Wadsworth begins his Spoleto Swan Song

Doc W was in a rascally mood

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The festival’s first day got off to a great start for me Friday afternoon, with the first installment of 11 complete chamber music programs at the Memminger Auditorium. And Doc W was still up to his old tricks. My later event was, of course, opening night for Louise — this year’s only opera. I really dug it, too: check out my review right here.

Have you ever seen anybody engineer his own standing O?? You can imagine the warm applause as Wadsworth made his grand entrance (musicians in tow), but that wasn’t enough. Charles was in a rascally mood. He lost no time in whipping his crowd into a frenzy, drawing everybody to their feet with sweeping gestures, and then he stood in mock, open-mouthed surprise, clutching his hammy heart as he acknowledged the “spontaneous” ovation.

Then he announced that he had just turned 80 the previous da, and proceeded to “conduct” the audience as they sang the happy birthday song to him. And he was the perfect parody of a real conductor, using every melodramatic, hackneyed gesture you’ve ever seen from a podium. ‘Twas a real hoot, as usual.

But then Doc W and his friends got down to some serious music-making, with J.S. Bach’s C Major Trio Sonata, a wondrously lovely and cerebral item. The featured artists were flutist extraordinaire Tara Helen O’Connor, her fab fiddler husband Daniel Phillips, and cello champ Alisa Weilerstein, with Wadsworth himself at the harpsichord. As he eased slowly onto his bench, Wadsworth was overheard to mutter, “Except for my mind and body, I’m in great shape!”

While the music wasn’t funny, it was happy and animated — aside from the somber lyric beauty of the slow movements. The third movement’s triple fugue was a real brain-teaser. And, as the assorted instruments tossed themes back and forth in the joyful finale, I was almost shocked (as I am every year in this stellar series) at just how freaking magnificnet these musicians are.

From there, we heard a winning threesome of vocal pieces, courtesy of cherished returning soprano Courtenay Budd, along with a variety of instrumentalists. The first number was also by Bach: his famous “Sheep May Safely Graze,” with the same players, except for vivacious violin regular Chee-Yun taking Philips’ place, while sir Charles switched to piano. The second piece was “Le Bonheur et Chose Legere” by Camille Saint-Saens, with just violin and piano support (also the same players). Finally, Weilerstein and her choice cello replaced Chee-Yun for Amy Beach’s searing “Chanson d’Amour.” All of them are sublime masterpieces.

Ms. Budd offers the highest “goosebump” index of just about any soprano I’ve ever heard: I’ve been a rabid fan of hers for years. She packs her pure, silvery tone with almost too much emotion to bear. After she finished, I realized there were tears in my eyes — and that’s hardly the first time she’s done that to me.

The grand finale was a work I’ve never heard before: a “reduction” of Ernest Chausson’s wildly passionate Concerto for Violin and Piano. But instead of the usual string orchestra, the soloists (Chee-Yun, with fab pianist Anne-Marie McDermott) got their backup from the trusty St. Lawrence String Quartet (I’ll throw you their names in future blogs). The quality and excitement of the music was a real surprise to most of us, and both soloists got heavy workouts that pushed the limits of their virtuosity. The headlong “tres-animé” finale left us absolutely limp, and brought the house down. Wadsworth didn’t have to prompt the standing O for this one.

Among other gems that escaped Wadsworth’s lips (after casting faux-lecherous glances at the winsome young lady musicians to either side of him) was his sudden announcement, “I have decided to reveal to you that I am a heterosexual.” Thirty years in Charleston, and he can still find fresh ways to make us laugh. Gawd, how I’m gonna miss this warm, witty and wonderful man. But I’m not ready to grieve his departure just yet. Spoleto’s got two weeks to go.

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