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A Day in the Life of Spoleto’s Geoff Nuttall

A Day in the Life of Spoleto’s Geoff Nuttall
May 2019

The exuberant violinist celebrates his 10th season as director of Spoleto’s chamber music series in Charleston—his home away from home for three weeks each year

It’s 9 a.m. on the first Wednesday of Spoleto Festival USA, and Geoff Nuttall is an hour into dress rehearsal for that morning’s Bank of America Chamber Music concert at the Dock Street Theatre. It’s where the festival has long held this robust series—33 concerts spanning four centuries of music performed by a rotating roster of leading players—and where Nuttall as Spoleto’s director of Chamber Music spends more than six hours each day.

As the clock rounds the next hour, the musicians onstage can hear chatter building in the lobby. By 10:30 a.m., the ushers are keeping Nuttall’s diehard fans and soon-to-be classical music converts from all-but breaking down the doors. It’s no exaggeration: for the past three years, more than half of the hour-long, twice-daily concerts have been filled nearly to capacity.

“The size and consistency of the audience is really a testament to the festival and my predecessor Charles Wadsworth,” says Nuttall, a founding member of the renowned St. Lawrence String Quartet. “We play for more people by far during the two-and-a-half weeks of Spoleto than we do the entire rest of the year. Maybe in Carnegie Hall we’ll get about 700 people at once—but that’s in one shot, not for 33 straight performances.”

Child’s Play: Every festival season, Nuttall spends about six hours with local kids for outreach programs. Here, some children get a close look at Nuttall’s violin and bow after a special concert for individuals with autism and their families.

The violinist, known for his wild suits and hair matching an outsize stage presence (not to mention a staggering command of classical music history), first performed during the Spoleto series in 1995, when the St. Lawrence String Quartet was invited by then-director Wadsworth—a monumental and beloved pianist who had hosted the concerts in Charleston since 1977, the festival’s inaugural year. The Quartet kept coming back—and when Wadsworth made plans to retire, Nuttall was appointed his successor.

He’s officially based in California (the St. Lawrence String Quartet is in residence at Stanford University, where the artists direct the chamber music program and teach privately), but feels like an honorary Charlestonian. “I’ve lived in this city for at least three weeks every year since 1995,” he notes. “My wife [violinist Livia Sohn] and I got married in Charleston, celebrated our 15-year anniversary here. In my early years as a musician, I toured and was on the road so much that Charleston was the one place I’d be for the longest chunk of time.”

3 p.m. - Family Matters: The whole Nuttall crew—wife, Livia Sohn (a talented violinist herself) and sons, Jack and Ellis—comes to town each year. “My main challenge during the festival is balancing all the rehearsals and performances, plus schmoozing and meetings, with time to hang out with my family.

What’s changed in the last decade? “Musicians are never satisfied with the status quo. My challenge is to be better—a better performer, a better programmer, and a better host. I want to continue to hone how I speak about the music, use the artists to their fullest potentials, and adjust to the audiences’ likes and dislikes.”

That last challenge is sometimes a point of contention with Nuttall’s most passionate devotees. He’ll receive e-mails from patrons lamenting the programs’ contemporary selections tucked in amongst the 18th- or 19th-century favorites. Nuttall is committed to inviting composers to create new music, and he’s well known for his eclectic tastes. “I’m selfish; I program what I want to hear,” he says. “From my point of view, discovering new things—whether it’s a hobby, food, or even music—is fun. My closest friends are constantly curious, and I hope my audiences will share my enthusiasm for curiosity.”

5 p.m. - Practice Makes Perfect: Grammy-winning violist Masumi Per Rostad; St. Lawrence String Quartet violinist Owen Dalby; and bassist, composer, and Juilliard faculty member Doug Balliett rehearse with Nuttall at Spoleto headquarters before a special donor party and concert.

Enthusiasm is an understatement. Once called “The Jon Stewart of Chamber Music” by The New York Times, Nuttall’s signature introduction of each selection is lively, revealing, and not without some groan-worthy dad jokes. But he’s passionate, and that passion is infectious—evident in the camaraderie of the performers on stage and in the level of audience engagement when he speaks. His words are chosen carefully; there’s something to latch onto no matter one’s musical experience.

“Whether you’re seven years old and have never seen a violin up close or you’re an expert with a doctorate in music, I want you to leave humming, elated, or having felt emotionally put through the ringer,” he says. “Music connects us all. There’s no secret code to understand in order to feel moved.”