Chatham Baroque Makes Triumphant Return to Piccolo Spoleto

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
June 19, 2016
Elizabeth Bloom

CHARLESTON, S.C. — After a concert on Memorial Day, the members of Chatham Baroque drove back to their temporary home in this charming city and ascended to the second-floor balcony. They quickly assembled a spread of wine, cheese, nuts, crackers, strawberries and — because this is the South — pickled okra.

They call it Piazza Time. “This,” executive director Marc Giosi said, “is sacred.”

Chatham Baroque, Pittsburgh’s resident early music trio, was in Charleston earlier this month for a weeklong stint with the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. This spring marked the group’s fifth consecutive trip to the festival, although it appeared several times before that.

The ensemble, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this season, gave six different programs in seven days.

“It’s an organizational coup, to a certain extent, to get all the pieces together on a shoestring budget, to get the programs ready for performance on a day’s — basically — rehearsal,” violinist Andrew Fouts said. “So I think it keeps our chops up, too, and it’s just a really great way to end every season, to come down here and have this sort of lap through Charleston.”

The Piccolo Spoleto Festival is the outreach arm of Spoleto Festival USA, an international springtime showcase for the arts that started in 1977 and includes everything from opera and dance to theater and jazz. The slightly younger Piccolo Spoleto is centered on low-cost or free events, with an additional focus on artists from the Southeastern part of the country.

Chatham Baroque doesn’t quite fit into that category, but the early music concerts have always lived on Piccolo Spoleto’s side of the festival equation, series coordinator Steve Rosenberg said. Over the years, the early music series has also featured ensembles such as the Baltimore Consort and Anonymous 4.

Mr. Rosenberg said he first heard Chatham Baroque on a recording and was struck by the group’s repertory and style. “They came down and developed a big following here,” he said. “It’s been terrific.”

Chatham Baroque gave its concerts at 3 p.m. at St. Philip’s Church, an elegant space with an interior that looks a bit like a large white shell. The church, established in 1680, has a rich history. German composer Johann Pachelbel’s son Charles Theodore Pachelbel was the church organist in the 18th century, and DuBose Heyward, whose novel “Porgy” inspired George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess,” is buried there.

While Spoleto Festival USA often spotlights contemporary works and new productions, the ensemble thinks its baroque offerings fit nicely into the old-school charm of Charleston, which is dotted with historic houses and churches. As Mr. Giosi pointed out, the city was founded in 1670 — “kind of like our sweet spot for repertoire.”

“I think what we do fits into the historical context of a place like this really well,” said Scott Pauley, who plays theorbo and other instruments. “I just like the fact that we can do this music in this setting that’s really about as close as you can get in the United States to playing in like an original venue.”

Audience members came dressed as they were, and the musicians wore what could be described as business casual attire. The themed hourlong concerts included music from the main Chatham Baroque season and featured three guests.

There were no formal program notes, but the musicians chatted about the music with the small but eager audience. The low-key atmosphere aside, the festival aims to present high-quality events, and Chatham Baroque takes pride in being associated with it.

“As the fundraiser and grant writer for the group,” Mr. Giosi said, “it’s a great little nugget to put into grant writing and to mention to funders that ‘Hey, we’re part of this prestigious, international festival.’ ”

Plus, they just find it fun to be here. The band had an opportunity to catch a couple of operas on the main festival, enjoy Charleston’s lively restaurant scene and soak up the Southern vibe. Perhaps the trio’s loyal fans in Pittsburgh could tag along sometime.

“We seriously considered offering it as a tour,” said Patricia Halverson, who plays viola da gamba. “We were going to arrange some concerts and get some board members and Chatham Baroque fans to come down. It just didn’t get off the ground.”

Maybe next time: Mr. Rosenberg said he would like to invite Chatham Baroque to return in 2017 and, separately, to join a festival he hopes to organize in Spain. If the invitation comes, you can be sure the trio will be back in Charleston.

Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post­gazette, 412­-263­-1750 and Twitter: @BloomPG.