Photo by William Struhs

On some levels, Spoleto Festival USA’s chamber music programming will look very similar this year. The Dock Street Theatre will still host 11 programs three times apiece, each featuring various configurations of world-class musicians playing tightly curated programs of old and new music. Geoff Nuttall will still be the garrulous host, and the St. Lawrence String Quartet will still be a major presence.

But those 33 performances will be a good bit shorter, capping out at an hour. And fewer people will be able to experience them live: Social distancing has resulted in just 116 available Dock Street seats this year, compared with the usual 452.

As a result, all 33 programs sold out weeks ago, but the festival has set up other ways to partake of the concerts. Excerpts, each roughly 15 minutes long, will be posted on the Spoleto website through June 18. And for those who would prefer to hear the entire program, South Carolina Public Radio will broadcast each concert on the show Sonatas and Soundscapes weekdays at 11 a.m., beginning Friday, June 4. 

Nuttall, a violinist in the St. Lawrence String Quartet and the director of the chamber music program since 2009, referred to this year’s preparations as a moving target, with constant adaptations to new protocols. 

But, he insists, “Everything has changed for the better.” 

Notably absent are a half dozen or so European musicians who were invited to attend the 2020 festival before the COVID-19 shutdown and asked back this year. Once it became clear that they would not be allowed into the United States, however, the festival had to rehire and rebook and reassess. 

Nuttall said one of the silver linings this year is that Chamber Music will have the Dock Street to itself. The musicians typically share the space with concurrent Spoleto programming, usually plays or operas, but now can rehearse whenever they want. (And with six world premieres this year, that time will come in handy.) 

Even with social distancing, the theater will be filled to capacity – sort of. Nuttall said the empty seats will be filled with cutouts of famous composers. The plan is to give out prizes to the audience members sitting next to Bach and certain other familiar (or not-so-familiar) faces.

Each year’s programming includes a mix of familiar faces and new arrivals. Composer and violist Jessica Meyer, who is known for her use of a loop pedal with her viola, will make her Spoleto debut this year. She has written two new pieces for the festival but will also perform two earlier songs, including one for her and her loop pedal. 

One of Meyer’s premieres was written for the St. Lawrence String Quartet to celebrate its 25th year at the festival. The song, “She Sailed the Savage Seas,” is about Anne Bonny, a female pirate who was born in Ireland and eventually moved with her family to Charleston. The other new work, “From Our Ashes,” was written for violinist and Spoleto mainstay Livia Sohn, who recently paused her musical career due to the neurological disorder focal dystonia. Meyer took into account Sohn’s specific abilities and limitations when she wrote it. 

Meyer recently participated in remote workshops with HEART, an inclusive arts program in Charleston for adults with disabilities, as part of Spoleto’s community outreach efforts. She had written a piece about joy, and the participants wrote poems about what joy means to them. After sharing their poems with her, they gave her a sense of how she should play while they read their poems. 

“And because Zoom has gotten so good, we could hear both simultaneously, and that was super special,” Meyer said. “We created these short pieces that had poetry and music together, between New York and Charleston.” Meyer said some Chamber Music artists typically arrive a few days early and perform – or, in this case, record virtually – concerts for different local schools and organizations. 

Meyer, who has spent years teaching kids and adults how to access their own creativity, said the pandemic has paved the way for her and others to find new ways to do effective community engagement virtually.

This year’s Chamber Music program will include several Spoleto veterans, including countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, oboist James Austin Smith and pianist Inon Barnatan, performing fare ranging from Mozart to Schubert to Osvaldo Golijov to Ennio Morricone. “Most importantly we are back with these amazing musicians playing live music for real people,” Nuttall said. “It’s going to be tremendous.”

Emily Johnson is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications program at Syracuse University.