Lawrence Toppman

Ryan Joins List of Top Contenders for Charlotte Symphony Job

by Lawrence Toppman

The Charlotte Symphony played three pieces, all American and all premiered after World War II, this weekend at Belk Theater. That wouldn’t be news in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Here, it is: I don’t recall the CSO grouping three American works from the last 80 years, let alone to such memorable effect, in its Classical Season. (I count Austrian-born Erich Wolfgang Korngold as American; he fled the Nazis in 1934 and became a U.S. citizen.)

Kwamé Ryan, whose appearance as guest conductor last season had to be delayed until this month, spent 90 minutes showing why he’ll be added to the list of top candidates for music director. He had the measure of John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” Korngold’s Violin Concerto and especially Aaron Copland’s Symphony No.3.

Adams’ percolating overture whizzed by in appropriately flashy and forgettable style. Then came Korngold’s concerto in an unexpectedly serious performance from Bulgarian-American violinist Bella Hristova.

“Unexpectedly” because many soloists, knowing Korngold borrowed themes from four of his film scores for the three-movement work, stress the schmaltz that can undermine the piece. That’s why critic Irving Kolodin cruelly said the concerto held “more corn than gold.”

But Jascha Heifetz played the premiere performance and recording with serious dignity. Hristova followed that model in this last Romantic-style concerto: She was serene in the pyrotechnic first movement, tender but not dreamily vague in the middle section, then jaunty yet never – well, corny — in the rollicking jig of the finale. Ryan matched each mood sensitively.

He spoke briefly before the Copland symphony, tying its genesis in 1944 to the four freedoms espoused by President Franklin Roosevelt: Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. (He also gave away the surprise: The last movement is a set of variations on Copland’s 1942 “Fanfare for the Common Man.”)

Ryan’s first movement showed us a muscular Copland, one who wasn’t afraid to be wistful or contemplative but mostly strode boldly along. The second movement combined the jazzier feeling of Copland’s 1930s works with his Americana strain: Skittering hints of Prokofiev in the winds and faint echoes of “Simple Gifts” from “Appalachian Spring” co-existed comfortably.

The lighter-hearted slow movement has sometimes seemed long to me, especially in Leonard Bernstein’s famous late-career recording, but not here. The “Fanfare” finale began with majesty, made the transition to visceral excitement, then returned to grandeur for a conclusion as stirring as anything Copland ever wrote.

Ryan referred to himself as European in his speech, noting that Ukrainians don’t enjoy those four freedoms nowadays and any nation might lose them at any time. He’s really a citizen of the world: Born in Canada, raised in Trinidad, a student in the United Kingdom and Hungary, conducting regularly in France and Korea (among other places).

His discography ranges from Beethoven and Schubert to Morton Feldman and Olga Neuwirth. If he does end up here, I’ll be curious to see how he expands Charlotte Symphony programming during his tenure. His bosses will have to give him some scope.

Charlotte Symphony Fantastique in Berlioz Under Yashima

By Lawrence Toppman

Oscar-winning actor Walter Huston said, “I ain’t paid to make good lines sound good. I’m paid to make bad lines sound good.” That might be the true test of a conductor: Taking a 35-minute chunk of elevated salon music such as Beethoven’s Triple Concerto – not bad, but nowhere near a masterpiece – and making it seem more intriguing, even beautiful, than it actually is.

Erina Yashima did exactly that with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Belk Theater, abetted by a well-matched trio of soloists who were sensitive to the score and one another. Then she led us through a great piece of music, Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique,” with passion and sound judgment.

She had already asked the CSO to play above their collective heads in the curtain-raiser, the fastest rendition of the overture to “Ruslan and Lyudmila” I’ve ever heard. Now she asked them to sustain the same kind of energy not for five minutes but for 50, and they responded. I have no idea whether she’s applying for the music director’s job here, but she shot into my top three candidates by the end of the concert.

Yashima literally bounded onto the podium and turned a megawatt smile first on us, then on the orchestra; if that smile ever dimmed, I couldn’t tell. She hurled them into Glinka’s whimsical-lyrical overture, getting the kind of rapid-fire precision – especially from the strings – I hear only when the musicians play at their best. (If you recognized the piece, perhaps you know it as the theme to the American TV sitcom “Mom” or the video game “Tetris Classic.”)

