The Bank of America Chamber Music Series has always been about experiencing wonderful music in a magnificent venue, but with Geoff Nuttall at the helm, each concert is a carefully crafted concoction of familiar classics and modern masterpieces, providing stark contrasts and unexpected connections—programs that are as quirky as Geoff himself. We sat down with Geoff recently to have a conversation about his programming “recipe.”
SFUSA: When you think about the chamber program, do you think about it as a whole with eleven interconnected parts, or does each concert stand completely on its own?
Geoff: There’s obviously some overall arc to the entire program, but each concert has its own flavor and feel. I like to think of it like M & Ms—each individual one is tasty, but you also want the whole package to be good, for all the flavors to work together. Eclecticism is one of the hallmarks of the Festival, and it’s much more interesting to me to strive for variety.
SFUSA: Which comes first—the musicians you want to invite to the Festival or the music you want to include on the program?
Geoff: A little bit of both, actually. Sometimes there’s a particular artist I want to bring, and that may mean programming a particular kind of music. For example, I have been dreaming about featuring a percussionist, and Steve Schick is one of my favorite musicians, so when he agreed to do it, I didn’t hesitate. But the repertory for percussion is so specific, there’s only so much to pick from. And because it is so specific there has to be a certain balance in the rest of the concert. That’s why I chose the Iannis Xenakis contemporary solo percussion piece “Rebonds” for the first concert—to really showcase Steve’s outstanding musicianship. But then it’s balanced out with the Schubert double cello quintet, a classical piece that Menotti traditionally used to end the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. On the other hand, there is a vast chamber repertoire for other instruments, so I think about the music I love and want to hear in the Dock Street and go from there.
SFUSA: How do you decide which pieces go together in any one particular concert?
Geoff: Part of my decision is purely selfish: I like certain things and I don’t like other things. For example, I don’t like a concert where all the music is by the same composer. I don’t like sameness of any kind—not only is it boring, it can be overwhelming. It’s like having chocolate ice cream with hot fudge and a brownie and then putting chocolate sprinkles on top. If you REALLY like chocolate it may seem like a good idea, but ultimately it’s just too much. So I look for a broad range of emotional and tonal contrasts, a mix of new and old, contrasts in intensity or style or length. Then, I try to find some unifying thread; it might be geographical—like both composers are French but from different eras; or it could have to do with “size” and “weight”—like a big, bombastic two-piano work contrasted with a delicate baroque piece. I also have to consider the artists—I want to give them all as much playing time as possible without working them until they drop.
SFUSA: What are you most excited about on this year’s chamber program?
Geoff: I guess it’s obvious how excited I am to have Steve Schick. New music can be off-putting to a lot of audiences who expect that everything contemporary is going to be atonal and dissonant. The great thing about percussion is that it’s about rhythm, not necessarily tone, and people respond to rhythm in a very natural way. I think our audiences are going to love Steve. And, of course, it’s a thrill to have Brentano String Quartet—one of the great musical institutions out there—playing in the series this year. They really are wonderful and I think they’ll give the St. Lawrence a run for their money.
SFUSA: And now let’s get down to what die-hard Spoleto chamber fans really want to know: What can we expect to see of the Geoff Nuttall signature hair style this season?
Geoff: It’s so funny you bring that up. My wife, Livia, and I have been having an ongoing discussion about how the whole hair product industry is a total scam. Let’s just say that Lyvia’s been experimenting with nontraditional methods and having great success. Maybe I’ll decide to not wash my hair for the entire festival and see what happens by the end.
To see the results of Geoff’s programming magic, browse the complete 2013 Bank of America Chamber Music Series program.