Chamber Music Charleston returns to the Piccolo Spoleto Festival this season with two specially curated programs of rediscovery and adventure. Forgotten Voices (May 31) celebrates music by women composers of the Baroque era, while Capturing the American Spirit (June 7) features string quartet pieces that paint the nation’s culturally and historically rich soundscape.
Both concerts will take place at 6 p.m. at the South Carolina Society Hall, 72 Meeting St., one of the region’s most historic venues. It was built between 1799 and 1804.
“It’s the first time I believe this space has been used for Piccolo Spoleto,” said Sandra Nikolajevs, Chamber Music Charleston’s president, artistic director and bassoonist. “We’re playing in a ballroom where I’m sure they had harpsichords playing music 200 years ago.
“It isn’t the loudest of instruments, but when you’re in a space that fits about 100 people, you’re going to feel each of those notes being plucked because you’re so close to it.”
The venue is especially fitting for Forgotten Voices, which features Baroque and early classical pieces for harpsichord, bassoon, oboe and flute. The program shines a light on women from the era who were writing works as extraordinary as their male counterparts whose names and music are still remembered today.
Julia Harlow, Chamber Music Charleston’s harpsichordist and College of Charleston professor, first sparked the idea for the program after teaching a course about women composers from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.
Harlow said her students were most inspired by how these women overcame hardships for their art to be recognized and appreciated.
“For some women, that was prejudice by the men in their lives or sometimes even abuse,” Harlow said. “Some of the composers had physical limitations, like one woman who was blind and devised a composition board with pegs to represent notes. There’s a lot to be discovered. I think there will be more music coming to light in the coming years.”
When it came to putting the May 31 program together with Nikolajevs, Harlow said she found that very few women were writing music for oboe and bassoon in the 17th and 18th centuries, primarily because of the way the instruments contort musicians’ faces when blown.
“It was really just considered a man’s instrument and kind of unseemly for a woman to play,” Harlow said.
Nevertheless, Nikolajevs and Harlow found sonatas and concertos written by Duchess Anna Amalia of Saxe Weimar, Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia and “virtuosa di musica di camera” Anna Bon to include on the program alongside works by J.S. Bach and Vivaldi.
“If you close your eyes, you can’t tell if it’s Vivaldi or Anna Bon, or Bach or Anna Amalia,” Nikolajevs said. “So I thought, why not put a program together where we can have all those composers together, play them indiscriminately and see what comes out.”
The performers will also share historical anecdotes about music in between pieces to engage listeners with just as much education as entertainment.
“Not in a dry, boring lecture way, more like a conversation with the other musicians to the audience!” Nikolajevs reassured.
Hints of familiarity
The second concert, Capturing the American Spirit, pairs Antonín Dvořák’s acclaimed “American” String Quartet with pieces by underrepresented composers H.T. Burleigh, Florence Price and William Grant Still, who shaped the sound of late Romantic and 20th-century era United States.
For some audience members, the piece will sound familiar.
“It’s almost like pop culture in the string quartet world. It’s just the best,” said violinist Jenny Weiss. She added she was looking forward to performing with her husband, violist Ben Weiss. “Anytime we get to play it, I’m always really excited. Dvořák’s music is like a painting of the sounds from the open plains of America.”
Though the Czech composer was from Bohemia, violist Ben Weiss said Dvořák immersed himself in America.
“Dvořák would spend his summers in Iowa, so you can imagine the openness,” Ben Weiss said.
With its references to American songbirds, trains and folk tunes, there is a cultural richness in the quartet’s sound and story. Dvořák took particular interest and inspiration from African American music while director of the National Conservatory in New York City. There he met baritone singer H.T. Burleigh who introduced Dvořák to spirituals and hymns.
“It’s really Burleigh’s influence that really created that sound we are all so familiar with in Dvořák.” Jenny Weiss said.
Burleigh’s “Southland Sketches,” arranged for string quartet, highlight blues harmonies and expressive spiritual melodies, allowing audiences to hear the early sound of American classical music.
“We’ve performed parts of it before, and it’s gorgeous,” Jenny Weiss said, “but neither of us have played the Price or Still yet.”
On the program is Price’s “String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor” and Still’s “Lyric Quartet.” Like the Weisses, some audience members will be experiencing these long-neglected composers for the first time. And there’s no better place to enjoy them than at Piccolo Spoleto.
Chamber Music Charleston is always ready for its loyal, local following and looks forward to the new faces of out-of-town Piccolo Spoleto visitors. Jenny Weiss said, “It’s special to get to represent Charleston and our theme to those who aren’t familiar with our city and how magical it is with arts and music.”
Nikolajevs encouraged guests to arrive early, explore the historical building and join the musicians for a small pre-concert reception.
“It’s like a big chamber music party,” she said. “We’ll have everyone surrounding us in this big hall, so I’m really looking forward to just being with the audience and enjoying this great music.”
IF YOU PLAN TO GO: 6 p.m. on May 31 and June 7, S.C. Society Hall, 72 Meeting St. Tickets are $25 for adults and $5 for students and are available online at citypapertickets.com.
Piper Starnes is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.
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