The Haydn string quartets "are the greatest music ever composed," announced Geoff Nuttall at the start of the first of the Spoleto Chamber series concert. And the string quartet the St. Lawrence String Quartet of which Nuttall is first violinist then proceeded to play (Op. 76, No. 2) is very good indeed. And the second piece, a tour de force - or farce - for solo flute, "Great Train Race" by Ian Clark is indeed fun. But the closer - Concerto for violin, piano and string quartet by Ernest Chausson was the star of the concert. Chausson was a late 19th century French Romantic composer who was quite popular, but died young and didn't write all that much.
The piece is not really a concerto - it's more of a duet for violin and piano with the quartet serving a supporting role. One thing for certain is is an amazing work - lush and lovely but never sweet and sticky, powerful but not just for the sake of flexing muscles, and complex but never showy.
Pianist Inon Barnatan and violinist Livia Sohn were perfectly matched with the work and with one another.
Lucky for me, I was sitting in the second row of the Dock Street Theatre on their side of the stage so I got to see every stroke of her bow and every movement of his fingers on the keyboard.
Nuttall is in his third year hosting the series, (a role he inherited from series founder Charles Wadsworth), and he's settled into it well. He reminds one of a favorite professor sharing his knowledge and his enthusiasm, (he'd also rank as the coolest professor and best dresser.) This year he even gave out his email address from stage.
Last year, for the first time, the program for the chamber series was announced in advance. Nuttall's concern with doing this was that people would see names of composers and works they didn't know and stay away.
"Tomorrow you see we're doing Foote and Beach - who the hell are they? You may thinks 'Oh it's probably modern and noisy.' If you have any fear or questions about things we're doing email me," he said. And then he gave out his email. Some of the audience members may have thought he was joking, but he really did give them his real email address. (That said, he didn't repeat it several times.) That's a pretty bold and admirable thing to do.
While Nuttall's demeanor is a breath of fresh air, the more educational aspects of this first concert went on a bit long. His explanation of what Haydn had done with the most simple building blocks ("He's thumbing his nose at everyone else who was making music," he pointed out regarding Op. 76, No. 2) was terrific but then he went on for several more minutes.
After Tara Helen O'Connor had played the "Great Train Race," which you might have guessed involved making a lot of train sounds with the flute, he had her come out and demonstrate several of the techniques. Several too many.
Making classical music more accessible and understandable is to be commended. More and more musicians are speaking from the stage about the music and some even integrate a narration into concerts. They aren't often very good at it and even through Nuttall is one of the best at this, even he can go on a bit.
Sometimes its best just to play the tune.
- Jeffrey Day