Geoff Nuttall, co-founder and first violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet and Spoleto’s Charles E. and Andrea L. Director of Chamber Music, passed away last week after undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. Like many Charlestonians and Spoleto supporters, I shared a deep, abiding friendship with Geoff; he touched many of us through his talent, humor, grace and vision.
I first met Geoff during my set of final interviews for the general director position at Spoleto some 18 months ago. Musically, I first encountered him two decades ago when, as a young composer, I bought the album Yiddishbbuk, a recording of Osvaldo Golijov’s music for string quartet and clarinet, played by the St. Lawrence String Quartet and Todd Palmer. The album became a prized possession: Golijov’s music haunted me, and the recording of the album’s titular work has been in my mind’s ear ever since. I became a devotee of the quartet, collecting its recordings of Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and, of course, Haydn.
I never could have imagined that years later, my wife and I would be sharing a meal with Geoff and other members of Spoleto’s hiring committee. About the time dessert was served, the formality of the evening gave way to a vociferous debate between Geoff and me over the merits of late Beethoven: He didn’t care for the composer’s late period, a controversial position among classical music enthusiasts. We struck up an instantaneous friendship over common affinities: collecting old, obscure vinyls; building analog hi-fi audio systems; drinking a bit too much wine; biking around cities not built for cyclists. Immediately, I knew—whether or not I got the job—that Geoff and I would be friends for life.
The next day, I saw him perform at the Dock Street Theatre, and I was mesmerized. Geoff cajoled the crowd, explaining the piece—a new tango by Golijov—and demonstrating its intricate cross rhythms effortlessly by fiddling on his violin.
Experiencing Geoff’s chamber music series was incomparable. He introduced the players as if they were set musicians in a club. He approached the revered concert hall with casual insouciance: rebellious, but too nerdy to actually revolt. This spring, during the 2022 festival, the St. Lawrence String Quartet performed a Haydn quartet, which they played with gritty, nearly grotesque intensity—the hairs of the bow tearing off as if they were performing violent Bartók.
This Haydn was not about enlightenment-era balance and elegance; it was romantic, it swooned, it crashed, it caved and it climbed again. I realized I had never truly appreciated Haydn’s quartets before. The musicality was intense: through the crests and troughs of the quartet, Geoff and his fellow musicians drew into focus the composition’s overarching sonic architecture. That is the brilliance of extraordinary interpretation.
Geoff was an entirely singular artist: There are many virtuoso violinists, and of those a few who are also exceptional curators. There was one Geoff Nuttall.
Geoff did not just play the music: He exuded it, electrified it, he communicated it to anyone and everyone who cared to listen. And he did it with a boyish, rock-star brashness that sometimes bordered on the profane. He transcended classical music’s social strictures and democratized the canon with his adventurous attitude. He did not only do that for Spoleto; Geoff changed chamber music performance for America.
I am thankful for the year Geoff and I had to envision together: to start to build, produce and plan. This city mourns Geoff and extends its warm, Southern embrace to his family, who will always have Charleston as a second home.
We cannot replace Geoff—nor should we try—but in his final days, he and I discussed succession plans for the chamber music series at the festival. Rest assured; the music will play on at the Dock. It will be different, but it will honor Geoff the only way I know we can: through living and playing, through sharing and daring.
Mena Mark Hanna
Spoleto Festival USA General Director