One of my most memorable birthday gifts was one of those that just keeps on giving, and has since the mid-1980s. This was truly an experiential gift, as I grew up in a music-centric household. My dad played eight instruments, my mother crooned Frank Sinatra as she cleaned house, and classical music filled our home on numerous occasions. As I’ve mentioned previously, my earliest memory – while in my playpen – was listening to Mario Lanza singing The Student Prince.
So when a New York City boyfriend treated me to a Lincoln Center concert featuring brilliant cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing the music of Franz Joseph Haydn (whose birthday is the day after mine), I was enthralled for the entire performance and high on life when we left the hall. Recently, that happened again.
Music can be a wonderful “connector,” of audience members with musicians, of listeners with other listeners, and of individuals with their own hearts. Music lowers cortisol levels and increases dopamine, thus relieving stress and boosting the immune system. Calming music can help muscles relax and can even alleviate pain.
All that said, we in the Lowcountry have a gift just waiting to be experienced at the University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB) Center for the Arts – The USCB Chamber Music Series. Full disclosure here: chamber music was rarely part of my childhood experience. As a result, though I adored much classical repertoire, I thought of chamber music as “longhair” and “dull,” perhaps much like an extra-inning baseball game. Bless my heart!
That misconception lasted until I moved to Beaufort 15 years ago and met the remarkable Shirley Parsons, who immediately recruited me as an usher for the university’s performances, then called the USCB Festival Series. Just try saying no to one of Shirley’s requests!
So for the first wintertime concert, I donned black, welcomed attendees, collected tickets, and found a seat in the auditorium, considering a nap if things got boring. While waiting for the musicians to commence, I perused the program. When I began reading their creds, I was dumbfounded…these were internationally-recognized performers. Big time. We’re talking talent known and honored throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Though I wanted to keep reading, the theater lights went down, and the legendary Charles Wadsworth took the stage, entering with wild applause.
Charles Wadsworth? I thought. The Charles Wadsworth, founding Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the chamber concert series at Spoleto USA in Charleston? In Beaufort? Remarkably, I’d heard of him.
If by chance you haven’t, just Google the Noonan, Georgia, native and prepare to be awestruck. How’d a musician of his stature end up in Beaufort? The story’s a good one.
Founded in 1979 by USCB Art History professor Mary Whisonant, USCB Chamber Music has presented stellar, internationally-recognized artists, the likes of pianist Jean Yves Thibaudet, violinists Joshua Bell and Robert McDuffie, flutist Paula Robison, cellist Carter Bray, and the Brooklyn Rider, Emerson, Tokyo, and St. Lawrence String Quartets. Area banks and churches and the MCAS theater hosted early performances. At that time, Professor Whisonant’s hats included those of artistic director, ticket seller, airport taxi driver, caterer, and funding seeker. In 1983, once the USCB Center for the Arts (CFA) had opened, the series found a permanent home and the good professor retired.
Beaufort County’s 16-year Representative in the South Carolina House, Harriet Keyserling, then prevailed upon Wadsworth to bring chamber music to Beaufort. In addition, over a twenty-year period, the talented pianist, harpsichordist, and music promoter delivered lively and informative introductions of featured artists and compositions, inventive programming, the best young musicians in the world, and his own brilliant, unique style at the keyboard. (At my initial exposure, I was hooked before the actual performance started!)
During those two decades, the illustrious raconteur transformed many area residents and visitors into fans of chamber music, present company included. As his own eightieth decade approached, Wadsworth retired, turning over the reins to cellist Edward Arron, his assistant for the previous two years and 10-year Artistic Director for the Metropolitan Museum’s Artists in Concert Series. For 12 years, Arron brought to his role warm, thoughtful commentary, his artistry on the cello, and the most significant young artists playing and composing chamber music.
At the series’s 40th birthday, Arron passed the baton along to the marvelously talented, delightfully engaging pianist, Andrew Armstrong. Amazingly, Arron and Armstrong didn’t miss a beat through the pandemic, keeping concerts rolling for musicians and audiences with limited-live and virtual performances, thanks to the financial stability provided by the establishment of the Chamber Music Endowment. As long as funding allows, a virtual live-streaming option will continue to be available to folks who can’t attend in person plus the option of three-week access to the recorded concert at your leisure.
Last year, in the series’s 43rd season and Armstrong’s first at the helm, audiences reveled in a recital by Gramophone’s Artist of the Year, violinist James Ehnes in 2021’s first offering, and closed the five-series season with an original composition by noted American composer, conductor and multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Turner (another Google opportunity).
As for the USCB Chamber Music Series being a gift to those of us who live near South Carolina’s ocean, I’ve digressed a wee bit. However, last Sunday’s concert was in my opinion, the best I’ve attended. Period. Right up there with Bruce Springsteen. Really.
The event began with the introduction of a brand new Steinway grand piano named Miss Flora. Andy Armstrong presented the new lady in his life with humor, respect and a marvelous performance of Julia Perry’s Prelude for Piano.Oh my! If you’d been there, you’d no doubt agree. A Covid-related cancellation by a scheduled musician caused the artistic director to make last-minute program changes, and the show went on.
Did it ever! On clarinet, violin, viola, and the illustrious Miss Flora. From the minute the music began, the audience was completely captivated. I looked around and saw that on every face nearby. Any remnants of a too-busy weekend melted away with those expertly-played notes, the facial cues between the musicians, and the pure joy with which each played. Not a whit of longhair or dull here. Apparently, these serious, world class performers were having a ball, often smiling at one another and grooving on whatever piece they were playing.
The mood at intermission seemed especially jovial among patrons and continued through the rest of the program, during which the musicians simply cranked up the ante with breathtaking enthusiasm and expertise in each piece. A standing ovation followed, as did many a vocal “Wow!” as people filed out.
That concert did my soul good.
Though I’m a music appreciator and not a musician, take it from me that even if you think you don’t like chamber music, the USCB series might well change your mind. Give it a try. Between Armstrong’s chatty, educational intro of the featured program, fascinating observation of the musicians, relaxing atmosphere, and passion-filled music, you might just find a new way to spend a few late Sunday afternoons.
After all, says integrative medicine practitioner Teresa Hubkova, “Love for music is something we all share, no matter where we are from or our political background.”
Maybe it’s time to ignore the news and connect through music.
For concert and ticketing information, go to www.uscbchambermusic.com or call (843) 208 – 8246.