Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Violinist-impresario Nuttall stirs informal fun into Spoleto chamber music series

St. Lawrence String Quartet with Stephen Prutsman - Photo by William Struhs 
I’ve got to hand it to Geoff Nuttall for creating an informal and fun way to share chamber music with audiences. Nuttall has a wonderfully engaging stage presence, a strong voice that projects easily, humorous anecdotes that are short and to the point, and a welcoming style that draws people in. Now in his seventh season as the Director for Chamber Music at Spoleto Festival USA, Nuttall introduced the Bank of America Chamber Music concerts I heard with a much-need gusto that kicked all stuffiness aside.
Osvaldo Golijov - Photo by William Struhs
The chamber music concerts at Spoleto Festival USA are typically 75-minute affairs that start at 11 am or 1 pm at the intimate Dock Street Theatre. The morning program on Wednesday (June 1) started with “Lullaby and Doina” by Osvaldo Golijov, who happened to be in the house. So Nuttall invited Golijov on the stage to talk about his music. He explained that he wrote “Lullaby and Doina” as a suite of some of the themes from the music that he wrote for the film, “The Man Who Cried.” The inner voices of the lullaby section reflected the melody from a famous duet in Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” while the outer voices played a melody that Golijov invented. The second theme, “Doina,”he said would be a “gallop.” And so it was. The performers delivered the piece exactly as Golijov described. Evocative playing by flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, clarinetist Todd Palmer, violinists Owen Dalby and Geoff Nuttall, violist Daniel Phillips, cellist Christopher Costanza, bassist Anthony Manzo, and harpsichordist Pedja Muzijevic superbly contrasted the relaxed tempo of the first part of the piece with the pell-mell dash in the second.

Next came two Handel pieces: “Where’er You Walk” from “Semele” and “Why Do the Nations” from the “Messiah,” both of which were sung outstanding by baritone Tyler Duncan, accompanied by Nuttall and Dalby (violins), Phillips (viola), Costanza (cello), Manzo (double bass), and Muzijevic (harpsichord). Duncan maintained excellent diction in both pieces which contrasted superbly from the stately, soft, and sublime aria from “Semele” to the fiery, fast, and furious blast from the “Messiah.” But just before the instrumental ensemble could wrap up the last few measures of “Why Do the Nations,” everything was interrupted by a piping bassoon sound from offstage. At first, no one could tell if it was a weird cell phone call or some kind of unique plumbing incident, but onto the stage walked bassoonist Peter Kolkay who was playing the third movement from Gordon Beeferman’s “Occupy Bassoon,” a perky, insistent rant that caused chuckles here and there from the a listeners. After Kolkay finished, the Nuttall and company resumed playing the last bars of the Handel, and all the players stood side by side to enjoy the enthusiastic applause.

According to Nuttall, Haydn wrote his Divertimento in C Major (Hob. II:11 “Der Geburtstag”) for the birthday of a violinist who was married another violinist, and it showed off some of the clever interplay between them. Those parts were played by Livia Sohn and Phillips, and they were joined by O’Connor (flute), James Austin Smith (oboe), Costanza (cello), Manzo (double bass), and Muzijevic (piano) – all of whom accentuated the playfulness of the music.

The final piece on the program was the “Trio pathéthique” in D Minor by Glinka. Nuttall introduced this piece by explaining how Glinka was forced to end a budding relationship with a young lady because her father wouldn’t allow it. In response, Glinka wrote an emotionally effusive piece, the “Trio pathéthique” to express his pain, and, as Nuttall maintained, the music could be thought of as an exchange of arias between the clarinetist (the gal) and the bassoonist (the guy); so he encouraged the audience to applaud, if so moved, at the end of each aria.

Nuttall’s idea worked pretty well, but the evocative playing by clarinetist Palmer and bassoonist Kolkay, accompanied by pianist Muzijevic just didn’t create a transcendent moment. Palmer played an arching high note that was slightly shrill during one of his arias. Kolkay created some superb moments, but they were not always balanced well during the duets. The audience didn’t mind, though and applauded enthusiastically. Perhaps I was wishing too much for voices to sing some words of desperation and despair.

Palmer and Kolkay fared much better at the chamber music concert the next afternoon (Thursday, June 2) at the Dock Street Theatre when they opened the program with Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon. They excelled with the mercurial and playfulness of the first movement, and followed that with a sublimely tender and quiet second. In the third, they displayed a variety of intriguing harmonies that only Poulenc could write before wrapping things up with a flare.

Before playing the world premiere of “Anniversary Bagatelles,” Nuttall explained that Golijov had written the piece in honor of Nuttall and Sohn’s 15th wedding anniversary and how they were married in the backyard of one Spoleto’s main sponsors in Charleston. He then invited Golijov to the stage to talk about the piece, which is based on two bagatelles (op 126, Nos. 2 and 5) of Beethoven. Golijov remarked how Beethoven had so much experience when he wrote his bagatelles yet could still experience life like a child. Golijov’s arrangement converted the bagatelles from piano to two violins. One of the most entertaining parts of the piece was how Sohn and Nuttall returned each other’s volleys – kind of like a tennis match. During a quiet movement, a cell phone went off and Nuttall said something like “Thank God, it wasn’t Livia’s mother.” That cracked up Sohn and she laughed for quite a while before recovering her focus. They finished the piece with Sohn balancing a high note against a lower one from Nuttall.

Before embarking on Fauré’s Piano Quintet No. 1 in D Minor (op. 89), Nuttall mentioned that the piece modulates from one key to the next 79 times before it finishes. After pianist Stephen Prutsman demonstrated some of the key changes, Nuttall compared it to running around a baseball diamond in with 79 bases instead of four. The nifty comparison got a lot of heads nodding in the audience, but that quickly turned to chuckles as Prutsman and the St. Lawrence String Quartet (violinists Nuttall and Dalby, violist Lesley Robertson, and cellist Costanza) tuned by constantly changing keys until they settled on D minor. The ensemble then plunged into the sunny first movement with élan, reveling in the lush sonic plumage. After playing a dreamy, slow second movement, which seemed to conclude on a thick downy cushion, the ensemble picked up the pace with an extended pizzicato section before seguing into passages that were darker and heavier and a robust and exciting finale.

The last piece on the program was Golijov’s “Last Round,” which Nuttall remarked had the comment “Macho Cool and Dangerous” written by Golijov at the beginning as a guide for the instrumentalists. Golijov came on stage to explain how the tango-driven piece was inspired by Astor Piazzolla’s “My Beloved Buenos Aires.” To paraphrase Golijov, “Last Round” is basically a tango between two quartets. The ensemble consisted of violinists Nuttall, Dalby, Benjamin Beilman, and Sohn, violists Robertson and Phillips, cellists and Costanza and Alisa Weilerstein, and bassist Manzo. Manzo was in the middle of the two quartets and he had to play to both sides. The musicians really dug into the sliding tones and ratcheted up the tempo, so that the piece was rocking and rolling. The furious bow action resulted in some serious shredding of horse hairs from the bows – in particular Weilerstein’s. The group created a soulfully somber ending that totally connected with the listeners who erupted with a standing ovation. Everyone seemed to leave the hall in an elevated mood.

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