Well, it was the night we’ve all been waiting for. Given all the hints Wadsworth has dropped since Spoleto 09 began, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Geoff Nuttall — the St. Lawrence String Quartet’s brilliant first violin — was crown prince. Still, it’s good to have the official announcement behind us. But this is supposed to be a concert review, so let me treat the evening’s assorted happenings in chronological order.
Mayor Riley trod the boards first to deliver a heartfelt tribute to the retiring master and call him to the stage. Enter King Charles, with one of the biggest bunches of classy musicians he’s ever brought to the Memminger, for a sparkling go at J.S. Bach’s bubbly, but brainy double violin concerto in D minor. Soloists were Nuttall and his wife Livia Sohn. Their all-star “orchestra” consisted of violinists Scott St. John and Daniel Phillips, violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Chris Costanza, with Ana Maria Fonseca on harpsichord, and the Charleston Symphony’s principal Ed Allman on double bass. It was probably the speediest and most vivacious performance of this masterpiece I’ve ever heard; Nuttall and Sohn glittered and glowed nonstop.
Then we melted to an incredibly tender and luminous rendition of Maurice Ravel’s poignant Pavane for a Dead Princess, courtesy of viola sorceress Hsin-Yun Huang and Wadsworth himself at the piano. And he stuck to his Steinway for the next three short numbers, all of them his own compositions for soprano and assorted instruments: flute (Tara Helen O’Connor) and violin (Chee-Yun). Our singer was soprano supreme Courtenay Budd. The first two numbers — Song without Words and Vocalise — offered soft and flowing textures, with what sounded like pastoral southern charm (hey, he’s a country boy from Georgia).
With no words to sing, Budd spun out her ravishing tones as “oohs” and “ahs,” plus some tender humming. The last of them, Spanish Steps (also wordless), offered piquant Iberian flavors, with the performers tossing trills back and forth between flute and voice. But a happy shock came at the end, when clarinetist Todd Palmer (also quite the jokester) came stomping out in a mock-Flamenco dance, and with a flower clenched between his teeth instead of his usual licorice stick. Olé!
Wadsworth has always been fond of jazz, so the final set before intermission featured spiffy arrangements for piano and string quartet of jazz standards by Dizzy Gillespie (A Night in Tunisia), Irving Berlin (What’ll I Do? for solo piano) and Joe Zawinul (Birdland). Performing were pianist (also arranger) Stephen Prutsman and the SLSQ. Wadsworth sat to the side, bobbing his head and tapping his toes as the cool sounds washed over us.
After halftime, the festival’s general director Nigel Redden took the stage to deliver the big but unspurprising news that Geoff Nutall was taking over as director of chamber music. Nuttall offered a short and humble acceptance speech before taking his seat for the evening’s final music: César Franck’s wild, woolly, and ultra-passionate Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor. Joining the SLSQ was special guest performer and piano god Jean-Yves Thibaudet, whose appearances here as an 18-year-old during the festival’s early years helped propel him to stardom. And they were simply spectacular.
Nuttall’s been not only crown prince, but clown prince, too. For years, he’s shared his mentor’s reverence for his art as well as his unstuffy and endearingly nutty approach to it. The man knows how to work a crowd, to boot. But when he sits down to play, he’s a devastatingly deep and engaging musician, too. His vivid violin sounds like no other I’ve ever heard. I’m here to tell you that Spoleto’s cherished chamber series is in good hands.
No room here for all the repartee, reminiscences, and wry reportage that we heard from Wadsworth and company on this glorious night. I’ll be blogging about all that in due course, plus more about Nuttall. And don’t forget, Wadsworth isn’t done with us yet: he’s still in charge for the festival’s final week.
But I can’t resist dropping at least one of his evening’s comic jewels. When asked by a fan what he plans on doing after his retirement, he listed a few serious options: like composing more, spending more time with his grandchildren, and going to movies with his wife. “But,” he added, “I’ve also been thinking of becoming a window-dresser for Victoria’s Secret.”
On to the posh, dessert-and-champagne reception afterwards — where we all got to play “grip-and-grin” with more famous musicians than I’ve ever seen before in one place. Despite its bittersweet overtones, the entire evening was a totally fabulous celebration, both Wadsworth and Nuttall deserved every minute of it.