Spoleto 2010 » Concert & Choral Music

Chamber VIII features a controversial world premiere

Dung as art?

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Tuesday’s Chamber VIII program offered, as usual, a diverse and very rewarding assortment of both old and new chamber jewels.

I told you to expect the occasional bad pun from Geoff Nuttall, and we got one from him today. Making good on his promise to deliver more Baroque-era music than in previous festivals, Geoff first introduced his “Going for Baroque” orchestra … the crowd groaned audibly, and Geoff, head hung low, crept offstage in mock humiliation. But he came back right away with a “Seriously, folks,” before introducing the music at hand: J.S. Bach’s cherished Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, one of the Baroque’s orchestral pinnacles. Performing it was a small, yet meaty-sounding strings ensemble plus flute.

I won’t subject you to a laundry-list of the 11 performers whom I’ve mostly told you about already, but personal pride demands that I mention Charleston’s own Ed Allman — the Charleston Symphony’s crack principal double-bass — who held down the low end of this wonderful performance very nicely. I couldn’t get over their bright, yet burnished sound or their exuberant interpretation, reminding us why neither performers nor listeners ever get tired of this music. “Go for Baroque” whenever you feel like it, Geoff. You’ll hear no complaints from most of us.

Then came a glowing go at Beethoven’s Cavatina, the slow movement from the Op. 130 string quartet that originally preceded the mighty “Grosse Fuge” movement that I reported on from one of last week’s programs. Like that piece, this is one of those metaphysical marvels that Beethoven wrote fairly late in life, long after he had gone deaf. But this one is all luminescent sweetness and deep feeling, qualities that the members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet conveyed beautifully.

Frederic Chopin, still a teenager, wrote his Polonaise Brilliante for cello and piano in a fit of desperate lovesickness that shows in the work’s prelude section. But then it morphs into the lively P, a kind of Polish dance. Doing the honors was pianist Inon Barnaton, in his second series appearance. Joining him was the miraculous cellist Alisa Weilerstein, in her umpteenth series appearance (I’ve been madly in love with her playing for years). It turns out they both live in New York, where they often perform together — no wonder they sound so great as a team.

The morning’s final, and most controversial, selection was Composer-in-Residence Jonathan Berger’s Theotokia, a brand-new work for soprano (Dawn Upshaw) and a piano quintet (SLSQ + pianist Pedja), heard here in its world premiere performance. Like much of modern music, it explores subject matter that no self-respecting composer would’ve dared to treat a century ago. Here, the theme was insanity: the texts were inspired by a book that explores three delusional schizophrenics at the same funny farm who think they’re Jesus Christ.

I can’t figure out how that relates to the admittedly weird song here about dung, but I guess anything goes when you’re talking true craziness. In a similarly incongruous vein, the main subject matter covers two different visions of one patient’s mother: first as a real (but very dysfunctional) person, and the other as a Yeti (abominable snowman) in the Himalayas. You definitely get the idea that his mom did a real number on him.

Like Berger told us, “It’s a very disturbing text, I hope you like it.” Well, some of us did, and some of us didn’t. But works like this have a place at Spoleto, where audiences can help to determine what makes for real art and what does not. I thought the piece was very effective, though a bit harrowing and often un-pretty. Our musicians, especially Upshaw, did a marvelous job in conveying the surreal, scary aura of mental illness, which, for some, is indeed a part of life. And art reflects life.

Judging by the applause afterward, the bulk of the crowd liked it, or at least appreciated its rather chilling, almost horrific effect. Not all art need be beautiful or uplifting. But, as one elderly Charleston matron told me afterward as we were debating the matter, “If that’s art, then I’m Miss Piggy. What can possibly be artistic about dung?”

Well, she had me there. But I, for one, thought it was pretty darned cool. And a lot of my fellow attendees thought so, too. Keep it coming, Jonathan. 

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