Spoleto Chamber Series off to an exuberant start 

Director Geoff Nuttall and company offer especially jolly chamber gems

"Welcome to Chamber Music at Dock Street," cried chamber series director Geoff Nuttall (also resident buffoon and lead violin with the St. Lawrence String Quartet) as he bounded onstage to greet his capacity crowd. Thus began both the 2014 edition of the Spoleto USA Festival, as well as the opening concert of the wonderful chamber series that remains one of the festival's chief glories. Fittingly, his program (the first of 11, each presented three times) was a particularly celebratory one, with two especially jolly and exuberant works framing a glittering virtuoso showpiece, as well as a happy, but unexpected bonus piece.

Nuttall, bless him, was in top form. He was up to his usual comedic tricks that keep reminding us that serious music needn't be taken too seriously, though I won't recount all of his opening day shenanigans here. On a more poignant note, Nuttall took a moment to dedicate the concert to the memory of founding Spoleto board chairman Ted Stern and his wife Alva, whose combined spirit and efforts helped shape the festival as we know it today.

After that, you'd have expected music of an elegiac and reflective nature, but the first selection was anything but sad. Instead we got a chamber version of the Concerto for Oboe in E Minor, TWV 51:e1, by the late-Baroque German composer Georg Philipp Telemann, a friend of J. S. Bach (and godfather to one of his sons). While Telemann's genius may not have been quite on the level of Bach's, he was still a skilled (and highly prolific) composer whose instrumental music, in particular, was often highly energetic and upbeat, with a sense of saucy mischief and whimsy that often seems at odds with the more typically sober music of his Teutonic contemporaries.

And this concerto, despite its minor key, still came across as flippant and frisky, especially in the two fast movements (of four). There were indeed some plaintive stretches in the two slower movements, but they didn't last long. Young oboe wizard James Austin Smith astounded the crowd with an incredibly virtuosic display, beautifully supported by the "If It Ain't Baroque, Don't Fix It" instrumental ensemble, consisting of Nuttall and his wife Livia Sohn (violin), Gabriela Diaz (viola), David Ying (cello), and Anthony Manzo (double bass) with Pedja Muzijevic on the harpsichord. I probably needn't remind you that nobody gets to perform in this series unless they are global A-list soloists and chamber musicians.

Fabulous virtuoso fiddling was up next, courtesy of Livia, along with the versatile keyboard magician Muzijevic (this time at the piano). They delivered a stunning account of Pablo de Sarasate's Nouvelle Fantaisie Sur Faust, Op. 13. Sarasate, one of the tip-top touring violinists of the Romantic period, followed the then-popular practice among virtuoso soloists of transcribing well-known melodies from the day's most popular operas (this one being Gounod's Faust) into glittering showpieces: sure-fire crowd-pleasers. And Livia proved that they still are, tossing the mostly flashy music off with jaw-dropping technical assurance and breezy abandon, almost as if it were child's play. It earned her a richly deserved standing "O."

The above-mentioned bonus piece (not in the program) took the form of a flashy and ferociously difficult arrangement of the ubiquitous "happy birthday" tune that everybody knows how to sing. And the "birthday boy" (who was there in the audience) was none other than Spoleto's beloved Charles Wadsworth (his actual 85th birthday was several days ago), who ran the chamber series for well over three decades and established the series' tradition of irreverent commentary and witty repartee that takes great chamber music down from of its ivory tower, a tradition that Geoff has brilliantly carried on since he took the series over. As husband and wife began the piece with the basic melody, the crowd sang along — at least until our couple fired up their pyrotechnics in the short variations that followed, hamming it up royally as they went. They got as much laughter as they did applause (not to mention a few choice comments from Wadsworth, from his upstairs box seat).

They saved the afternoon's highlight (and most substantial piece) for last: the wonderfully ebullient Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667, "The Trout," by Franz Schubert, by far the most deliriously cheerful major work that he ever produced. It was written during and after one of the happiest interludes in the composer's tragically short life, a country holiday that he spent wandering with friends in the Austrian countryside.

The work's nickname derives from the catchy tune of "The Trout," one of Schubert's most famous art songs. Both its melody and much of the piano accompaniment are the basis for the piece's fourth movement: a sprightly set of variations on the subject theme. There's nary a dreary or disconsolate moment in it — or in any other of the work's four movements, for that matter. Even the slow Andante movement breathes an air of serene contentment.

A piano quintet's usual instrumentation consists of a string quartet plus piano, but Schubert dispensed with the second violin in this one, substituting a double bass — exuberantly played here by Tony Manzo. Otherwise, the musical honors were done by Nuttall (violin), Gabriela Diaz (viola) and David Ying (cello); at the Steinway was pianist extraordinaire Inon Barnatan.

In keeping with the piece's mood, there was some happily hammy behavior among the players, along with lots of smiles as they played — they were obviously having a ball with the music. And it was contagious.

A few glances around the well-filled theatre revealed smiles on many listeners' faces, smiles that persisted through the noisy ovation afterwards and even as we stepped out into the day's warm sunshine afterwards. It made for yet an auspicious opener for what promises to be yet another fabulous Spoleto USA festival.

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