Tara Helen O'Connor, center, leads the chamber ensemble in C.P.E. Bach's "Flute Concerto in A minor." Photo by Desi Gillespie, Syracuse University.

A review  |  At the first performance of Spoleto Festival USA’s 2023 Chamber Music series, the strongest presence in the room came from someone who wasn’t really there — at least, not physically. Geoff Nuttall, the festival’s former director of chamber music who died in October, was in the forefront of the minds of most at the Dock Street Theatre on Spoleto’s opening day, May 26.

The afternoon program marked the first time without Nuttall at the series’ helm since 2009. Various artists close to Nuttall, including his wife Livia Sohn, compiled selections they thought would be reflective of a Nuttall-curated program. The process was healing, cellist Paul Wiancko said from the stage at the Dock Street Theatre.

Nuttall’s spirit was certainly present. Whenever there were sudden rests, deceptive cadences or the like, chuckles were freely exchanged between the audience and the stage. There was no sign of the dreaded stuffiness of stereotypical “classical” music.

The performers brought Nuttall’s fluid energy to their body language, too, swaying and leaning in expressive bursts of movement. Nothing was static for a second of the program.

C.P.E. Bach’s “Flute Concerto in A minor” was the most dynamic piece, as it jumped from highs to lows in pitch and volume. Tara Helen O’Connor’s virtuosic flute playing occasionally took on a sonorous quality that evoked haunting melodies of the early Renaissance, long before the piece’s Baroque origins. 

The harpsichord, a plucked-keyboard instrument that can’t be made louder or softer, was well-balanced amongst the ensemble, particularly in its blend with the double bass. Several recorded renditions of “Flute Concerto in A minor” handled the instrument far less gracefully, with a harpsichord part that was either dominant or absent.

Mozart’s “Piano Quartet in E-flat Major” was a joyous romp throughout, largely due to violinist Owen Dalby’s nigh over-the-top movements. Each performer made the most of the pieces’ playful silences, stretching and teasing the spaces between sounds.

In the same piece, however, the mechanical action of the Dock Street Theatre’s piano was sometimes distracting. The rise and fall of the hammers created an atonal rat-ta-ta-ta under the otherwise lovely playing of pianist Pedja Muzijevic. 

Osvaldo Golijav, the Argentine composer and frequent Nuttall collaborator, was in-house for the performance of his “Tenebrae for String Quartet,” which was originally commissioned by the chamber music series in 2000. 

Taking the stage next to Sohn, who played first violin in the piece, Golijav described it as a prayer. “Tenebrae,” the Latin term for darkness, is also the name of Good Friday services in several Christian traditions, when worshipers remember and mourn the death of Jesus.

While the program wasn’t without its humor, it ended in tears for several of the onstage musicians, who were moved to outpourings of emotion at the conclusion of the third piece. A Friday night Spoleto tribute to Nuttall – “Celebrating Geoff Nuttall” – had only one performance, but it seems the entirety of this season’s chamber music series will serve as a fitting tribute in its own right.

IF YOU WANT TO GO:  Program I of the Spoleto Chamber Music series will play again at the Dock Street Theatre May 27 at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Tickets can be purchased through the event website.

Desi Gillespie is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.

Love Best of Charleston?

Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.