Fears that we might be racing through the night ended as soon as she carried us gently into the Beethoven. It’s probably worth noting – I wish it were not – that all three soloists were also female. The piece can turn into a more-or-less piano concerto with strings somewhere in the background, if the keyboard soloist pays no heed to the others. But Anne-Marie McDermott, who has given some bravura performances at Spoleto Festival USA over the years, stayed perfectly attuned to violinist Tai Murray and cellist Julie Albers. At one moment in the finale, they stopped time with a series of hushed notes that pulled you into the piece irresistibly.

Yashima’s version of Berlioz contained one interesting choice after another, many of them subtle. The scene at the ball hinted at mental distress without descending into a swirl of madness. The march to the scaffold had a deliberate dignity, as if the man dreaming about dying went proudly rather than despairingly to his end. The witches’ sabbath, which exploited all the resources of the augmented orchestra, was consistently spooky but also tremendously exhilarating; we soared into the sky on our broomsticks and had a hell of a good time.

On paper, this concert looked like the narrowest range of music this season: three works, all composed within 38 years (1804-42), all by Central and Eastern Europeans from the first half of the Romantic Era. But the soloists and especially Yashima revealed so many colors that we ended up traveling across a whole universe of moods and ideas.

Pictured: Erina Yashima; Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography/courtesy of Askonas Holt

Will Long, Layered ‘Tár’ Satisfy Non-Classical Fans?

By Lawrence Toppman

“Tár” plays like a brilliant doctoral thesis, assembled over many years to analyze abuse of power in the classical music world: long, complicated, intelligent, packed with inside jokes and obscure references that require footnotes so you can keep up. I loved it but would have predicted only a few people would share my passion, until I visited its page at the Internet Movie Database and saw a cumulative rating of 8.2 from nearly 3,000 viewers.

Even the title requires explanation. It’s an old Norse name, usually given to boys, that means tough, resistant, enduring. Lydia Tár (played by Cate Blanchett) begins as all those things but slowly crumbles after social media attacks, the suicide of a woman who died blaming Tár for short-circuiting a conducting career, and her own use-and-toss-aside attitudes toward co-workers and lovers.

Two factors make her a sacred monster, as the French say, rather than simply a monster: her tremendous talent on the podium and her enormous knowledge and overwhelming love of classical music. When she rightly takes down a Juilliard student who has no time for Bach – or, by extension, other straight white male composers before his own lifetime – she’s astonished that he can write off the Baroque master. She plays a Bach prelude to try to win him over, revealing the theme’s beauties musically and verbally, but he stays deaf to it.

Writer-director-producer Todd Field got Oscar nominations for two screenplays in the ’00s, “In the Bedroom” and “Little Children,” but he hasn’t finished a project in the 16 years since the latter. You get the feeling, watching “Tár,” that he spent the time boning up on every aspect of the classical music business, from boardroom conferences to orchestra auditions to score analysis. Whether you want to explore these things in such detail will determine whether you feel the 158-minute running time is justified.

To fully appreciate the minutiae, for example, you need to know that the late Gilbert Kaplan was a wealthy American businessman who fell so much in love with Mahler that he trained himself to conduct and became an expert on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Here he’s mocked as “Eliot Kaplan,” played by Mark Strong with the real Kaplan’s pudding-bowl haircut.

When the Berlin Philharmonic plays the adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 with soupy strings in rehearsal, Tár orders them to “forget Visconti,” with no further explanation. You’re meant to know – as surely none of the players would – that Luchino Visconti used the movement in his 1971 movie “Death in Venice.”

She’s the smartest person in every room, musicologically and intellectually speaking. And her emotions come through in tremendous snatches of performances, mostly of Mahler’s Fifth and Elgar’s Cello Concerto. But in her personal life, she’s a case of arrested development: Her wife (Nina Hoss), her overworked assistant (Noémie Merlant) and her assistant conductor (Allan Corduner) all eventually face her scorn or acts of betrayal. Like so many tragic heroes, she can grow – if she’s going to grow – only after a fall.

On some levels, the movie remains a fantasy: Lydia Tár has become an international celebrity as a conductor, composer, teacher and author – in other words, a female Leonard Bernstein – but no one in the Internet age has dug up her roots. The real Berlin Philharmonic has never had a female music director nor, as far as I can ascertain, a female concertmaster, let alone a married couple in those jobs. I suppose Field chose Berlin, often called the world’s greatest orchestra, so Tár can plummet from the highest peak.

