In the course of Friday afternoon’s opening Chamber Series program, new series director Geoff Nuttall and friends reminded us yet again that some of the finest chamber music on the planet happens right here in Charleston. Spoleto 2010’s first official concert treated a capacity Dock Street Theatre crowd to a varied feast of all-German chamber gems from the Baroque to the present.
Even though it wasn’t listed on the lobby’s program board, the first number was a chamber arrangement of German composer Johann Pachelbel’s ultra-famous Canon in G: a work that I leaked in my series preview. It’s been one of classical music’s reigning smash hits ever since it helped spark a resurgence of interest in Baroque-era music back in the 1960s.
“Yes, we’re available for weddings and receptions,” quipped Geoff, alluding to the millions of brides who have worked the piece into their nuptials ceremonies over the years. Then he told us about its Chucktown connection: Karl Theodor Pachelbel, one of the composer’s sons, settled here in the 1730s, organized Charleston’s very first classical concerts in 1737, and became music director at St. Philip’s Church. There’s no record of what was performed at these early concerts, but it’s entirely possible that this music was included.
In any case, this performance — including the sprightly “Gigue” (a then-popular dance) that Pachelbel wrote to be performed with the canon — was absolutely superb. Violinists Nuttall and Scott St. John of the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ) plus series regular Daniel Phillips wove a soft and flowing web of string sonorities, on top of deft basso continuo support from Chris Costanza’s cello and Pedja Muzijevic’s harpsichord. A different sort of period relic was a single movement from a string quintet written by another German immigrant, Johann Peter — during the 1780s in North Carolina. As Nuttall noted, it recalled the classical-era style of Haydn and Mozart. The SLSQ, plus violist Hsin-Yun Huang, convinced us that this obscure music was worth hearing, in a bright and convincing reading.
“Don’t worry, you won’t be tested on this,” cracked Geoff as he introduced the first of two pieces by Robert Schumann: his delightful Fairy Tales, a four-movement confection for clarinet (Todd Palmer), viola (Hsin-Yun), and piano (Stephen Prutsman). But he got serious as he went on to explain that Schumann came by his hallmark manic-depressive style honestly, having been plagued by mental illness for much of his life. But this music was mostly bright and happy, full of bubbly good spirits and sweet, ultra-romantic yearning. Hsin-Yun’s viola playing was absolutely ravishing, with her chocolate-rich tone, and Palmer’s sweet, smooth clarinet enchanted.
The grand finale was Schumann’s best-known chamber work: the ultra-exuberant Piano Quintet. This gushing masterpiece is more typical of Schumann’s bipolar nature, with constantly shifting moods and emotions that never fail to keep listeners on the edges of their seats. And the SLSQ’s wonderful players, along with Pedja Muzijevic (this time on piano), gave it by far the best and most exciting performance I’ve ever heard, even on recordings. The group’s vital and spontaneous style fit the music perfectly, as they stunned their listeners with particularly wrenching mood-swings and passionate outbursts. It left us all limp with emotional exhaustion — but not limp enough to stifle our hearty standing ovation.
Quite a few prominent personalities were in attendance: Hizzoner Joe Riley was seated close by. Afterwards, I encountered none other than beloved former series director Charles Wadsworth backstage. No doubt he was here to make good on last year’s threat to “come back and spy on you.” But judging from the big smile on his face, this amazing concert left him with absolutely nothing to complain about.
If you move fast, you may still be able to make it to this program’s repeat performances today at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.
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