Remember that exciting day in elementary school when the music teacher handed out an actual, real-life instrument for everyone to play? Out of a small pouch emerged a black plastic recorder raring to squeak its way through “Hot Cross Buns.” The recorder hails considerably farther back than that: Typically made of wood, the instrument is a staple in Baroque and Renaissance music dating back to the 1400s.
Recorder virtuoso Tabea Debus, who will perform in several programs of Spoleto Festival USA’s chamber music series this year, was 6 years old when she was introduced to the medieval instrument.
“I started playing it almost by accident because I had a friend who was starting lessons, and he was a bit scared of going by himself,” Debus said. “He stopped after a couple of years, but I enjoyed it, so I would have lessons by myself.”
Debus, who grew up in Germany and has been based in London for the past eight years, was set to attend the festival in 2020 but is now looking forward to making her first trip to Charleston this year.
The Bank of America Chamber Music series packs 33 performances in the 450-seat Dock Street Theatre each year. Roughly two dozen musicians perform a total of 11 programs three times each, switching between classic chamber music and contemporary pieces.
“Spoleto is a broad festival,” Debus said. “The sound world of these contemporary pieces is probably really different from anything else that’s happening. These chamber music concerts are such a colorful mixture of pieces. You know, the more the better.”
Geoff Nuttall, the chamber music program’s music director and host, said he takes the grueling 33-performance schedule into account when bringing on guest artists. The repertoire is chosen mostly by the musicians, creating a well-rounded schedule.
“Tabea is amazing,” he said. “She’s malleable and interested in many things and all sorts of styles. Everybody had a recorder in their house at some point, and it’s amazing to see it transferred into this weapon of incredible expressive variety.”
Debus, who connected with Spoleto through the Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT), will showcase her versatility as part of Program III on May 30 and 31. That program includes Moritz Eggert’s “Außer Atem,” which requires one performer to play three recorders – sometimes simultaneously.
“You get to see her play a Vivaldi concerto, which is incredible,” Nuttall said, “and then the next day play this crazy solo piece where she somehow manages to play two or three recorders at once. It’s not just a party trick. It’s mind-blowing, and the piece sounds so cool.”
Commissioned in 2017 by the City Music Foundation in London, Dani Howard’s “Two and a Half Minutes to Midnight” is a fast-paced piece with unconventional techniques and lots of fast articulation from Debus. She will perform it June 2 and 3, on the same program as one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and her solo performance of the ubiquitous medieval melody “La Monica.”
The tradition in classical music of passing down an instrument from musician to musician is not possible with the recorder because moisture gets into the wood as the player blows into it. As a result, all of Debus’s instruments are far more recent.
“Recorder players will play on copies of old instruments rather than the old instruments themselves,” she said.
Debus is looking forward to getting to know the city during the festival. The busy performance schedule for the chamber music series requires collaboration and stamina for a group of musicians, many of whom have never worked together before.
“This will be exciting because I haven’t met any of the other musicians,” Debus said. “It’s very nice to come for a festival where you’re in the same place for a week. When touring, you kind of have lots of stops, never really get a feel for a place. By the end of it, I’ll have a better idea of what it’s like in Charleston.”
Bank of America Chamber Music Series runs May 27-June 12 at the Dock Street Theatre. Tickets start at $49.50. Concerts are recorded by South Carolina Public Radio, and broadcasts of each program play during “Sonatas and Soundscapes,” weekdays at 11:00 a.m. To order tickets or for more information, visit spoletousa.org.
Nat Bono is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.
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