by Lindsay Koob
“Today we’re having a big party,” shouted Geoff Nuttall as he strode onstage to get the Chamber series’ final program going. And quite a fun party it turned out to be (though it ended too soon), with three pieces of blithe and celebratory spirit — and even an interactive sing-along session.
First up was Niccolò Paganini’s amazing “Moses Phantasy” Variations on a Theme by Rossini, a frisky confection originally written for violin and piano and intended for the composer’s own use (he was the rock-star fiddler of his day).
The legend — no doubt fabricated — behind the piece was that Paganini (who was also alleged to have sold his soul to the devil) composed the piece while imprisoned, and all of his violin strings but one broke, forcing him to write the piece to be played on a single string. Here we heard it in a transcription for cello and piano, and performed by cello goddess Alisa Weilerstein and piano prince Inon Barnatan. Even in its cello version, Weilerstein played the entire number on just one string. Quite a challenge, given its fearsomely virtuosic nature. After introducing the lovely and songful theme, she totally blew us away with speedy runs, treacherous arpeggios, sparkling trills, etc. as she took us through the variations. This one was all about the cello. Barnatan’s piano part was quite plain and simple by comparison, but he still played it well.
Next we heard Franz Schubert’s bright and perky art-song, “Die Forelle” (the trout), by way of introduction to the concert’s main fare, the beloved Trout Quintet, which employs the song’s tune in one of its movements. There to sing it for us was Tyler Duncan, the excellent Canadian baritone who’s got a role in this year’s festival run of The Magic Flute. He’s also appeared twice before in the chamber series. With Barnatan back to support him at the piano, the song’s lively accompaniment gave him a bit more to do than in the previous number. After bringing the short number off with verve and charm, our applause earned us what first appeared to be an encore but turned out to be a planned part of the show. Naming his audience “the Dock Street Schubert choir,” Nuttall and Duncan proceeded to “conduct” us in a verse of the main melody as we hummed or la-la-la’d our way through it, probably so the tune would stick in our heads, and we’d be sure to recognize it in the quintet to come. Nuttall further told us to feel free to hum along again when we recognized the tune in the quintet — though I didn’t think anybody would.
On to the main event. Written when Schubert was only 22, the Trout Quintet may just be the sunniest and most relentlessly charming piece of chamber music ever written. And it's certainly one of the world's best-loved, as confirmed by former series director Charles Wadsworth from his perch in the balcony. He told us that during his 20-year tenure with the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society of New York, they used to conduct regular polls to determine their attendees' favorite works — and this piece won hands-down, every time. Besides, as Nuttall told us, “It’s my favorite piece of party music.”
It’s so darned cheerful that I won’t even take you through all of the five movements. Schubert’s happy melody and harmony kept smiles on our faces from start to finish. And — lo and behold — when we got to the “theme and variations” movement, guess what tune popped up? And then it happened: many in the audience indeed took Nuttall's hum-along invitation seriously and joined in. Of course, the voices petered out as our players got into the more complex variations, but it was fun while it lasted. After our musicians’ final closing flourish, the crowd leapt to its feet and the curtain calls went on forever.
What? No more Spoleto chamber music? And no more Spoleto anything else? The withdrawal symptoms are already beginning to set in: the first manifestation of my 11-month-long “no-Spoleto blues” funk. Can I last that long?
It may not be too late to experience this dynamite music for yourself: if you scurry, you can still make it to one of the final two outings of the same program: Sunday at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.