The players and their long-running relationships with one another are an important element in shaping the series.

"We've got all these great people and can kick around what we want to do and work like a tag team," Nuttall says. "It's very artist driven."

The one newcomer is violinist Jennifer Frautschi, but she's not a total stranger to the series; she's married to horn player Eric Ruske, who has been performing at Spoleto for several years, and she's been to many of the festival's concerts. (Frautschi and Ruske are one of three married couples at the series, the others being Nuttall and violinist Livia Sohn and Phillips and O'Connor.)

Watching her husband perform at Spoleto is hardly Frautschi's only connection to South Carolina. She performed for several years in a Piccolo Spoleto Festival chamber series starting a decade ago, was a soloist with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, has been part of a touring chamber series that swings through the state, and was soloist with the S.C. Philharmonic in Columbia in March. Frautschi performs at chamber events from New York to Santa Fe, but Spoleto is unique, she says. "Very few places in the States have this kind of festival," Frautschi says. "Every performance is packed. The audience is so involved, attentive, and appreciative, and they come year after year. "

With only 17 musicians (as opposed to 50 or more for some chamber music festivals), a rare level of communication develops among them, she says. "One other important thing that I cannot overstate is that the concerts are really packed together — you're playing twice a day and get to repeat the concert three times," Frautschi says. "It gives you room to grow into the performance, which is a real luxury." Among the pieces she will be a part of are Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss, the Ravel Piano Trio, and Sonata for Violin and Piano by Janacek.

Last year marked what some saw as a monumental change: Programs were announced in advance. Before that, audience members discovered what the coming 70 minutes would hold only upon entering the Dock Street lobby and studying what was scribbled on a chalkboard. For decades, the lobby was clogged with folks jotting hasty notes from the board, although in later years that shifted to cellphone photos of the program listings.

Nuttall decided it wasn't fair to keep people in the dark — especially when there were big-name guests like Dawn Upshaw last year. The response to the change has been largely positive. "My main worry was that if the program wasn't openly traditional — if they didn't see Mozart and Bach — they might stay away," says Nuttall, who became series director in 2010 after founding director Charles Wadsworth retired.

While the advance program listings allow the less adventuresome to prolong brunch when there's a name they don't recognize, it cracks the door for those who do not want more Bach and Beethoven. And there's a decent sampling of the lesser-known this year, ranging from the Trio Sonata No. 3 in B-flat Major by Baroque composer Jan Dismas Zelenka from 1721 to the world premiere of a piece for piano and clarinet by Hooshyar Khayam.

Zelenka is known for his virtuosic and often idiosyncratic compositions. He was admired by J.S. Bach, but after his death in 1745, his works mostly disappeared until they were re-evaluated in the late 20th century. "He wrote the craziest Baroque music ever," Kolkay says. "It's virtuosic for everyone. There are millions of notes. It's so hard but so worth it."

Composer and pianist Khayam strides across the classical, multicultural, and improvisational music worlds. Born in London, he studied in the United States and lives and works in Iran. The piano and clarinet piece was written specifically for series regular Stephen Prutsman.

Among the other newer pieces on the chamber lineup are Osvaldo Golijov's String Quartet, which was written for the St. Lawrence String Quartet and premiered last fall. The series will also include Morton Feldman's 1951 Intermission I and a movement from Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time from 1941, both important modern pieces by important modern composers.


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