Saturday, May 26, 2012

Spoleto: At home with chamber music

CHARLESTON -- "Welcome to our living room here at the Dock Street Theatre," Geoff Nuttall said. 

He was speaking figuratively. As he introduced Saturday morning's concert, Nuttall -- director of the chamber music series at the Spoleto Festival USA -- was onstage as usual. But onstage in the cozy, wood-paneled theater is the next best thing to a living room. That's one of the big reasons that the daily concerts are most always full: music, up close and personal. 

Nuttall, without getting up from his first-violin chair, chatted about and demonstrated high points of Haydn's "Quintet" Quartet before he and the rest of the St. Lawrence String Quartet plunged into it. After Tara Helen O'Connor played a sonic showpiece for flute -- a tone-painting of trains, believe it or not -- Nuttall brought her back to show how she created its sound effects. Switching to his extra-musical role of proud father, Nuttall came out at one point carrying his six-month-old baby. He admitted that it might've been a cheesy thing to do. But a chorus of oohs and ahs greeted him nonetheless. Can you get much homier than that? 

But the zesty performances -- in the first of this year's 11 chamber-music programs -- were what really made the setting count. Nuttall and company put over the drive and gusto of Haydn's quartet as readily as its airiness and lyricism. O'Connor pulled out the stops in Ian Clarke's "Great Train Race" -- spitting air through the flute to imitate the engines' first chugs, firing notes at machine-gun velocity as cruising speed arrived, letting fly with warning-whistle shrieks. Sometimes she even played harmony, which was one of the tricks she explained afterward (created by fingerings that would be wrong in ordinary music). 

The big finish was one of chamber music's fieriest works, Ernest Chausson's "Concert" for piano, violin and string quartet. It's sort of a mini-concerto: the violin and piano in the spotlight, the quartet subbing for the orchestra. If the size is scaled down, though, the drama sure isn't. 

The music is rich, bold and tempestuous, and everyone played it to the hilt.  Livia Sohn's violin solos were ardent, shapely and full. Inon Barnatan set loose cascades of sound from the piano. The quartet provided a sonorous foundation. In the one peaceful interlude -- the gently swinging second movement -- everyone eased up adroitly. And in the slow movement's quiet opening, the group's deep, smoldering sound suggested that more flareups were coming. And they sure did.