Geoff Nuttall and his wonderful colleagues pulled out all the stops in Saturday’s first outing of the series’ final program, offering two meaty magnum opuses that required eight or more players, with a brace of spirited piano dances in between.
Geoff and company “went for Baroque” one last time, but not until he had greeted his audience with his usual string of funnybone-ticklers. Like, “Today, we are celebrating not only our final program but the marvelous Dock Street Theatre, especially the terrific air conditioning system,” as he mopped his brow.
“You’ve done a great job,” rang out a male voice suddenly from the audience as Geoff spoke further of the joys of this year’s chamber series, giving thanks where they were due.
“What was it, 20 bucks that I owe you for that?” retorted Geoff spontaneously.
The opening work was another complete orchestral work from the immortal J.S. Bach (we got his fifth Brandenburg concerto a few programs back). This time, his Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, essentially a seven-section French-style dance suite disguised as a flute concerto. I won’t fill up the page with the names of all 11 performers — you’ve heard them all before. But I’ve got to mention flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, whom Charles Wadsworth dubbed “the fastest tongue in the West” some years back. And she lived up to it here, with glittering playing that did full justice to the old master.
Our musicians did very well overall in this one, but there can be benefits to sometimes attending the later performances of some of these programs, because by then, they’ve rehearsed any given piece more thoroughly and performed it once or twice already. I say this because Saturday’s performance of the piece took awhile to come together completely; it wasn’t until the final three movements that everything gelled, and you knew that the music was dead-on. Not that there were any glaring problems; the opening sections simply weren’t quite as solid or as cohesive as they could’ve been. But the next-to-last ‘Menuet’ — and especially the famous final ‘Badinerie,’ with its blithely scampering flute — were absolutely perfect.
Enter duo-pianists Pedja Musijevic and Inon Barnatan for a memorable go at four of Johannes Brahms’ perky and playful Hungarian Dances, his most wildly popular compositions during his lifetime. They made Brahms fairly rich, and he squeezed every penny he could out of them, arranging them in four different versions: for solo piano, violin and piano, and orchestra, plus the piano four-hands incarnations heard here. Inon and Pedja proceeded to burn up the keyboard, producing exciting and well-tailored accounts of dances Nos. 6, 4, 3 and 5 that the crowd clearly loved. Yes, the pickiest listeners caught a muffed note or two here and there, but that didn’t take away from an altogether exhilarating and enjoyable performance.
And again, Geoff saved the best for last. Felix Mendelssohn was one of history’s most brilliant prodigies. His scintillating (and very tricky) Octet for Strings, written when he was only 16, is universally acclaimed as one of the greatest chamber works we have. Like Geoff told us, “It’s remarkable not just because he was 16, but because it’s so darned good.” You don’t hear this one very often in concert, simply because it’s hard to find eight string players at any given place and time who are good enough to handle it.
Our players, all from the global A-list, tore into the piece with tremendous vigor and flair, taking their lucky listeners along on a headlong, careening musical ride. After catching their breath in the lovely (and slower) second movement, they gave us the piece’s miraculous scherzo: a blithe and elfin stretch of scurrying music that has always been the work’s greatest challenge, as the composer called not only for playing at top speed, but at an ethereally soft and quiet dynamic as well. And our musical magicians gave it the speediest and quietest performance I’ve ever heard before – creating exquisite, gossamer string textures that enchanted and exhilarated. You could almost sense the crowd holding their collective breath from start to finish, exhaling only after the final, nearly inaudible notes. And the canonically-built finale charged on from there to the piece’s blazing finish.
Wow. What a way to end this most cherished and popular of Spoleto’s assorted series.