Wednesday morning’s fourth chamber program at the Memminger offered both obscure and well-known jewels of the repertoire, plus delightful doses of wit, wisdom, and useful knowledge from Charles Wadsworth.
Things got started with a frothy little novelty by Giovanni Bottesini: a contemporary of Verdi who was both a prominent conductor and a remarkable virtuoso of the double bass. He left a number of flashy showpieces for his instrument that are melodramatic and highly entertaining, while making no claim to depth or substance. One such number is his Grand Duo, for violin, double bass and piano.
Delivering its three short movements were the young DB virtuoso Anthony Manzo and crack violinist Daniel Phillips, with Wadsworth at the Steinway. While Phillips had just as much (if not more) fancy playing to do as Manzo, you simply wouldn’t believe the sounds and effects that he got out of an instrument that you’d never think of as a vehicle for virtuosity. We got all kinds of trills, high-speed runs, and arpeggios plus other tricks you had to hear to believe. And Manzo spent a lot of time at the top of his bass fiddle’s register, producing wispy high notes you’d never expect from it.
Charles then went out of his way to heap scorn upon the music they’d just delivered. Like, “That’s no doubt the first — AND the last — time you’ll ever hear that piece.” And, “Mozart (who came next) composed on a somewhat more exalted level than Botttesini.” The man can drip sarcasm like a leaky faucet. But the number made for a darned good show, and he knew it. That’s why they call them showpieces.
On to the Mozart: his enchanting Flute Quartet in the happy key of D Major (K. 285) – which he wrote at the age of 21. In the all-star performing lineup were Phillips (violin), Hsin-Yun Huang (viola), Chris Costanza (cello), and Tara Helen O’Connor (flute).
From the quality and charm of this music, you’d never know that Mozart never much liked the flute. Even so, he sure knew how to write for it. The opening movement was snappy and sunny, radiating robust good spirits. The short slow movement was a miracle of exquisite, slightly sad flute-singing that floated over a tapestry of gently plucked strings. And it led straight into the final rondo’s joyful tumble.
While getting set up for the final number, Wadsworth offered a rambling discourse in an effort to dispel what he called “certain misconceptions” about his series. Recalling how his early years in Charleston often featured very young and totally unknown artists who went on to fame and fortune (folks like Yo-Yo Ma, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Peter Serkin, and Joshua Bell), people have often persisted in believing that the series continues that tradition of “springboarding” obscure young talent to stardom.
But while that has still happened occasionally in more recent years, Wadsworth hastened to assure us that just about every musician he’s brought to Charleston lately is an established “star” — somebody who’s already at the top of his or her particular niche in the classical music world. As proof, he went on to cite the exalted credentials of several of his current crew. And he spoke the truth. He further mused lovingly of the “family” atmosphere his musicians thrive on while they’re here — and of the tremendous fun and fulfillment they bring each other.
I’ve got news for you, Charles (he finally told me to call him that this year). You make us — your listeners — feel like we’re family, too. That’s why we love you.
But it wasn’t over yet. After making yet another brief but emphatic fuss over his “most famous and distinguished associate director,” Wadsworth called Geoff Nuttall and the rest of his St. Lawrence crew onto the stage, where Nuttall proceeded to tell us about the program’s final number: Maurice Ravel’s miraculous String Quartet in F Major: his only one.
Nuttall recounted the story of the letter from Claude Debussy (whose own quartet served as Ravel’s model) telling him not to change a single note after his teacher, Gabriel Faure, had disparaged parts of the work. He then proceeded, with Scott St. John’s help, to briefly demonstrate how strings players produce the different kinds of tone color called for in the work.
They then served up the delicious music, bringing out the first movement’s sense of nostalgia with particular poignancy and glowing sound. The pizzicato-laced scherzo was sheer, elfin magic, and the slow movement, with its lovely solo viola lines, just about had me in tears. Then they tore into the manic finale, keeping us on the edge of our seats.
Speaking of seat edges, you may recall my past musings about Nuttall’s exuberant performing demeanor: his restless “footsie dance” as he plays, plus looking like he’s about to levitate out of his seat at any moment. (As a fellow critic once wrote, “the man needs a seat belt.”) Well, his style must’ve rubbed off on his colleague Scott St. John, who literally lurched out of his chair at one climactic point in the score. But then, this group’s visible excitement as they perform is one of the perennial joys of the St. Lawrence experience.
Folks, it simply doesn’t get any better than this.