The St. Lawrence String Quartet delivers a tangy Chamber Series opener 

The heart and soul of Spoleto returns

It’s been a long and lonely year since Spoleto Chamber Series director Geoff Nuttall and his team of world-class artists packed up their bags and returned to their lives beyond Charleston — leaving me bereft and hurting for their return. Sure enough, Chucktown’s musical establishment offers pretty darned good chamber music year-round, but Nuttall and company make for one of the linchpins to Spoleto’s claim of true artistic greatness. And I’m hardly the only critic who’ll tell you that. So color me overjoyed to slip into my seat at Dock Street to welcome them back to town in their series opener. From Nuttall’s un-stuffy and genuinely funny hosting antics to the fabulous quality of his peoples’ music-making, they were a sight for sore eyes … and a sound for sore ears.

It was Goethe, Germany’s great poet, who first described the string quartet — our most common chamber music form — as “…a stimulating conversation between four intelligent people.” And that’s a description that holds true right from the start of its history. Austrian master Josef Haydn not only invented the string quartet and established it as a chamber music standard, but, in the course of writing nearly 70 of them, he no doubt perfected it as well, producing some of the genre’s very finest examples. And Nuttall — as first violin for the world-renowned St. Lawrence String Quartet — wouldn’t let us forget it, as he spoke rapturously of “Papa” Haydn’s role in justifying his (and his ensemble’s) existence.

After Nuttall’s mini-lecture on what to listen for, he and his colleagues played one of the very finest examples for us: the one nicknamed “Fifths,” Op. 76, No. 2, for it’s simple, two-note foundation of descending fifth intervals that the old master used as the harmonic cell to build his musical magic upon. They brought out every bit of the opening movement’s bold energy and wit, and, when I say wit, I mean it. Old Josef had a sly, varied, and never-ending sense of humor that extended to much of his music — even going so far as playing occasional practical jokes on his listeners. And the fun never slacked off in the following droll, tongue-in-cheek serenade and the brusquely bumptious minuet movement, almost a caricature of the dance form it was loosely based on. The finale was a delightful rondo in Gypsy style (Haydn lived and worked in Gypsy country), complete with sliding notes from Nuttall that suggested a crazy Gypsy fiddler. The fair-sized (though not packed) crowd loved it.

Next came a short, but potent piece for solo flute: “The Great Train Race,” by contemporary composer Ian Clarke. But resident flute sorceress Tara Helen O’Connor made her instrument sound like at least two flutes in places, as she delivered the piece with just about every sonic trick in the book. Using trills, flutters, breathy chugging sounds, piercing high whistles, underlying vocal tones, and overtones in octaves, she produced a wealth of cunning effects that actually ended up sounding like a freaking train! O’Connor had great fun with the piece, justifying the dubious title of “Fastest Tongue in the West” that Charles Wadsworth whimsically dubbed her with some years back, and there wasn’t a face in the place that didn’t sport a huge smile as she played.

Finally, as is often the case in this series, the concert’s yummy meat and potatoes (actually, more like its mouth-watering dessert) came last — in the luscious form of French romantic master Ernest Chausson’s rich and riveting Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet. Do you remember the first time you ever bit into a big, ripe, and juicy peach — you know, the kind where the juice dribbles down your chin while the fruit’s sharp, tangy-sweet flavor hits your tongue like a lightning bolt that reverberates through your whole body with an almost unbearable, brain-freeze intensity. Well, what that unforgettable peach did to your taste buds is something like what this gorgeous music did to my helpless ears.

As Nuttall told us, Chausson was well on his way to becoming one of the top two or three greatest French composers of his day when he met his premature end in a freak bicycle accident (riding one of those old big-wheeled, 1890’s-vintage bikes by the way). But posterity will still honor him forever for, among other works, this magnificent piece, perhaps his best-known chamber work. Our soloists were violinist supreme Livia Sohn (also Nuttall’s wife), plus piano wonder Inon Barnatan. Supporting them with their usual skill and passion were Nuttall and the rest of his crack SQ crew: violin II Scott St. John (back with us after paternity leave last year), violist Lesley Robertson, and cellist Christopher Costanza.

As for the music, you had to have been there to really know what I mean; mere words can only convey a tiny part of its overall impact. From the ominous intro onwards, the opening Allegro movement’s musical “juice” flowed so fast and furious that I could hardly lap it all up. Lush, ultra-romantic beauty and soulful ecstasy gushed as if from a fountain. A limpid, flowing Sicilienne (a graceful Italian dance) followed, with occasional contrasting pangs of throbbing lyricism. The stark, yet often densely-toned Grave movement turned out to be a gripping threnody, with its naked grief – complete with sighs and sobs. But all sadness melted away with the headlong Tres animé finale: a mostly playful and bubbly romp that rose to a fever pitch and ended with a real bang, prompting a howling standing O that went on and on.

ur host had warned us earlier in the concert that he might not be completely “with it” for this event: his six-month-old son had kept him (and no doubt his wife) awake for much of the night before. On top of that, he could hardly walk, thanks to a pair of brand new shoes that he had bought for the Spoleto occasion but failed to break in. But I’m here to tell you, Geoff, that neither sleeplessness — nor the agony of de feet — made any difference at all in the customary peerless quality of your musical (or verbal) efforts. Bravo.

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