It didn’t take a psychic to see that Charles Wadsworth had been grooming Geoff Nuttall for several years to take over the Spoleto Festival USA’s Chamber Music Series. Wadsworth was obviously nearing retirement, and he’d often turn the stage over to Nuttall to explain the musical selections of his St. Lawrence String Quartet to the audience. Not only did Nuttall share his mentor’s passion for chamber music, but he also took a delightfully laid-back approach to it. Still, their respective styles and brands of humor were often quite different.
Wadsworth was the festival’s wise and dignified but irreverent old grandpa whose musical judgment you could trust. Nuttall also proves his trustworthiness but in a completely different way. For one, he’s of a younger generation, and he uses the language and expressive devices of today, slang and all. He bounds on and offstage and positively crackles with energy and enthusiasm. His whimsical, uninhibited streak is much more pronounced.
That quality sank in most convincingly just last year, Nuttall’s first as the series music director, when I observed him tussling with his adorable little boy Jack, now four, in a Dock Street Theatre side room between shows. They darted madly about in a game of chase and ended up rolling around on the floor with lots of growling, giggling, tickling, and other distinctly undignified shenanigans. And he didn’t care who saw him. Now, lots of doting daddies tussle with their boys, but here he was in the dignified Dock Street totally oblivious to the people around him. It revealed his joyfully uninhibited personality. “Sometimes you’ve got to revert back to a kid’s level to fully appreciate their constant sense of wonder and how they learn,” he says. “It helps me to keep my own sense of wonder revved up.”
Quite a bit of that irrepressible nature comes across onstage in both his emcee role and his music-making, yet it never obscures his reverence for music in the slightest. His language may be trendy, his demeanor may be almost comedic, but there’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that he is just as committed to his art as Wadsworth was.
Spoleto Executive Director Nigel Redden considers it a very successful succession. “Geoff has done an absolutely brilliant job keeping things personal, conversational, and immediate,” he says. “But he’s given it a different dimension by conveying his personal excitement about the music. And there’s something special about a great musician explaining his reaction to a piece and what it means to perform it.”
Despite the newness of Nuttall in the role of Spoleto’s director of chamber music, the series remains largely unchanged. Many of the same musicians return year after year, and he continues to introduce rising artists. This year’s newbies include young oboe wiz James Smith and fledgling violist Carolyn Blackwell.
His musical choices are likewise well-balanced, but we can expect him to schedule a higher ratio of music by contemporary composers like Kaija Saariaho and Osvaldo Golijov, who will be the series’ composer-in-residence this year. In addition to new work by new composers, he also has plenty of the classics.
“I’m really pumped about the two ‘mini-festivals’ we’ll be running this year,” says Nuttall. One will offer some of Mozart’s choicest chamber pieces, and the other will be devoted to Schubert, featuring his profound “cello quintet” as well as his bubbly “Trout Quintet.”
Perhaps the biggest news this year is that all of the works comprising the series’ usual 11 programs, which have long been withheld from the public until performance day, will be listed well in advance on the festival’s website. In fact, they’re up now for all to see. Prospective attendees can make program choices in keeping with what they think they’ll like (or won’t). “It’s not necessarily a permanent policy change,” says Nuttall. “But people have complained about all the secrecy for a long time, so we decided to try it this way at least once and see what happens.”
Redden was even more emphatic about the switch. “Charles sought to preserve (Spoleto founder) Gian Carlo Menotti’s original policy for historical and traditional reasons. But today’s Spoleto USA is a very different festival than the Italian original. We’ve been considering the matter for many years, amid endless complaints. There are many reasons why it makes sense to give it a try.” While he hesitated to put a “permanent” stamp on what he called this “experiment,” he did add that, “Once we’ve made the change, it’s going to be hard to take it back.”
Lots of folks will indeed look back upon Wadsworth’s reign with nostalgia. But he didn’t take his series’ A-list artists and quality with him when he stepped down. And they’ve still got the Dock Street, known far and wide as perhaps the nation’s finest chamber music venue. And this new director has already brought new levels of energy, charisma, and sheer pizzazz to the proceedings. So what if he tests our musical mettle and sense of adventure with more new music than before? Bringing challenging and controversial art has always been a big part of what Spoleto’s all about. So let’s bear with him and see where he takes us.