Is it at all surprising that Geoff Nuttall is a gardener? Here's a man who's been tending his patch, the Spoleto Festival's Chamber Music program, with all the dedication and enthusiasm of a master green thumb, seeding new ideas, nurturing them along, relishing their growth. Get him started talking about what he's doing now, what his plans are for the future and Nuttall's enthusiasm is infectious. It all sounded so exciting, in fact, that we asked Nuttall to teach us how to be him, how to do what he does for the Festival. If he thought our request was at all cheeky, he never gave himself away but rather, with what we were beginning to understand is his customary "let's get this party started" zeal, plunged right in and began our training.
"How do we begin putting together a chamber music program?" we asked, and began taking notes.
"First of all," he said, "it's super fun. It's a luxury in some ways to get to work with people you respect and stand in awe of and to pick music you really love and want to share with people. It's super fun — and a real honor to continue that tradition."
Got it, we thought, and scribbled down the sentence, "We will appreciate the magnitude of what the Fates have entrusted to us and be humble." We pressed on.
Do we start with the musicians? Or the music? Turns out it's a little more complicated than that. The whole process is a delicate exercise with lots of moving parts that need to be weighed against one another. Nuttall begins by explaining how to choose music.
"When you're putting together a program, some things don't fit and some things speak to each other in very powerful ways. You can't have a whole program of new music or a whole program of Mozart because people expect to have a mixed and an eclectic experience, which I totally believe in. It's a constant balance."
Then there are the musicians to think about.
"Let's say I want a piece and maybe the people I've invited respond with 'I don't like that piece' or they say 'I can't do a good job on that piece.' You always want to put your artists in the best possible light. For the most part, everybody will play anything. But you don't want to force people into doing something they're not comfortable doing. You want to give the players the opportunity to sound their best."
There are other constraints. Time is one.
"One of the simplest and most difficult challenges is not to go over. There's so much great stuff I want to play and then I'm going along and my wife says, 'That concert is an hour and ten minutes and you're going to talk. It's going to be way too long.' And I'm like, 'Oh man, what are we going to cut?'"
At which point we began to suspect that being Geoff Nuttall, director for chamber music involves a lot of overtime. Our hearts sank. How would we ever work all this out?
"A lot of that is sitting up late with a glass of wine, going over scenarios. What you have to leave out. What we can't do this year and we'll have to do next year."
This instruction cheered us up immensely. We wrote it down: "Wine!" and underlined it. What about this year's program, we wondered. With that as an example, we'd feel like we were on firmer ground. What programs is Nuttall himself particularly looking forward to? A tough choice for the director.
"I mean, just pick a program and I would wax rhapsodic about how it's going to be an amazing event. I'm totally biased, of course," said Nuttall. That said, he did share a few highlights.
"I'll start at the end. The final concert is going to be sort of a Todd Palmer celebration. We have a new piece that Todd's creating: an arrangement of the Rossini Introduction for Clarinet, which is a great barn burner. And we'll play the Clarinet Quintet, which always brings tears to my eyes. My relationship with Todd started there in 1995 at Dock Street. To hear him and play with him will be really special. Also, the return of Andrés Díaz, who hasn't been back in many years. He's an amazingly powerful figure. The new piece by Stephen Prutsman (Color Preludes for Piano Quintet) is an inspired sort of jazz-influenced barn burner. Charlotte Hellekant! We'll get to play some Julius Caesar Handel arias which we just never get a chance to do. It's so special. And Inon Barnatan is coming to play some percussion with Steve Schick, which I also think was a huge hit last year," he said.
He reserves his most enthusiastic endorsement for a special project.
'I've always wanted to connect with youth and schools," he said. "It's always a struggle with the logistics of what we do. This year, we have a group of 100 students coming in for a show, and they'll be sprinkled amongst the audience. I'm going to meet them beforehand in the Wadsworth Room to go over the program and get them perked up as to what's going to happen. I'm really excited about that. It could be a good starting point for a series of connections. Bringing young people to Dock Street as part of a school trip and allowing us to hopefully get some young people excited about what's going on there. It's the sort of thing that I wish I had more time to devote to that. I think it could be great!"
When all was said and done, we arrived at the conclusion — so very reluctantly! — that the actual Geoff Nuttall is the person for the job. We get it. We haven't got the chops or the all-embracing infatuation with the role itself to fill the man's shoes. So we remain grateful to have Nuttall's green thumb tending the Chamber Series and helping it blossom year after year, continuing its tradition as the heart and soul of Spoleto Festival USA.
Nuttall seen here (top) during a 2010 rehearsal: