Chamber Music delights: A midday nibble of classical non-pretense is a perennial favorite, and for good reason

A menu of delight

Ducking out of the midday heat into the enchanted air-conditioned balm of the Dock Street Theatre is true decadence. The space itself — a small jewel box of Old World gleam — is delightfully intimate and inviting, a space somehow imbued with an ambiance of expectation, regardless of what type of performance I attend there. This seems especially true when it’s a Spoleto Festival USA chamber music program. Even for someone like me whose classical repertoire is lean at best.

Attending a Spoleto chamber music offering is akin to venturing into a small gallery of thoughtfully curated art. Or sitting down to the tasting menu at a choice restaurant like Zero Restaurant + Bar, where flavors and presentation are exquisitely layered and expertly executed, and you just sit back and let the culinary maestro do his thing. Following this analogy, Geoff Nuttall is the Vinson Petrillo of classical music, an artist at the height of his game, a musician whose indisputable gift is making his otherworldly talent accessible to normal humans who don’t know a bass note from a clef. 

In short, Nutall dishes up complex compositions and balanced flavors that are boldly adventuresome yet approachable. And delicious. The brilliance of the chamber music programs is that they are bite-sized nuggets. You leave feeling delightfully well fed but never overstuffed.

Case in point, program five of this year’s 11-program menu. Nuttall bounds onto the stage with boyish exuberance. With vamping flair, he announces that he’s sporting a brand new three-piece suit in honor of this particular program, so excited is he about the music and musicians.

Nuttall’s enthusiasm is like a jaunty tune you can’t help but hum along to. First up was a cello quartet featuring composer-in-residence Paul Wiancko, Joshua Roman, Christopher Costanza, and Nina Lee playing the heck out of Wiancko’s “When the Night”—a number full of tonal variation and sounds I’ve never heard from a cello before, including percussive bow beats.

Next was a Bach Sonata rendered with precision and passion by chamber music series veterans Tara Helen O’Connor on flute and Steven Prutsman on keyboard. Their interplay was exquisite — a bit like watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and the romantic concerto a perfect vehicle for their talents.

But the showstopper of the program was, as Nuttall described it, a “crack baroque orchestra” featuring two celli and a full stage of musical genius, including Nuttall and Owen Dalby on violin, Daniel Phillips on viola, Nina Lee on cello, Doug Balliett on double bass, Pedja Muzijevic on harpsichord and the star — Paul Holmes Morton playing the elegant and unusual theorbo. “Basically a giant lute, like a harp and guitar combined,” Morton, a rumbled affable fellow who looked like he might have just rolled off the set of Southern Charm, explained while introducing the intriguing species to an intrigued audience.

Classical diehards and newbies alike were brought to their feet by the finale, featuring violinist Karen Gomyo making her Spoleto debut and Muzijevic on piano playing “Carmen’s Fantasy” by Pablo de Saraste. Total wow.

That’s the beauty of the Chamber Music Series. In such an up close and personal setting, the musicians’ passion sweeps you away and even the most highbrow music seeps into your being. There is no stuffy remove, no pretense. Just a menu of delight, served by absolutely approachable, personable, and supremely talented musicians. The perfect Spoleto lunch. Please, sir, can I have some more?

Concerts continue daily through June 9 at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. You can buy tickets online.

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