This year's chamber music series includes 11 programs highlighting 37 composers. | Photo by William Struhs

The 2023 Spoleto Festival USA’s Bank of America Chamber Music series is a little different this year. As with past seasons, it includes a wide array of interesting and evocative pieces for solo and small ensembles.

But this year, no composer is represented more than once, ensuring something fresh and new at each performance. Showcasing 37 works by 37 composers, the 11-program series carries on the legacy of Spoleto’s late director of chamber music, Geoff Nuttall, and what Spoleto general director and CEO Mena Mark Hanna has described as Nuttall’s “wild, electrifying curatorial style.”

Each program will have two showtimes (11 a.m. or 1 p.m.) across two days.

Two programs to look out for this summer are Program III and Program X, each of which celebrate early Hollywood and music by women composers.

Program III (May 29 and 30) will feature pianist/composer Stephen Prutsman’s original score for Buster Keaton’s 1925 silent comedy Seven Chances, which Prutsman and five others will accompany in real time.

“I like doing good quality comedies because the action is so intoxicating and really accessible,” Prutsman said. “I’ve done a few dramas and other great films, but they don’t quite take off like the mayhem and nonstop laughter that Buster Keaton provides.” He said he sprinkled plenty of musical jokes throughout the 56-minute piece and filled the exciting final chase scene with virtuosic flute and bass solos.

“Tara Helen O’Connor is the best flute player on the planet,” he said. “I’ve worked with her so many times, and she plays the entire flute family, from bass to the piccolo. And then Tony Manzo, the bass player, is phenomenal. So I decided to write the hardest bass and piccolo solos possible. I have the best players, so why not?” 

Prutsman said the Dock Street Theatre is the ideal place to enjoy Seven Chances and the rest of the chamber music series. 

“There’s just something magical about the intimate environment,” he said. “We just feed off of each other’s warmth, energy, love and, in this case, infectious laughter.”

Also on Program III is Charles Koechlin’s “Épitaphe de Jean Harlow,” a piece dedicated to the original “Blonde Bombshell” of American cinema. O’Connor will perform with saxophonist Steven Banks and pianist Pedja Muzijevic.

Program X (June 9 and 10) features music written by women, including the classical music veteran Thea Musgrave and the emerging composer-environmentalist Gabriella Smith. 

Musgrave’s piece, “Niobe,” takes after a Greek mythology character symbolizing grief. Oboist James Austin Smith performs the piece with an accompanying electronic recording that features slow tolling bells, a gong and haunting voices to represent Niobe’s slain children.

When describing the lamenting piece, Musgrave said, “It starts way high up and has wonderful mourning lines going down against whirring sounds of the wind and ocean.” Even in the melody’s lowest moments, the oboe solidifies a strong presence with an edgy yet beautiful sound.

Musgrave, who is nearing her 95th birthday this month, offered the following advice to young composers like Smith: “Make friends with great performers and pick their brains mercilessly. Get to know them and write them things.” 

Smith, a composer from the San Francisco Bay Area on the program, is already headed in the right direction: Violinist Benjamin Beilman, a former Curtis Institute of Music classmate of hers, will perform her commissioned piece, Sanguineum, at Spoleto. 

“When he asked me to write this piece, I was delighted because he’s such an amazing player,” she said. “I wrote all these virtuosic lines that I thought would be possibly too hard, but he totally nailed it.” 

“Sanguineum,” which takes its title from the scientific name for the red flowering currant, is a musical gem that reflects the brilliant bursts of color like the plant’s bright pink and red petals. After working on ecosystem restorations in Seattle, Smith has spent plenty of time with her hands in the soil and her mind on the natural world in between composing works like “Sanguineum” and Lost Coast, which is her 2021 album dedicated to the climate crisis.

“I think we need every tool that’s available to us to address this issue,” she said, “and music is a really powerful one to bring people together and get them excited about being part of the movement.” 

Other highlights for this year’s chamber music series include “Tenebrae for String Quartet” by Osvaldo Golijov, who once described Nuttall as his “brother in life and in music” (May 26 and 27); a George Gershwin song set featuring countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (June 3 and 4); and György Ligeti’s Pieces for Piano Four Hands performed by Muzijevic and Inon Barnatan (June 7 and 8). 

Piper Starnes is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.

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