Reviews from Spoleto -- Chamber Music VI gets H.O.T. - HOT! with Cellist Christopher Costanza & Was that the Cast of The Office onstage?

St. Lawrence String Quartet I think everyone was concerned about how the Spoleto Chamber Music Series would fare once its founder the beloved Charles Wadsworth said goodbye. After seeing Geoff Nutall in action at my first chamber concert since Wadsworth’s leaving, I don’t think anyone is the least bit worried any more. (The cool-yet-sad thing? Wadsworth was in the audience and—as we learned Saturday afternoon—he will play his final public performance on the stage in the last of the series’ concerts later this week.) Nutall owned the stage offering clever banter and pertinent information in such a casual, stand-up comedy style that the audience giggled and laughed. And these audiences aren’t always the laughing and giggling types.

Charles Wadsworth

The Saturday program (Program VI) offered Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano featuring  St. Lawrence String Quartet’s (Nutall’s group) cellist Christopher Costanza, followed by Ginastera’s Duo for Flute and Oboe with the glorious Tara Helen O’Connor and James Smith, and finally Beethoven’s String Quartet in E Major, Opus 59, no. 1 performed beautifully by the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

Before the concert, Nutall shared with the audience, via a letter written by Debussy, how much the composer hated being clumped in with the Impressionists of his era—he resented the whole extrapolation of a visual arts genre to music. This piece was written in 1914, just four years before his death of cancer in 1918. Debussy had planned for 6 sonatas but was only able to complete 3 including this sonata for cello.

Dock Street Theatre

OK, this is a little intimate here, but to my recollection my mind has never wondered to sex while attending a chamber music concert—until Saturday afternoon. There was something about watching Costanza and his relationship with his cello that was easily evocative of a person in the throes of pleasure. His face was beautifully expressive; his fingers, agile; his expertly calculated bowing with long and efficient strokes, delicious. Oh my.

And the music was nice, too.

Christopher Costanza

Here’s the funny thing. Costanza, though certainly more attractive, looks more than a little like the character of Toby the PR person from the recently ended sit-com series, The Office. Keep this in mind. We’ll come back to it after we address the Duo for Flute and Oboe which was awe-inspiring. Tara Helen O’Connor is a master of the flute—her intonation somehow simultaneously lightly delicate while also being intense. She and her partner for this concert, James Smith—who looks a lot like Seth Meyers from SNL—demonstrated a practically perfect interplay as they called to and answered one another, locking eyes for the final few notes of the duo and ending in an authentic embrace. It was resplendent.

The final number for the concert required that the entire St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ) come to the stage. This musical group is like no other quartet in their commitment to all aspects of musical interpretation—facial, physical, etc. (I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them play many times before; one of the most memorable being in 2003 at the Joyce Theatre in NYC when the quartet accompanied Pilobolus Dance Theatre for the premiere of My Brother’s Keeper, performing Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 Op. 110. The quartet also performed (unaccompanied by choreography) a piece by Jonathan Berger called Eli Eli (In Memory of Daniel Pearl.))

According to Nutall, with this string quartet Beethoven took classical music by the collar and threw it into the Romantic era, writing it in a way that would dare amateurs to try to play it. The complexity and difficulty of the piece was not lost on the audience in the Dock Street Theatre. Nor was the excitement of the accomplishment of such a difficult piece lost on the quartet whose engagement with the music is nothing short of thrilling. As usual, it was all Nutall could do to stay in his seat.

Geoff Nuttall

As mentioned previously, Nutall is a bit of a character. Sort of floppy haired at times with a wardrobe that looks like anything except what you would expect a first violinist in a Grammy-nominated, internationally renowned string quartet (the group is in residence at Stanford University) to look. On this particular day he wore a long sleeved shiny shirt, oddly patterned, and looking like something Michael Scott (also from The Office) might wear. When he called his colleagues onto stage it wasn’t difficult to see a family-television resemblance with Scott St. John playing the role of Dwight Shrute, Leslie Robertson playing Angela and, of course, Chris Costanza playing the part of a somewhat amorous Toby.

Even with Wadsworth watching from the audience, the Spoleto Chamber Music Series continues to be a culturally significant hoot—always full of surprises. Highly recommend.

