The City Magazine Since 1975

A Classic

A Classic
May 2009
Meet Charles Wadsworth: chamber music's champion, Spoleto's beloved star

He is icon and impresario. Pied piper and Grand Papa. Maestro and magician. Small-town boy and world-renowned artist. Playful socialite and disciplined musician. "I'm a true Gemini with several distinct personalities," Charles Wadsworth admits. "I'm a family man, then there's me with the musicians, and the me who loves nothing more than a good party with a lot of white wine, and then I assume another role on stage."

Yes, the one-and-only Charles Wadsworth is all this and more. Mostly though, at a spry 80 years old, the silver-haired, slightly paunchy, ever-elegant pianist is the Spoleto Festival's undisputed heartthrob. The music may be classical, but Wadsworth is simply a classic. When he takes the stage, fans flock and tickets sell.

Chamber music has been called "the music of friends," which makes Charles our BFF. He's the Mick Jagger of sonatas, the Paul McCartney of quartets, with an age-defying energy and a zesty wit that seem endless, which is a good thing, especially given this year's schedule. In honor of Wadsworth's 80th birthday and his final season after a half-century with the festival, Spoleto 2009 is shaping up to be one busy, jolly Charlesfest, with four formal celebrations in his honor, including the opening gala hosted by Jane Alexander, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, and a High Tea Farewell after his final concert. That's on top of his hefty lineup of 33 chamber music performances and their requisite rehearsals, not to mention the dizzying array of opening-night parties and afternoon receptions that he wouldn't dream of missing.

Wadsworth's staying power is testament to his passion. While A-Rod and others rely on steroids, Charles is sipping champagne, grooving to Schubert and Shuman, loving every minute of a career that has been credited for taking chamber music from the fringe to the forefront. In addition to his long association with the festivals in Italy and Charleston, Wadsworth founded the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the first organization in the U.S. dedicated to furthering the once-beleaguered genre, and served as its artistic director from 1969 to 1989. With musical missionary zeal, he travels relentlessly, hosting concerts around the country, including a Masterworks series in Connecticut and a chamber music series in Savannah and in Camden, Beaufort, and Columbia, South Carolina. His broad international reach includes founding the enormously successful Cartagena International Festival of Music three years ago in Colombia, South America.

"From 1954 to now, it's been very busy and very exciting," the Juilliard graduate says. "It's never been anything but a pleasure. When I was young and struggling to get a career started, I realized how lucky I was that my commodity is beauty. I wasn't trying to sell insurance policies or any of those things—I'm selling beauty. And it really is tremendously rewarding when something beautiful is happening on stage," he adds. "I can see it on peoples' faces: once the music starts, if it's great, they're taken out of themselves, it's amazing."

Pots & Pans to Chopin
Wadsworth's love affair with music began inauspiciously in the kitchen of his family's rural Georgia home. He was the only child of two Depression-era parents who had to quit school to help their families make ends meet. His father finished second grade and his mother fourth, both working as store clerks and laborers their whole lives. "But my mother had enormous intelligence," Charles says. "I was always running around the kitchen banging on pots and pans; she recognized that music was something I was interested in." In 1934, the Wadsworths moved from Barnsville to Newnan, Georgia, a wealthy Coca-Cola and cotton town that was the third richest city per capita in the country, "and would have been the richest if it wasn't for your family," the former mayor of Newnan joked to Wadsworth years later. There his mother persuaded Miss Lucille, a local music teacher, to work with Charles, and on Sunday afternoons she'd finagle invitations to Newnan's grand homes so her son could be exposed to sophisticated musical libraries.

Miss Lucille also arranged for him to audition with Hugh Hodgson, an accomplished pianist and founder of the University of Georgia music department in nearby Atlanta. Mr. Hodgson accepted him for private lessons and instilled in him "an extraordinarily beautiful sound that I carry always in my ear," Wadsworth says. To cover Hodgson's $7.50 lesson fee, young Charles sought the generosity of Newnan businessman and arts benefactor, Mr. William Banks, whose foundation helped him all the way through Juilliard. (As a nice what-goes-round-comes-round addendum, Wadsworth notes that Banks' son, Bill Banks Jr., has been a loyal fan and supporter of both the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Spoleto Festival.)

Talent & Charm
It didn't take long for Charles to appreciate that his talent held promise—and perks. When he was 12, the richest lady in town invited him to play for a tea at her home, an offer that included all the cookies, ice cream, and Coca-Cola he wanted. "And, on top of that, she paid me $5, which at the time was a fortune," he recalls, the happy astonishment still fresh in his voice. During high school summers, Wadsworth earned pocket change playing the church organ and enjoyed playing piano around town and the state, especially when he discovered the positive effect it had on girls. "I was anything but a jock in high school, my most violent form of exercise was checkers," he confesses, "but when young women started coming over to the piano I thought, 'This is good.' I realized that music was a wonderful way to win friends and influence people."

Wadsworth's charm has won many friends and fans over the years and no doubt opened many doors, including those to the White House, where he performed for Jackie Kennedy's soirees and for Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. With keyboard virtuosity matched only by his folksy humor and lyrical suave, Wadsworth has a signature je ne sais quoi that has served him, and his audiences, well. "Forever I've enjoyed being playful," he says. "But it's not a careless sort of thing. Ease with the public is a big part of my shtick."