Yet Blanchett, who’s in virtually every scene, grounds each moment in reality. Tár’s self-importance and self-deceit appall us, but we respect and admire her, too. Critics have tried to guess the women on whom Field based the character, often finding parallels with Marin Alsop, but she seems to me most like the autocratic Herbert Von Karajan in his later years. (He died at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1989.)

As with classical music, the success of an ambitious movie lies in the details. The cast is uniformly good, down to Mila Bogojevic as the adopted daughter who may be the only person Tár can love unconditionally. Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister makes the wooden concert hall seem warmly appealing and every other locale forbidding or barren, providing visual equivalents for Tár’s internal turbulence.

Pictured: Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár in the movie Tár © Focus Features/MovieStillsDB.

Charlotte Symphony nowhere near its best in “Pastoral” concert

by Lawrence Toppman

Gather all the adjectives you know that connote speed, and you can write your own review of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concert Marcelo Lehninger conducted Friday night.

The positive ones might be bracing, vigorous, keen, energetic, zestful. The negative might include rushed, restless, brusque, hard-driven and superficial. You needn’t find synonyms for poetic, introspective or subtle. Those characteristics seldom came into play until the final movement of the final piece, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, where Lehninger showed how much might have been brought to the entire program at Knight Theater.

Pianist Gabriela Martinez did have moments of delicacy and gentleness in Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.” Yet even there, the conductor’s extroverted accompaniment gave her too little opportunity to express herself fully. (The watery horn section, suggestive of the bad old days before Christopher Warren-Green, didn’t help there or in the Beethoven.)

Things started well enough with the opening piece, Lili Boulanger’s “D’un matin de printemps.” Boulanger, who had the most tragically shortened career of any 20th-century composer – she died at 24 of tuberculosis – can stand the energized treatment Lehninger gave her. She became a more muscular Debussy, depicting a spring morning where bees hummed busily and Parisians strode toward their destinations. The orchestra peaked here, playing with a unity it too rarely displayed afterward.

De Falla followed. His piece needn’t be languid or perfumed in Spanish exoticism; the best recording I know among half a dozen comes from a Pole, Artur Rubinstein. But this jaunty trip through Spanish gardens felt more like a brisk walk across the English countryside in nippy air, despite Martinez’ welcome attempts to add touches of mystery.

Any conductor auditioning for the CSO’s music directorship will have to prove himself or herself in core repertoire. Lehninger impressed me greatly five years ago in a concert of music from Spain and the two Americas, but I didn’t hear anything memorable in the Beethoven until the last five minutes.

Repeated phrases came at us squarely, without much variation in tempo or color. The first-movement “arrival in the country” tripped blandly along, followed by a “scene by the brook” whose charm soon wore thin. The “merry gathering” of the third movement quickly became restless and was dispersed by a blustery storm that blew up and blew down too soon.

Then the sun shone, musically and metaphorically. Lehninger found warmth and spacious joy in a beautifully structured final movement, where the peasants expressed relaxed happiness at deliverance from the tempest. Where had this kind of insight and inspiration been for the previous 90 minutes?

Pictured: Marcelo Lehninger; photo by Andy Terzes / marcelolehninger.com

Satisfying Strauss, Less Satisfying Elgar in Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Season-Opener

By Lawrence Toppman

Every cellist who plays Edward Elgar’s concerto after 1965 does so in the shadow of Jacqueline du Pré. Mstislav Rostropovich, her teacher, heard du Pré’s heart-stopping recording and reportedly took the piece out of his repertoire for years, because she played it so definitively. (He never recorded it commercially.)

Great cellists have brought their own qualities to the concerto over the last half-century: Pierre Fournier’s nobility. Yo-Yo Ma’s tenderness, Julian Lloyd Webber’s dignified sadness. But you have to project some intensely personal understanding of it to make the piece strike home, and Inbal Segev didn’t do that in the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening concert Friday at Knight Theater.

She began with a warm, expansive tone that promised well, but she never got deep inside the music: That burnished sound soon turned into endless note-spinning over the next half-hour. She reminded me of golden-voiced opera sopranos who hit every note with impeccable technique but might as well be singing from a restaurant menu. That was also true of her encore, a movement from a Bach suite. (To be fair to her, I was backstage Saturday doing an intermission feature for the WDAV broadcast. From what I could hear, she seemed to be playing with more focus and personality that night.)