Scott St. John aka Dwight Shrute


Leslley Robertson who looks more like Pam in this photo but on Saturday afternoon looked decidely like Angela


From Spoleto: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater -- A Review

In the history of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater only three people have claimed the title of artistic director: Ailey himself, who founded the company in 1958; Judith Jamison, who danced under Ailey and took over upon his death in 1989; and, Robert Battle, who claimed the title less than one year ago upon the retirement of Jamison. Make no mistake, there has been some chatter in the larger dance community about how well Battle will perform in his new role, (and whether he should have that role at all, given that he has never officially danced with  the company -- though he has set extensive choreography on the company and served as guest artist under Ailey himself.) But, if the company's performance at the International Spoleto Festival 2012 is any indication of how comfortable Battle is in his new role, I don't think dance audiences have a lot to worry about. If only three words could be used to describe the Saturday night performance at Charleston, SC's Gaillard auditorium, inspired, testosterone-heavy, and respectful are the one's Jasper would use. Battle started the evening off with an inspired performance of Minus 16, choreographed by Ohad Naharin. It's an odd concept and odd, but psychically satisfying, choreography. The piece begins with a lone dancer on stage, essentially just goofing off, or doodling around, dancing here and there in what appears to be an improvisational manner  -- the house lights are still up and theatre doors open, and audience members think the guy is  just there to entertain them while they wait on the show to start. The only thing is that, once the show starts, he doesn't leave. In fact, he is joined on stage by more people -- and they are all dressed just like him in dark dapper suits, white shirts, and hats. We soon discover that the performance started long before we thought it did. There are many interesting movements to the piece, a particularly moving segment involving a semi-circular cannon of large, African dance-inspired movements  known as (“Echad Mi Yodea” or “Who Knows One?”). Minus 16 is made up of this and three other pieces of choreography by Naharin, who trained at and eventually became artistic director of Israel's Batsheva Dance Company.

But what was so inspiring about the performance was a surprising segment during which all 20 dancers descended into the audience and chose a dance partner to bring back onto the stage with them. Typically, we don't care for this kind of "audience participation" -- usually finding it not only annoying but a bit of a gyp, if you will, given the price of tickets these days. But this night, something at least fascinating, if not magical, happened.  Of the 20 amateur dancers taken from the audience there were various levels of discomfort and bravado exhibited -- some people were clearly coerced into dancing, others were delighted to participate and boogied or twisted, and sometimes bumped and ground, their hearts out. But one elderly lady, dressed attractively in white slacks and a bright yellow sweater, took her place in the middle of the couples and, well, she owned the stage. Her movements were amateurish, but appropriate. Her body language was restrained, but open. What was so amazing was the almost euphoric comfort she seemed to feel on stage.

When the first act was over, audience members hit the lobby with  huge smiles and intense cases of the warm fuzzies.

The second act of the night consisted of two testosterone-heavy examples of Battle's choreography, Takademe from 1999 and The Hunt from 2001. The overtly rhythmic Takademe, features a single male dancer, in this case, Yannick Lebrun, and is set to the music, Speaking in  Tongues II, by Sheila Chandra. Rarely is choreography so intensely music driven -- the dance itself seemed almost secondary to the lyrics of the music. The Hunt is another male-centered piece featuring six men in samurai-style skirts reminiscent of Martha Graham costuming. Though neither of Battle's pieces were terribly challenging, they were both powerful and inordinately athletic.

The final piece of the night, as usual for a Charleston performance, was the classic from the Ailey rep, Revelations, and, also as usual, it was glorious. Divided into three movements, Revelations was first produced in 1960 as a tribute to the strength and tenacity of African-Americans' faith and an homage to Black history in the US.  The dance features music from gospels and blues, and an amalgam of technically sophisticated choreography and a folksy brand of movement that makes the audience members churn in their seats. The final movement, Move, Members, Move with its 16 dancers clad in yellow costumes and hats and fans was just as breathtaking this weekend as it has been all three times this reviewer has witnessed it.

Welcome Robert Battle to Alvin Ailey Dance -- somehow we feel that the best is yet to come.