The chamber music series at the Spoleto Festival usually aims to provide the widest possible range of music — audience and musician favorites, hidden gems of the past and newer music, and works that play on the strengths of the musicians. This year, the series has all that in spades.
The music performed during the 17-day, 11-program, and 33-concert series will cover 299 years of music composed between 1714 and May 2013. The youngest performer is 24, the oldest 84. Newcomers include pianist Pavel Kolesnikov (he's the 24-year-old) and Steven Schick, the first percussionist to play in the series. The musicians will play Brahms, Bach, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and series director Geoff Nuttall's favorite Haydn, but also John Cage — another first for the series — and a brand new work by a 27-year-old composer. The St. Lawrence Quartet will be on stage again as it has been since 1995, but so will the Brentano Quartet, which is making its festival debut. Series founder Charles Wadsworth (the 84-year-old) will give his last public performance at the final concert.
"We're going from the Baroque period to the modern," says Nuttall, violinist with the St. Lawrence Quartet. "For me it's always a balancing act — what I'm excited about, what people want to hear, what we want to play."
Bringing in another quartet is something Nuttall has wanted to do since he took over the series four years ago. Brentano has always been at the top of the list, since Brentano and St. Lawrence were formed around the same time, the members know one another and have played together.
"If there was any way I could finagle to get them, I wanted to do it," Nuttall says.
He had a couple of musical carrots to tempt them with. The quartet is performing with competitors at the Van Cliburn International Piano Festival in early June, so Nuttall and the group agreed they'd play the Antonín Dvorak and Brahms piano quintets they'll play at Van Cliburn. They also get to perform a string quintet by Franz Schubert with series regular Alisa Weilerstein, a coupling Nuttall calls "a dream match."
Brentano, named for Antonie Brentano, who was thought to be Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved," was formed in 1992. The quartet became part of Chamber Music Society Two at Lincoln Center its inaugural year in '96 and won the Royal Philharmonic Award for Most Outstanding Debut the next year. They're the quartet-in-residence at Princeton University. The group gained widespread attention last year when their performing was featured in the movie A Late Quartet starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken.
"This is something we've been trying to make happen for a long time," says Misha Amory, Brentano violist. He and Nuttall have known one another for 20 years. Amory's wife, violist Hsin-Yun Huang, has been performing in the Spoleto series for several years.
"She's raved about the festival and Charleston for years," Amory says, but he's never even been to the festival or seen his wife perform there. He has usually stayed home minding their two children, and even though both are playing this year, neither will be there at the same time.
Composer Samuel Adams attended Stanford University, where St. Lawrence has long been in residence, and although he didn't know them well then, they crossed paths. He's the son of John Adams, composer of the operas Nixon in China, Death of Klinghoffer, and Dr. Atomic, and he has also written several works for the St. Lawrence Quartet.
Last year the younger Adams wrote a piece for the Academy, a development program for young players backed by Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School, and the Weill Institute of Music, and sent it to Nuttall. "He called me the next day and was excited about it," Adams says. Early this year they worked out the details for Adams to write a piece for the group and come to the festival.
Adams recently came into the spotlight with his Drift and Providence for orchestra and live electroacoustic processing, performed by the New World Symphony and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra last year. The piece for St. Lawrence has four short movements (and maybe five) that tap into classical music idioms like a "wild remixed minuet" and "reimagined chorale," all "maintaining the weird energy that's my own," he says.
Adams isn't the only promising talent Nuttall has recently encountered and courted for Spoleto. Last year he performed with Pavel Kolesnikov at the Honens International Piano Competition in Canada. "He was amazing," Nuttall says. The competition judges thought so as well and gave Kolesnikov the $100,000 top prize.
Kolesnikov will play Brahms' Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 with the Brentano String Quartet and Maurice Ravel's La Valse for two pianos with festival regular Pedja Muzijevic.
Charles Wadsworth, who turned 84 this month, will perform one of his favorite pieces, Francis Poulenc's Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano, at the final concert in what will be his last public performance.
"I was with him at a party and he said 'I'm playing well, but I'm going to retire from playing and I want my last performance to be in Charleston,'" Nuttall says. "He knows the piece so well and it will be fun."
Having an unknown young pianist playing beside Wadsworth — the man who started the chamber series at the Festival Dui Monde in Spoleto, Italy in 1960, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1969, and the Spoleto series in 1977 — exemplifies what chamber music is all about, Nuttall says.
"With chamber music, age and fame don't matter," Nuttall says. "When you're on stage, everyone is totally equal."