What with the Spoleto smorgasbord offering enough rich musical dishes to overstuff the greediest gluttons, it's a good thing there's lighter fare at hand. And much of it's served up twice daily at the Dock Street Theatre, where Dr. Charles Wadsworth has been showing off some of the best and brightest musicians in the known universe for more than 30 years now. With 11 different programs given three times each, this 33-concert marathon runs the entire length of the festival. That means more top-notch chamber music is heard here than just about anywhere else on the planet, save for a few big chamber-only affairs.
Dr. Charles Wadsworth has been at the top of the chamber music business — both as pusher AND performer — for most of his nearly 80 years. Lucky for us, his yearly spell in Charleston has created a considerable appetite for his kind of music. Yeah, it's his fault you're a chamber junkie — and he's happy to take the blame.
Most of the regulars we've come to cherish in recent years will be back. The St. Lawrence String Quartet returns as resident ensemble with their spiffy new second violinist, Scott St. John, one of Canada's front-rank fiddlers. Geoff Nuttall (the exuberant one) will return at first violin, along with violist Lesley Robertson and Chris Costanza at the cello. The glittering violin of Chee Yun Kim will be heard again, as will Daniel Phillips' steady viola and the mellow cello of Andres Diaz.
We mustn't forget the non-strings: Todd Palmer and his saucy clarinet will be back, as will the nimble flute of Tara Helen O'Connor. Wendy Chen (and maestro Wadsworth) will preside at the keyboard. An especially welcome bit of news is the repeat appearance of last year's hot first-timer, the incredible young Welsh harpist Catrin Finch. And I was just as happy to hear that soprano Courtenay Budd will bring her delicious voice back to us after a couple of years away. Another old friend who's been gone for awhile is pianist Stephen Prutsman. This year's newbie is wonder-cellist Edward Arron, who's tantalized us in several Piccolo events before.
This year, special themes will fill several programs. The first and most important is a series of programs honoring Spoleto Festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti, whom we lost this year. The second theme is Menotti-related as well: it will feature the music of composers who, like him, were a part of the tradition growing out of the MacDowell Colony — an idyllic New Hampshire retreat that's given dozens of top tunesmiths the peace and quiet they needed to create their best musical magic.
And don't get all bitchy when you find out that no, you can't pick your programs according to what you think you want to hear — at least not for the first outing of each program. Gian Carlo insisted, right from the start, that each new program should be a surprise. And that's the way we like it around here: after 30-plus years, we know Doc Wadsworth won't let us down. But listen up: in a recent interview, Dr. W revealed at least four programs' worth of very special numbers that he's authorized me to disclose — and there's no room here for all that. So let's make a deal: you check out the City Paper's new classical festival blog, Eargasm (http://eargasm.ccpblogs.com), every day, and I'll pass on a slew of deep, dark program secrets that nobody else knows.
And the good doctor's sense of humor is just as sharp as his musical judgment. Hoity-toity classical fops will get their bubbles burst at every turn, as he debunks his art's stuffy image from the stage, bringing it back down to where real people can dig it. I'll see you there.
Chamber Music • Spoleto Festival USA • $35/weekends, $25/weekdays • (1 hour 10 min.) • May 25-June 10, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. • Dock Street Theatre, 135 Church St. • 579-3100