Guest conductor Andrew Grams didn’t overwhelm her with sound but took advantage of the orchestral passages to add badly-needed drama. He treated those moments not just as simple accompaniment but as the final bold strokes of a man who finished this concerto in 1919 and never wrote another major work, though he lived 15 more years. (World War I shattered the spirit of this last great Victorian composer.

Grams got us off to a strong start with Anna Clyne’s brief, eccentric and entertaining “Pivot.” That churning piece blends genres recklessly, usually returning to the same percolating rhythm before embarking in a new direction. Hearing it was like walking down the midway at a musical carnival, where tents pumped out the sounds of pastoral landscapes, Celtic influences, brass fanfares, dimly heard hymns, even a touch of Eastern European schmaltz.

The final work on the program, Richard Strauss’ “Aus Italien,” had a similar cinematic quality. Despite movement titles such as “At the Shores of Sorrento” and “Amid the Ruins of Rome,” it never sounds particularly Italian until a final giddy set of variations on “Funiculì, Funiculà.” (Strauss, who vacationed in Italy in 1886, thought he’d adapted a Neapolitan folk song. He didn’t know Luigi Denza had written it six years earlier to celebrate the opening of an elevated railway. Denza sued Strauss and won the right to be paid royalties.)

“Aus Italien” doesn’t sound much like the mature Strauss, either. The 22-year-old composer had yet to find his voice; he’d do that a few years later with “Don Juan” and “Death and Transfiguration.” Still, this Italian jaunt has much to enjoy, including a Mendelssohnian lightness in the long “Sorrento” movement and a vaguely Brahmsian sweep in the opening “In the Country.” Juxtaposing Elgar’s last towering orchestral work with Strauss’ first full-length stretch in that direction is the kind of programming the Charlotte Symphony does more often these days, and I welcome it.

Pictured: Inbal Segev credit Grant Legan/inbalsegev.com

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Concert Brings Balm to A Reeling City

By Lawrence Toppman

Music won’t heat your home, freeze your food or keep your Internet flowing. But if you were one of the thousands of people in Mecklenburg County who lost power during Tropical Storm Ian – I speak from experience – you might have found solace in the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra(CSO)’s concerts last weekend at First United Methodist Church.

The CSO’s Classical Series officially begins Oct, 7-8, with performances of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. These earlier concerts, gently priced at $25 and uniting former music director Christopher Warren-Green with Grammy-winning organist Paul Jacobs, served as a sweet appetizer to the main course.

The program started with restrained merriment in Handel’s organ concerto “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale,” passed through the high drama of Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony (his fifth), and ended with an eruption of joy in Saint-Saens’ “Organ” Symphony (his third).

Why put these concerts, co-sponsored by the Charlotte Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, in this church? Three reasons.

First, the beautiful array of organ pipes at Belk Theater, a noble backdrop for CSO gigs, aren’t connected to anything. (That story’s too long to tell here.) Second, all three composers – four, if you count J.S. Bach for the encore Jacobs gave us – played the organ in churches: Handel briefly in Halle, Germany, as a paid Reformed organist; Mendelssohn as an accompanist to his own sacred works; Saint-Saens at La Madeleine, the official church of the French Empire.

Third, as John Apple of the AGO Charlotte Chapter pointed out, First Methodist has superb acoustics and in one way improves on Belk Theater: You can always hear brass and strings distinctly when they play together. I sat in the back row of the balcony and appreciated the extra clarity in every piece.

The program didn’t give Jacobs, the first solo organist to earn a Grammy, much chance to show off. (He won in 2011 for Messiaen’s “Livre Du Saint-Sacrement.”) He brought good humor and nimble fingerwork to Handel’s brief concerto, where he imitated the birds of the title, and both quiet spirituality and thunderous chords to Saint-Saens’ symphony, which has only a supporting part for organ. He really shone in his encore, an A minor fugue by Bach that required virtuosic technique and energy.

Warren-Green and the orchestra came off best in the “Reformation,” Mendelssohn’s most muscular and Beethoven-like symphony. (He wrote it in 1830, just three years after Beethoven died; it celebrates the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, a key document in the Protestant Reformation.) We went from the hammer blows of the brass in the opening movement to the tension of the allegro vivace, the mournfulness of the andante and the spiritual uplift of the finale, where Mendelssohn incorporates Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

The CSO played Saint-Saens with equal zeal, but Warren-Green made a curious choice: He took the middle section extraordinarily slowly, aiming for deep serenity but stretching the melody to the outermost limits of what the music could bear – and, to my mind, well beyond them.

