by Lindsay Koob
When Chamber guru Geoff Nuttall bounded onstage today wearing a really loud, ‘70s-style Hawaiian shirt, we just knew something special was afoot. Sure enough, he lost no time in telling us that he felt compelled to don such outlandish garb in consideration of the “wild and crazy” nature of the program’s first selection — even though it was from the Baroque era. He went on to characterize the piece as a “1960s-style acid trip,” despite being nearly three centuries old.
He was speaking of the Trio Sonata No. 3 by the woefully neglected Czech composer Jan Zelenka: a tunesmith whom even the great JS Bach admired (and copied). Sure enough, his music is pretty far out for the Baroque: unusual harmonic modulations, rhythmic tricks, and other assorted twists and turns not normally heard way back then — but I’d stop short of calling it an acid trip. Still, such characteristics help to make Zelenka an endlessly fascinating composer; I’ve long wondered why his music is so seldom heard.
The entire piece, in a slow-fast-slow-fast movement sequence, was of fabulous quality and interest throughout. I thought the final movement’s lively violin-oboe exchanges and heady structure were something special. But it was the second movement’s headlong romp, led by Peter Kolkay’s brash bassoon, that blew me the farthest away. The music’s dizzying tumble of brainy counterpoint over an almost endless cascade of perilously speedy bassoon runs was absolutely amazing. Nuttall commented on it afterward: “Does the man not need to breathe like the rest of us? We should call him something like Peter Parker: mild-mannered music professor by day who turns into this superhuman bassoon hero at will.” I agree: Kolkay rocks! Oh — and his colleagues Ms. Frautschi (violin), Mr. Smith (oboe), and Mr. Muzijevik (harpsichord) rocked, too — they just didn’t have to work quite as hard.
Just last year, Nuttall and company explored the wonderfully eclectic and appealing music of modern Argentinian master Osvaldo Golijov, when he served as this series’ composer-in-residence. He’s composed quite a bit for (and has been recorded by) Nuttall’s St. Lawrence String Quartet, and the works from him keep coming our way. Today’s selection was a tremendously impressive string quartet in two movements, written just last year.
The first movement was a musical motorcycle ride, with repetitive, driven chugging and musical “road noise” from the second violin, viola, and cello. But the lead violin (played this time by Scott St. John) soared above all the commotion in a sweet, oddly detached melody, as if the rider was caught up in a zen-like trance (as bike riders often are) as he roared down the highway. It was a masterly blend of the brusque and the beautiful. The second and final movement was, as Geoff described it, a happily “rhapsodic, almost Mahler-esque” idyll that (for me) conjured up a lazy summer afternoon, complete with buzzing insects. Golijov should be required listening for those who think that nobody is producing great music nowadays.
The concert ended with a late masterpiece by Johannes Brahms, who, as he approached age 60, declared that he was through with composing. But then he met (and heard) clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, whose skill and musicality inspired him to compose a series of truly stunning chamber works with clarinet. Coincidentally (as Nuttall pointed out), Mozart, around a century earlier, had also met a master clarinetist, Anton Stadler, late in his regrettably short life, and was similarly inspired to write some of his greatest music ever for him. Between the two composers, they have the cream of the clarinet repertoire pretty much sewn up.
And we got to savor some of that cream, in the form of the Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano in A Minor. Glory be, gifting the happy crowd with it were evergreen clarinet-meister Todd Palmer, cello sorceress Alisa Weilerstein, and piano wonder Inon Barnatan. After the opening Allegro movement’s somber introduction, the lovely conversation between clarinet and cello flowed mostly smoothly, with autumnal lyric intensity. Brahms’ inspiration didn’t stop at the clarinet part, and Alisa’s radiant cello got its share of choice passages, here as elsewhere. The wonderfully sweet and peaceful Adagio was followed by the Andante grazioso movement’s graceful, dancing lilt and gentle joy. The finale was bold and emphatic, with more lyrical interludes intervening until the music rose to a near-fever pitch at the end.
All three players contributed to a performance of searing beauty and rare musicality, as if they were governed by a single heart and soul. And that’s something you will experience in precious few places other than Charleston during Spoleto. But none of those other places have a venue like the Dock Street Theatre, with its warm and woody acoustics and intimate ambiance, to perform in. I wonder if even the most loyal followers of this series realize how richly blessed they are.