Fabulous, Unfathomable Chamber Finale

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Saturday’s concert marked the first time I’ve been able to catch every single festival chamber program — and the last time I’m likely to see our beloved Doc W onstage. It’s not that I didn’t dig chamber music before — but I have Charles and company to thank for making a true chamber geek of me. Nearly 20 years of off-and-on chamber concert attendance — plus 10 years of writing about them — has left me a true warrior amid the ranks of Chucktown’s rabid chamber fans. And those of you who read me year-round know just how hard I can fight for great music.

This final program — which ran through two Sunday performances — was the only predictable one, as we knew from the start that the series would bow out with Franz Schubert’s indescribably deep C Major “Cello Quintet,” per long-standing festival tradition (though the custom was discarded for awhile, in the years following founder Gian Carlo Menotti’s acrimonious split from Charleston’s side of Spoleto).

But we got more than just the Schubert, too. The program kicked off with Richard Strauss’s meaty, one-movement string sextet from his opera Capriccio (written late in the composer’s life) — in which the sextet is performed onstage as part of the opera. But before I get to that, let me drop a few final pearls of Wadsworthian lore — (sniffle, sob!) — the last chance I’ll get to do that for you.

Of course, the crowd greeted him (and his musicians) with a warm standing O as he shambled onstage — to which he quipped. “Was that for my color combination?” He began to introduce the music, stopping to refer to “Geoff, of whom I am the predecessor.” At one point, after Nuttall made a short comment (that I didn’t catch) to him, he puffed up in mock rage, shouting “How DARE you correct me!” He went on to rave about the music, explaining that it was the opera hero’s way of “wooing his lady love.”

With the music introduced, he then — sounding exasperated — proceeded to grumble about how his wife Susan has been bugging him about introducing EACH musician plus his/her instrument. So he proceeded to laboriously name each member of the ST. Lawrence Quartet (violins Nuttall and Scott St. John, violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Chris Costanza), plus extra violist Hsin-Yun Huang and bonus cellist Alisa Weilerstein (“That thing she’s got in front of her is a cello.”). That done, he turned to the crowd, calling out to Susan: “OK, Sweetheart?”

“Well done!” came her reply.

The music lived up to Charles’ effusive billing. It’s an incredibly deep and tender marvel that’s perhaps best described as an intense evocation of youth’s passion and love, viewed from the perspective of old age. The yearning, love-drenched music dripped incredible warmth and nostalgia — with only a few intrusions of bitterness or tension, before melting again into mellow, autumnal serenity. Our players — with their reinforced low end (doubled violas & cellos) — gave it a beautifully dark-toned reading: rich and rosy.

Re-enter Charles, with a breezy, “As much as I often think it’s all due to ME, I must give SOME credit to the many people whose efforts have made this series such a success.” Then he turned serious, as he gave thanks to his producers and stage crew — and, above all, to his fabulous, second-to-none musicians. But he dropped another tidbit when, in the midst of his remarks about the final Schubert piece, he cut loose at his musicians (who were adjusting their music stands and picking pages up off the floor) with, “Here I am, trying to say something profound and moving, and you’re DROPPING stuff!” — followed by his low mutter, “Anything to get attention!”

He went on, describing the music’s unique position at the absolute pinnacle of the chamber repertoire. You ask string players what their favorite chamber work is — and there’s a good chance they’ll name this number. And it sits atop many classical fans’ fave-lists, too (like mine). He described the first two movements as “simply unfathomable,” while the final two movements “are happy and bouncy, to help you get over the first two so you can get on with your day.”

And I’m glad Schubert did that for us, ‘cause the first two movements — as he told us — can really lay you low. It’s the last complete major work he wrote, shortly before his death at the age of 31 — and he knew he didn’t have much longer on this earth. So he packed this music with all of his love, his passion, his yearning for the joys and beauties he’d observed in life, but never quite attained (he was unlucky in love). He tacked on his helpless grief (and outrage) at having to leave all of it so soon, just when he was hitting his stride. This is his final goodbye in music — and nobody’s ever topped it. The challenge of describing music like this makes mere critics want to beat their heads against a wall. All I can do is tell you how it made me FEEL.

I live for moments like this — when a piece of music worms its way into my soul, and (temporarily) lays waste to my psyche. Schubert’s many moments of wrenching grief — and piercing beauty — are almost too much to bear. The performance was absolutely incredible: everybody excelled — but the way Geoff’s keening, quivery violin floated up into its upper reaches in the first movement drilled a big hole in my heart that still hasn’t healed. I lost it, as I usually do when I hear this performed live (bad day to forget my hanky).

The second movement — a soft and sobbing funeral march that soon gets really angry — tore me totally apart. I couldn’t even take notes. All I could do was sit there and suffer wretchedly along with Schubert, my dependable soul-mate — and drip tears. The following scherzo and finale indeed helped me to scrape most of my feelings back up off the floor — but even they contained gritty lapses of sorrow and mourning. No other composer takes you on this kind of manic-depressive roller-coaster ride. I walked out afterwards with an emotional limp.

But let me take you back to just before the Schubert began, when Charles made his own farewells to his crowd. Among other quotes and reminiscences, he recounted a saying from the Presbyterian parson of his youth: “We shall meet again, unless providentially hindered.” And he followed that with “Just you wait, I’m gonna come back and SPY on you!” So mayhaps we haven’t seen the last of him yet. I hope so — old friends are hard to let go of. And he’s made every last one of us feel like an old friend.

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