The long multi-part finale sprang back into shape at once, capped by the three titanic organ chords that lead into the delightful rippling melody used so effectively in the movie “Babe.” If there can be such a thing as a chill of joy running up the spine, this music inspires it.

“Omar” Triumphs, “Unholy Wars” Struggles

Pictured: Cheryse McLeod Lewis in “Omar” photo by Leigh Webber/courtesy Spoleto Festival USA.

By Lawrence Toppman

“A folk musician and a movie composer.” I heard that fragment of speech, which sounded a bit dismissive, in the lobby of the Sottile Theatre before the second performance of “Omar.” But why should the pairing of co-composers Rhiannon Giddens, who also wrote the libretto, and Michael Abels raise eyebrows?

Composers best known in their day for songs have written operas for 200 years, from Schubert through George Gershwin and up to Rufus Wainwright today. Many authors of film scores have written operas: Bernstein, Copland, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Herrmann, Saint-Saens, Walton and others. And Giddens received classical training at Oberlin College, while Abels has written for symphony orchestras. (The Charlotte Symphony played his “Global Warming” this season.)

In any case, they left virtually no skeptics unconvinced, no eyes dry and nobody’s sense of wonder unstirred with this piece based on the 1831 memoir of Omar ibn Said. They turned that brief and ambiguous book, so short on details about Omar’s passage to America and life as a slave in the Carolinas, into a universal story about a man’s search for self-understanding and refusal to give in to hatred and despair.

Omar, an educated Arabic-speaking man from West Africa, came to Charleston as a slave. His memoir tells us he received cruel treatment at the hands of his first master, ran away, ended up in a Cumberland County jail (surely no other opera contains the plea “Go to Fayetteville!”) and was bought by the relatively kind James Owen, who attempted to convert Omar to Christianity and gets much praise in the little book. Owen may have helped Omar publish his memoirs to show the world Southern slaves were well-treated, but even he probably never knew whether the slave clung to his original Islamic faith.

Writers can adapt this story however they like, and Giddens and Abels did an especially fine job. They quote from it, don’t make significant alternations – Omar doesn’t get a love interest or escape to freedom at last – yet expand it philosophically, as Omar considers his plight and his duty to Allah.

The composers give most of the simpler melodies to the two dozen members of the Spoleto Festival Chorus, who put them across clearly and emotionally. Elements of folk music do come in, as do north African percussion, and all fit. Two women, not described in the book, counsel Omar along the way: young Julie, sung beautifully by Laquita Mitchell, and mama Fatima (dignified UNC-Greensboro and UNCSA graduate Cheryse McLeod Lewis), who supplies balm.

Yet the show belongs to Jamez (pronounced Jah-MEZZ) McCorkle. Spoleto fans heard him in 2017 as a heartbreaking Lenski in “Eugene Onegin.” Here, hobbling slightly on a boot encasing a damaged ankle, he radiated a powerful if sometimes anguished physical presence and a tenor that sailed out over the big orchestra like a lighthouse beacon above a stormy sea. Though the opera rarely approaches atonality, he gets long stretches of declamatory singing, especially in Act 1, and brings each vividly to life.

He will reportedly tour with the show, which goes to Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and New York before ending up in Chapel Hill. I can hardly imagine “Omar” without him, though if the opera has a long life – and this one might – he’ll have to pass the torch.

Karim Sulayman and Coral Dolphin on kneel on stage in a position of prayer in Unholy Wars. Photo by Leigh Webber.
Karim Sulayman and Coral Dolphin in Unholy Wars; photo by Leigh Webber.

In “Unholy Wars,” a worthy idea got short-changed by awkward execution. Lebanese-American Karim Sulayman conceived the idea, assembled the music and sang most of the numbers in a plangent, flexible and sensitive tenor voice. He wanted to look at the way European composers stereotyped Middle Eastern people through opera, especially in works about the Crusades, and challenge our assumptions by giving those characters individuality.

Unfortunately, he chose no composer later than Handel, whose “Lascia ch’io pianga” (the only familiar melody) capped the 70-minute show. That decision made the production monochromatic and finally monotonous – there’s not a single fast-paced section – and simply showing victimized characters as stereotypes does little to make us care about them.

The small pit band at Dock Street Theatre played with taste and restraint, and soprano Raha Mirzadegan and baritone John Taylor Ward supported Sulayman well, especially in the longest excerpt: Monteverdi’s “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” where a Christian crusader loves a Saracen, kills her unknowingly in battle, then baptizes her so she can enter a Christian heaven.