Indeed the Wadsworth stand-up routine—the way he introduces his chamber music programs with a mix of informal Music History 101 tempered with comic timing, exaggerated I-talian pronunciation, and silly jokes—serves to disarm the listener, to unbutton the starched collar we put around classical performance, so the aficionado and the uninitiated alike experience the music on its own terms. Wadsworth's delightful narrative both informs, relaxes, and distracts enough to let his magician's sleight of hand draw you in—then poof, you're swept up, mesmerized by the sheer joy of incredible music.

Wadsworth credits Maestro Gian Carlo Menotti with inspiring this approach. Wadsworth first met Menotti in 1958, while accompanying a singer auditioning for a Menotti opera. "I played an aria from one of his operas, and he called me that afternoon to say that no one had ever played it so beautifully," Wadsworth recalls. Menotti and Samuel Barber asked the young Southern pianist to help them prepare singers for the 1959 opening of Barber's Antony and Cleopatra at Menotti's nascent Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto. "I was squatting in high cotton, and from there on, the cotton kept growing," he laughs.

Menotti then asked Wadsworth to create a series of daily chamber music concerts for the festival. The maestro's offer came with three requests: that he make the concerts inviting and relaxed; that he bring in the best young artists he could find; and that he end every festival with Schubert's Quintet in C for Two Cellos (which Wadsworth plans to offer as his grand finale on June 7). Wadsworth would make awkward but funny mistakes in his stumbling Italian, inadvertently becoming one of the country's "leading radio comedians," according to one Spoleto native. By its third year Wadsworth's chamber music series was so popular that the police had to enforce crowd control. Though riots have yet to break out at the Dock Street (or Memminger Auditorium, the series' home-away-from-home during Dock Street renovations), the Spoleto Festival USA Chamber Music Series, which Wadsworth brought to Charleston with Spoleto's opening here in 1977, likewise has been a perennial festival favorite.

The Wadsworth Formula
"It's easy to overlook the singular role Charles has had in chamber music," notes his longtime friend, colleague, and Spoleto Festival USA director Nigel Redden. "What Charles did in Italy and has done here in Charleston, Lincoln Center, and elsewhere has revolutionized how chamber music was performed." Rather than stage three or four musicians from an established trio or quartet for a program from their existing repertoire, Wadsworth ingeniously mixes it up. He invites a mishmash of musicians, maybe 10 to 12 for one concert, to play what might be an unfamiliar piece together for the first time. This potluck strategy offers a greater range of instrumentation, widening the musical menu and creating a "freshness, an enthusiasm, an openness to the experience that comes when you have the excitement of extraordinary musicians meeting music for the first time," says Redden.

With that mischievous, brilliant twinkle in his blue eyes, Wadsworth restored the warmth and vigor that is this intimate genre, written for small groups gathered in parlors, can uniquely convey. "Charles made chamber music more approachable. He invites us to get in on a musical conversation, hear it fresh, and get comfortable with it," Redden adds. And he also made the conversation juicier by creatively juxtaposing trusty standards by dead composers with newly commissioned contemporary pieces, balancing the familiar with the unfamiliar in delightfully undogmatic programming.

After the final notes of the June 7th concert settle upon the rapt Chamber Music audience, there will be a brief hush, a slice of silence, before Memminger erupts in a bittersweet ovation. That minute silence begins the bridge to Wadsworth's next verse. The rhythm slows. The tempo changes. "My wife, Susan, is afraid I'll go crazy," he says, pondering retirement, but the maestro himself is ready. "I'm looking forward to my eighties," he says, his signature twinkle still twinkling. "There's so much I want to do but I just haven't had the time. I've been multitasking tons of stuff for so long."

Without the responsibility of producing 36 Spoleto concerts and another 40 or so annually around the country, not to mention his international commitments, Charles will have the luxury to indulge in writing music again, returning to his love of the singer's repertoire. And his excitement about spending more time with his family, daughters Beryl and Rebecca and son David, is obvious as he whips out his wallet to show off a photo of his 10-year old grandson Ahmed, who spends every Wednesday night with his adoring grandparents at their Manhattan residence. Susan Wadsworth, his wife of 43 years, is a music powerhouse in her own right, as founder and director of Young Concert Artists, a nonprofit organization dedicated to discovering new talent and launching the careers of exceptional but unknown artists.

As this Spoleto festival heats up and as its beloved Charles Wadsworth winds down, the music, no doubt, will convey the emotional resonance of the occasion. And Mr. Wadsworth will be hanging on every note. "I'm going to have so much fun in this, my 50th year," he smiles. "I'll be presenting pieces that I love very much. And I'm going to treat myself as good as I can."

Hitting the High Notes
In a career spanning more than six decades, Charles Wadsworth has earned international renown as the tireless pied piper of chamber music. His numerous career highlights include:

• Opening Alice Tully Hall in 1969
• Accompanying Beverly Sills on tour from 1967 - 1979
• Serving as Artistic Director of the "Olympic Celebration of Chamber Music" at Atlanta's Symphony Hall for the 1996 Summer Olympics
• Having the Newnan, Georgia, municipal auditorium renovated and named the Charles Wadsworth Auditorium, where Wadsworth has given annual concerts since 1990
• Receiving the Handel Medallion, New York City's highest cultural honor; the Republic of France's Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters, and Italy's Cavaliere Ufficiale in the Order of Merit; the South Carolina Order of the Palmetto and the Elizabeth O'Neill Verner Award
• Performing at the re-opening of a newly renovated Alice Tully Hall in 2009, with Paula Robison