Chamber musicians get physical

Chamber of Secrets

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Chamber Music is to Spoleto Festival USA what wackadoodle predictions are to Family Radio Worldwide: a defining element. For 35 years, the festival has made its 11-concert series, with their famously unpublished artistic programs, a pillar of the programming, albeit one that traditionally plays to the most senior of the festival’s already hastily graying patrons.

Festival admins, all too aware of this alarming trend, took advantage two years ago of the retirement of much-loved antidiluvian Chamber Music host and artistic director Charles Wadsworth by replacing him with another much-loved, and much younger, festival stalwart, Geoff Nuttall. Will the switcheroo provide any ballast to the rocketing median age and belt heights of the series’ attendees? It’s hard to say, but the engaging Nutall certainly looses fewer japes that revolve around lovely young college co-eds. How that ultimately plays out is anyone’s guess.

At Friday’s opening concert, Wadsworth’s ghost hovered over the proceedings. Check that: further investigation has revealed that it wasn’t Wadsworth’s ghost at all but the man himself, looking rather spectral, seated in the balcony as close as he could physically get to the stage without actually being on it. Poor guy. It must have been torture for him, rooted up there watching Nutall impersonate him just feet away, and not a single co-ed joke to make it bearable.

Some fun was had by a quartet who performed a short piece by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov written for the 2001 film “The Man Who Cried,” starring some nobodys named Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett, and Christina Ricci. Clearly having a blast, Anthony Manzo, the double bass player, at one point stowed his bow, with a flourish, over his shoulder and down the back of his shirt like a Turkish swordsman sheathing a two-hander after decapitating a foe, eliciting gasps from some of the ladies in the audience.

But he’s hardly the only one up there who knows that showmanship takes more than just musical ability. While playing anything, violinist Nutall appears to be receiving intermittent massive electric shocks to his backside via the chair. And I’d wager Cellist Alisa Weilerstein could run circles around half the actors appearing on the Dock Street stage this season. Though she’s stuck behind a cello nearly her size, is seated, and doesn’t have a word of dialogue, this girl could out-Method Meisner. She flings her hair, she furrows her brow, she gasps like someone who just mainlined a solid ounce of smack, she grimaces in agony as if she’s secretly giving birth behind her cello. Hamming it up? I don’t think so.

Weilerstein and Nuttall and Manzo and even Wadsworth, up in his baalcony seat rocking back and forth like a maniac, aren’t showboating; they’re just letting show on the outside what’s going on inside. Music rushes into them and what is forced out is raw emotion. As Nuttall said at the beginning of the concert, that’s what makes live music so powerful: life.

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