by Jeffrey Day
It started at 1 p.m. with the Gran Duo Concertante from 1844 by Giovanni Bottesini at chamber music, worked its way through a batch of early 20th century composers, to modern music master John Cage in a piece sort-of written in 1961, Punch Brothers who tap into Scottish/Appalachian tunes from the 1800s and maybe Led Zeppelin, and ended with a 2013 piece by Pamela Z.
If I had planned better I would have asked chamber music director Geoff Nuttall to program one of the early 18th century works Monday instead of later in the festival. That way I could have heard 300 years of music in one day — instead of only 170 years of music.
I sure don’t have any complaints about the chamber concert that was one of my favorite mixes of all time.
It began with the delightful Bottesini, a playful and sometimes dreamy romance between violin and double bass (with the piano hanging round as the third wheel.) Not only did it sound great with violinist Livia Sohn and bassist Anthony Manzo, but the two interacted very well, but didn’t overdo it, although Manzo’s eyebrows alone speak volumes.
Cage's Variations II is 50 years old, but each time it is played it is brand new. Lines and dots are marked on transparencies then dropped, and where everything lands is when the players play. What they play is up to them — they can pick snippets from whatever they like, which Monday ranged from Mozart to Scott Joplin. The whole chamber crew — the Brentano Quartet, Nuttall, Sohn, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein, led by percussionist Steven Schick took part — a few of them playing in the hall rather than on stage.
If those were mostly fun, the Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 3, a rarely played piece by Ernest Chausson, was quite serious. Monumental at times, deeply moving, it brought together Nuttall and Weilerstein, along with 24-year-old pianist Pavel Kolesnikov. Every bit as good as the opening concert’s Schubert string quartet.
This may sound like a very strange concert with a weird mix of music. It worked wonderfully. (This concert will be performed Tuesday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. which will be the last chances to hear Schick and Weilerstein at the festival this year.)
Then it was on to the first Intermezzi concert, which had a decidedly American flavor. It opened with Charles Ives' Four Ragtime Dances, which is very much what it sounds like with a little marching tempo tossed in. Aaron Copland’s Music for Theater was a welcome change from his over-performed Appalachian Spring, Fanfare for the Common Man, and others. Those are very American works and although Igor Stravinsky wrote them in Russia, his Pulcincella Suite fit perfectly.
The chamber orchestra conducted by Aik Khai Pung sounded terrific in the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. John. What the church lacks in sightlines it makes up for in atmosphere.
Although going from classical to Punch Brothers, which many people think of as a bluegrass group, seems like a long trip, it’s not that far considering the popular music source material Copland and Ives (and many other composers) mined. And Punch Brothers led by Chris Thile have plenty of classical sensibilities coursing through their guitars, banjos, and mandolins. They were back for their second Spoleto visit, this time in the TD Arena instead of the Cistern (the shame of that). Along with some classical structure and sounds, they also moved into pop and even soul, early country, a waltz, something with roots in late 17th century Scotland, and a bit of jazz. They got really dissonant at one point and then segued into that fairly new (post World War II) genre bluegrass. Not infrequently, the only thing bluegrass about Punch Brothers is their instruments. These guys are good. But I would love to see double bassist Paul Kowart mix it up with Tony Manzo.
The day ended with the newest in a solo concert by Pamela Z who has been on the new music scene for 30 years — in fact this concert covered nearly that entire time span. Her modus operando is to run her voice through various processors and delays so she ends up accompanying herself. With all the computer technology that has developed during her career, it’s probably much easier for her to create now, but making the choices when there are so many choices that can be made has to be much harder. There’s something decidedly old-school about her approach even when she’s making incredible sounds just by waving her hands around thanks to ultrasound medical equipment she has repurposed. Nearly all her work also includes video which usually responds to the music. The most compelling and successful of the two together was 16 Actions in which she take photos of herself on her computer (and her phone) live and puts them up on the screen live while making music live. That’s multi-tasking.
That’s about six hours of music — and what a variety of music — in one day. Don’t try this at home.