Geoff Nuttall (1965-2022) at The Dock Street Theatre | Photo by William Struhs

People may have seen chamber music before, but it’s unlikely that they saw the likes of Geoff Nuttall unless they attended Spoleto Festival USA over the past 14 years. 

Christened “the Jon Stewart of chamber music” by The New York Times, Nuttall — who died at 56 in October 2022 — had an outgoing personality, irreverent humor and charisma, each  of which found a way into his musicianship and onstage duties as the festival’s director of chamber music.

“Celebrating Geoff Nuttall,” a one-night celebration  that kicks off this year’s Spoleto programming on May 26, will be a tribute and a refrain on his trademark style and enthusiasm. 

“He was just an extraordinary person — the outpouring of support is indicative of that,” said violist Lesley Robertson, who co-founded the St. Lawrence String Quartet with Nuttall in 1989. “He touched a lot of people through the depth of his music making and integrity of artistry.”

Robert Spano, who knew and previously worked with Nuttall, will conduct the evening’s orchestral segments, which include Haydn’s “Symphony No. 102” and Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor.” The concert will feature multiple special guests for its solo and ensemble performances, including violinist Livia Sohn, Nuttall’s widow.

“It’ll be a great opportunity for us to remember Geoff and share with the audience and each other,” Spano said, “doing what he was so great at doing, making beautiful music happen and bringing people together.”

For a man known in part for his prolific collection of more than 10,000 records, especially jazz and blues, it’s easy to see how Nuttall took inspiration from everywhere he could find it and put that forward into his performances.

“He always had music playing when he was home,” Robertson said. “He couldn’t help but be a sponge learning about these traditions he was a part of. He was a curious guy, very interested in the world around him.”

Nuttall is perhaps best remembered for well-documented antics and an unmistakable sense of style. Far from the traditional image of a stuffy chamber musician, Nuttall would spend much of his time on-stage in a variety of costume pieces and hairstyles, ranging from a natural brown to an audaciously bright yellow, be it in spikes, a shag or shaved.

However, Nuttall’s enthusiasm for his performances was just as much about his love of the work he was doing and the music he was playing.

“The times Geoff and I worked together, all we were going off of was his passion,” said Spano. While he may not have worked with Nuttall as a conductor, he said, that passion fueled their camaraderie, something that Spano hopes to capture with a wider group of musicians. 

Spano wasn’t overly keen to share hints of what audiences may see in tribute, but he said they can rest assured that Nuttall’s jovial tone and irreverent nature will permeate the event.

“It was like a high-wire act, it was death-defying in a wonderful way,” Robertson said about her time playing with Nuttall. Much of their work together seemed to find itself in the rehearsal process, where pieces and styles could be tweaked and reinterpreted. “There was a lot of push and play and discovery in a way. It could make some performances slightly scary, others invigorating.” 

The loose-cannon nature of those performances will be on full display on May 26. While no promises can be made about the return of costume pieces such as Nuttall’s notorious mid-calf boots, aspects of his eclectic energy and tastes have found their place within the tribute.

“It’s such a special concert because of who he was and everyone being connected to him,” Spano said. “It’s a very special thing.”

IF YOU PLAN TO GO: 7 p.m., May 26, Charleston Gaillard Center. Tickets are $48-$153 at

C.M. McCambridge is an arts journalism master’s degree student at Syracuse University.

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