The cult of Wadsworth

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People have asked for my opinion of Tim Page's comment on the chamber music series. It ran Friday. Page said he would like to know what's going to be performed at Memminger Auditorium before he gets to the theater. As it is, the program is announced on a chalkboard located at the theater's entrance.

Some have called Page's comment mere griping. Others have said it's a first-timer comment. Anyone who goes to see chamber music curated by Charles Wadsworth, something he's done since the beginning of Spoleto, knows how it goes. It seems a bit daft, some say, for a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic to complain.

I think everyone is right. Page is right. And Page's critics are right. I have mentioned often that not knowing what's going to be on a program is irritating. I was at the concert Page talks about, the one featuring the work of an obscure Finnish composer named Bernhard Crusell. "Bernhard who?" Page wrote, giving voice to pretty much everyone in the audience. (I know this, because Wadsworth asked the audience who among us had heard of Crusell; surprisingly, a couple of hands went up.)

I think Page should have been more judicious in his comment, which undermined a bit his otherwise spot-one criticism thus far in the festival. But I understand why he said it. Anyway, there is an issue here, but it's not the "daily specials"-style chalkboard that Page refers to.

The issue at hand is the cult of Wadsworth.

No doubt there are some logistical reasons why Wadsworth keeps the chamber music programming under wraps until performance time. He has to get the right people in sync with the right repertoire — and get all of that in line with the busy schedules of these internationally known musicians.

But another reason for the embargo on programs is Wadsworth's reputation. He doesn't need to announce them. Over the course of 30-plus years of curating the chamber music series, he has built a following of devoted fans, people who are willing to pack the Memminger time and again.

They are willing to go wherever he wants to go. They have no qualms about sitting through a clarinet quintet by a no-name Finnish composer. They don't mind, as Page writes, that neither Wadsworth nor his heir apparent, associate artistic director of chamber music Geoff Nuttall, bothered to mention Crusell's first name. The more they hold back, the more their followers want to know.

Wadsworth's achievement in spreading the gospel of chamber music can't be overstated. Nor can the appeal of his personality to audiences eager to gain entry to this art form (Wadsworth has been called "folksy" and "a character" by Dan Wakin of The New York Times and by Page of the Post and Courier, somewhat condescending descriptions both). Even so, Wadsworth's achievement and personality may at this point have calcified into cult-like form.

A problem with a cult of personality is that everything hinges on the object of the cult, namely Wadsworth. He is the center that holds. If he isn't there, things will fall apart.

Another problem is that a cult of personality excludes as much as it includes — the more Wadsworth holds back, the more his followers want, which in turns encourages him to hold back even more. But this cycle of co-dependence is likely to discourage newbies from bothering to pay the membership fee. Case in point is Page's comment. If he's thinking that, no doubt many, many others are, too.

This isn't a problem for Wadsworth. But it is for chamber music. Wadsworth turned 79 last week. He looks frail. He told us at the first chamber program that his wife fell and broke her wrist on King Street. Time is catching up with Wadsworth and it might be catching up with his chamber series, too.

So it's heartening to see that Nuttall has been named associate artistic director, a title that signals his status as heir apparent. The challenge for Nuttall, if he inherits Wadsworth's mantle, will be refreshing his ranks. Like I said, a cult depends of the personality it's devoted to. What will happen to the chamber music series without its patron saint? How will a new director revitalize an audience whose median age is somewhere between that of Page and that of Wadsworth?

Nuttall is a fine choice as heir apparent. He is good-looking, charismatic, and hugely talented as the first violinist of the superb St. Lawrence String Quartet, Spoleto's ensemble in residence for many years. He is familiar to Wadsworth's audience. He seems able to meet the challenge. Even so, time will tell.

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