This demise, as slowed-down as the rest of the show, made Suleyman’s point long before the end of the number. Why silent dancer Coral Dolphin slowly writhed around the stage, sometimes washing herself with water and sometimes with sand, I cannot guess.

     

In Spoleto Festival Chamber Music Series, Last Minute Changes Can Be Good News

By Lawrence Toppman

Ever-restless Geoff Nuttall, wearing a brown suit and a sheepish grin, paced the Dock Street Theatre stage before concert No. 4. “I like getting emails from you,” the host of the Bank of America Chamber Music Series told the audience. “A lot of them start out in a nice way: ‘I really enjoy your chamber music programs.’ Then there’s the ‘but.’ They go on, ‘But…I really don’t like contemporary music as much as you do.’

“Well, those of you who don’t like contemporary music will be happy to hear we’re not playing Andy Akiho’s ‘The War Below,’ because Alexi Kenney got COVID, and the piece was too complicated to get another violinist on short notice.” One audience member applauded lustily. “Don’t be mean!” Nuttall said with a laugh. “The good news is, Pedja Musijevic will play C.P.E. Bach’s Sonata in C Minor instead.”

And there, in 30 seconds, you had the perennial attraction of Spoleto Festival USA’s chamber music concerts: humor, a chatty connection between musicians and listeners, spontaneity at every level and the ability to supply an internationally respected artist on short notice. Musijevic played the piano without a score, so he had the Bach in his fingertips, but he did so with only a day’s warning.

I hadn’t gone to Spoleto on a weekday for many years, and the availability of seats at both the 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. concerts surprised me. They’ve traditionally been full on weekends, but the lesser number of midweek tourists and lingering anxiety about COVID during a spike in Charleston thinned the crowd. (The festival continues through June 12.)

I wouldn’t attribute lower sales to Nuttall’s fresh and ingeniously balanced scheduling. The second program I saw exemplified his deft sonic juggling. It began with a slightly reorchestrated Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, where clarinetist Todd Palmer sailed through the prominent solos usually given to a high-pitched trumpet.

Next came two living composers. Gabriella Smith’s string-woodwind quintet “Children of the Fire” set up a quiet groove, tore it apart to the point of chaos, then set off on a dreamlike, harmonious arc. Tabea Debus turned her recorder into an anxious, fluttering bird through the intense solo “Two and a Half Minutes to Midnight” by Dani Howard.

Then Debus dropped back five centuries to skip nimbly through anonymous Renaissance variations on the tune “La Monica,” subtly abetted by theorbo player Adam Cockerham. Schumann’s Piano Quartet, anchored by gray-maned Stephen Prutsman at the keyboard, ended the program with an ecstatic performance by him and string players from the next generation.

As always, Nuttall prepared the ground for maximum enjoyment. He pointed out that Schumann required the cello to play a low C; cellist Paul Wiancko would suddenly have to re-tune to reach this note for a few moments, then quickly return to conventional tuning to play the rest of his part. Watching Wiancko fiddle frantically with the fine-tuners near the base of the cello added to the pleasure of his warm-hearted playing.

I doubt you could attend two Spoleto chamber concerts without making at least one joyful discovery. I made two.

First, I learned that a sopranino recorder – the tiniest version of that instrument, hardly larger than the fat pencils you give schoolkids learning to write – can sound like something other than steam escaping from an unattended kettle. Tabea Debus played one in the Vivaldi Recorder Concerto in C (RV 443), and the sounds ranged from a pennywhistle-like exuberance to a gentle breeze of melody.

Second, the Castalian String Quartet blew me away with a turbo-charged performance of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6, an agonized piece written soon after the death of his beloved sister, Fanny. (This may have been the best performance of Mendelssohn’s last major work I’ve ever heard.) Nuttall’s own St. Lawrence String Quartet played on the first three chamber concerts and left the rest of the festival to the Castalians, who played superbly together and apart when joining other ensembles.

They and Debus both reside and work in England. We’re lucky that Nuttall keeps finding new faces like these, and Spoleto Festival USA keeps footing the bills to bring them to us.
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Featured Image: Geoff Nuttall (far left) with Owen Dalby, Paul Wiancko, Christopher Costanza, and Lesley Robertson at the Dock Street Theatre. Photo by William Struhs/courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA.