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Charles Wadsworth’s mixed emotions
Famed classical concert producer’s annual run of local chamber music shows comes to an end
Charles Wadsworth

CHARLES WADSWORTH IS AN ICON in the world of classical music.

Now 79, his name is to many people synonymous with chamber music. The Artistic Director for Chamber Music at the Spoleto USA Festival, for decades he has programmed that aspect of the world famous annual celebration of music and art. He also served as the founding Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center from 1969 to 1989, where he helped popularize chamber music by incorporating major, renowned soloists and insisting on a wide range of repertoire — and organized a notable concert during the 1996 Summer Olympics which featured Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Lynn Harrell and Frederica Von Stade.

It’s been said that this dedication and leadership by example has resulted in the creation of numerous chamber music festivals across the globe.

In addition, he regularly tours as a host with a rotating group of some of the finer classical players on today’s scene, bringing a taste of Spoleto-caliber high culture to a select group of cities along the East Coast.

For the past few years, Savannah has been a stop on those seasonal tours, but in a move some may have predicted (but which may surprise many others), Wadsworth has recently learned his upcoming show at the Lucas Theatre will be one of his last confirmed concerts in our city.

In a good-natured and surprisingly candid telephone interview, the ebullient, legendary pianist and show promoter opened up about his love for (and confusion regarding) Savannah and his profound disappointment at learning his series here will not be renewed.

What is it that drew you to focus on chamber music as opposed to another form of classical music?

Charles Wadsworth: Well, I was lucky enough to have had a teacher at the University of Georgia for a couple of years who listened to a lot of chamber music. I was attracted to it very much, and then I went to Juilliard to have a solo piano career, but a few years after getting out of there, I was taking part in the Spoleto Italy Festival. In 1959, Gian-Carlo Menotti asked me if I would like to start a daily chamber music series for the audiences at his festival. I was very honored and accepted, and having been given that opportunity, it introduced me to the huge wealth of the repertoire and the joy of working with musicians on this type of music. The wonderful thing is sharing and interpreting a beautiful piece of music — and in chamber music, we have an abundance of inspiration from great composers.

You’ve brought your chamber music tour through Savannah many times in the past. From your perspective, how have your efforts been received here?

Charles Wadsworth: Well, you know, I’m glad we can have a chance to talk about this. I think I started doing this series for the Savannah Concert Association about four years ago. I was overjoyed at the prospect, since I was already putting on concerts up and down the coast at many places in S.C., and up into New England and down to West Palm Beach. But I had never had a series in my home state. I had loved Savannah for many years. It’s such a gorgeous city. So, I was really, truly excited. But at this very moment, I’m filled with such mixed emotions.

What do you mean?

Charles Wadsworth: The series here in Beaufort has been going for about 12 years now, with five concerts a season. There was a gentlemen from Savannah who so loved classical music and the way classical artists work, and his name is Aaron Buchsbaum. He had attended my concerts at the Charleston Spoleto Festival and was a regular at these here in Beaufort. He was the real reason I started bringing shows to Savannah. Because the Symphony there had gone under, he wanted to get something new started over there, so he and a few interested people invited me to start a series at the Lucas Theatre. That was an enormous joy for me, because the Lucas is amazing. And to be in my native state with great musicians playing great music was just incredibly exciting!

Then something happened over the last few years that in my personal experience is totally unusual: You see, I was tremendously impressed that the Savannah Concert Association did all their administrative work with people who were volunteers. So, there was literally no overhead! Savannah is one of the very few places in the country that had a concerts series of this type and never had a deficit. And so, I went all over the country bragging about this organization, and the way they were able to manage this feat. So, in the course of the last few years, I was able to bring down a group of six or seven soloists from New York City. These were shows that were very reasonably priced, considering the caliber of the musicians involved and what their fees normally are.

Now, I’ve been producing concerts for 50 years, and one thing that is simply a fact in this business is that your box office income can never cover the cost of a concert at this level. You feel lucky if you can make one-third of your cost through ticket sales! You have to do fund-raising, or find some sort of underwriting, whether that comes from the government or through corporate or private donations. First-rate attractions just don’t pay for themselves through ticket sales. Even when I was at Lincoln Center in New York, we sold out every show 110 percent, but we still had to raise money from corporations.

Now, this is the inside story, because what’s happening is that my series is being cancelled in Savannah at the end of this season. They’re going to bring me back for one show next year because it’s my 80th birthday, but that’s all. And this is because the amount of box office receipts my concerts brought in did not equal the fee we had to charge.

So that didn’t surprise you?

Charles Wadsworth: Not particularly. But the reason this became a problem is that the Savannah Concert Association did not have the proper direction, and did not look into state or national endowments for the type of support this sort of thing requires. So many of the places I travel to and work in have that type of support in place, but your local association had never gone that route, and they were not willing to do so. Instead, all of the sudden, I was informed that my shows were seen as the cause of preventing them from being in the black.

We’ve done shows there in Savannah that were not outrageously expensive, and had strong local support, so the box office was good for those shows. But unbeknownst to me, the folks in charge there just didn’t have a clear understanding of how this business works. I mean, I’ll have a group of five musicians, each of whom may typically command as much as $10,000 per concert. But I am able to get five of them to go out and do a chamber concert for a total of $10,000, or even less! So, I do regret that apparently over the last year or so, I became something of a financial hardship for them.

But this situation they now find themselves in is not common in my world. I’m talking about the way this works all over the country. I wish that I had been apprised earlier in the game by the folks in charge down there as to what was actually going on, because helping to remedy situations like that has been part of my job for decades as an artistic director in both Italy and Charleston! I was constantly working with those boards on ways to raise the funds required to mount those concerts.

It’s been an enormous joy and a pleasure to have received the invitation to bring this series to Savannah. But the folks in charge down there had an idea that you simply don’t go out and raise money for things like this. I was so impressed that they were all doing the work for free and it seemed like everything always took care of itself. When they first became worried that my concerts weren’t paying for themselves, if they’d have talked to me right then and there, I would have been thrilled to participate in their efforts to solve the problem — just as I have done numerous times over the past 50 years.

See, I’ve been through all of this before. But it seems there was a very lovely naivete in place which kept the organizers from properly understanding how to meet these challenges, and their board took certain positions privately. I thought everything was just rosy, and only even learned there was a problem at all in the past few months.

Can you envision a time when this could be resolved and you could return to Savannah on a regular basis?

Charles Wadsworth: It would thrill me to find there was a way to reorganize this and bring me and my musicians back down there often after this season is over. When they told me they would only do one more concert in 2009 in honor of my 80th birthday, that was a lovely, and I accepted. I feel a strong personal bond with many of the people involved in the Savannah Concert Association. They had the best of intentions, but just didn’t understand how this level of the professional music world operates.

They have recently started bringing in some talented young people to perform recitals, many of whom have won some awards in the region, and as a result, they are drawing a good crowd for those shows. Those ticket sales, coupled with the low prices these musicians command at this early stage in their career, make concerts like that easier to succeed financially.

Anyway, this has been extremely sad and disappointing, because I loved the idea of a series of four or five concerts a year in your city. I just wonder whether some other issues like this have not been explained properly to the community there as well. It’s important that people in Savannah learn what’s really necessary to keep a valuable project of this sort going. I know it’s somewhat easier to do this in bigger cities, but I’ve seen great success in Camden and Columbia, S.C., and even right here in Beaufort. So, I know it can be done!

When you have brought your series to Savannah, have you been comfortable in the way you’ve been presented?

Charles Wadsworth: The ideal hall for us is the Lucas, but sometimes it has not been available on the nights the Savannah Concert Association wanted, and we’ve had to go into the Trustees Theater, which is a nice room, but was not really designed for acoustic concert performances. It’s more geared for bigger scale stuff that’s meant to be heavily amplified. So, we were at a disadvantage. The folks at the Lucas are so extremely comfortable with what they do, but we were still able to work with the Trustees staff to amplify chamber music — which is essentially never done, except when it’s being performed outdoors. We did this very subtly, and it worked out well. Most folks didn’t even realize it was being done.

As someone deeply involved with the annual Spoleto Festival, have you kept up with the growth of the classical music programming her at the Savannah Music Festival?

Charles Wadsworth: I’ve been very impressed, because I know so many of the artists that take part and how high of a quality they are. I think Rob Gibson has a done a terrific job, from what I’ve heard. I’ve never been able to make any of the performances, but I would assume that with that promotion machine in place, they are well attended. You know, Gibson has been a contender and he has the know-how about presentation. I have not checked the attendance figures, but you can call attention to a festival in a different way than a concert series strung out over the course of a year.

Another mistake that I think may have been made is that even though I am a Georgian, I am much more of a known commodity in S.C., because I’ve been active there for 32 years. I’ve put on concerts all over that state. But in Savannah, they have been advertising my series as “Charles Wadsworth and Friends”. That came from the people who were used to seeing me over here. They thought that I was such a hotshot in Beaufort, that I’d be one there. (laughs)

But, you know, the divide between Savannah and Charleston is so great. People over there where you are don’t even know anything about it! It’s so strange to me, but there are plenty of folks in Charleston who won’t come to the Savannah Music Festival. There’s a very real divide there, and so I suggested to the people in charge of the Concert Association’s board that they try presenting this series as something like “The Great Artists of Chamber Music”, and have my name in small letters near the bottom. It would have been a more clever way to market the shows, but it wasn’t done. I’d even have been happy to leave my name off entirely, as long as it drew an audience to hear these concerts!

There is a wonderful, intelligent man who has been the president of the Savannah Concert Association for many years. He was the major spokesman for these concerts, yet he does not use e-mail, or even have an answering machine. And faxing is not an easy thing to do. Often, I —as artistic director— couldn’t find him or really get in touch with the organization. So, I believe it has also been difficult for word to spread properly of these shows in your local press.

So, based on your own experience, what would you characterize as the most important thing the SCA could do in the short term to help strengthen their organization?

Charles Wadsworth: There’s been so much goodwill involved in this whole experience from all sides. But rather that making this whole organization work with a volunteer staff, it would obviously be to their advantage to bite the bullet and hire people qualified to do proper public relations. I don’t want it to seem like I am in any way insulting anyone involved with the Savannah Concert Association, because everything has been done with the best of intentions and excitement on their parts. They are all good people. They just don’t have the knowledge or experience required to make something like this grow.

Another horrendous thing that is happening lately all around the country is that music and drama critics are being laid off by the newspapers. It’s my understanding that the Savannah Morning News has no dedicated music critic on staff now, and you need things like that in a town to encourage attendance for all of the arts. People such as yourself who have a real interest are what’s needed. I was always very fortunate in New York and Italy with having things appear in the newspaper. Now, even the Atlanta Journal & Constitution has eliminated the position of a staff music reviewer. They actually don’t have a permanent music critic! Now, they might get a swinger. No, not a swinger. What’s that called again?

A stringer?

Charles Wadsworth: A stringer! (laughs) They should hire a swinger to review music. (laughs) Now, that sort of thing could be included in a Connect article, couldn’t it? (laughs)

What can you tell me about your feelings for the Miro Quartet, who’ll be featured in this particular program?

Charles Wadsworth: We’ve had a situation that is one of the most difficult to deal with. When it comes to vocalists —especially tenors and sopranos— they often have to be replaced at the last minute, and they have other singers waiting to do just that. Just the other week at The Met, Tristan & Isolde had four different tenors before the evening was finished! One after another they just dropped off for one reason or another.

Now, the most intricate form of performance in the world of chamber music is the string quartet repertoire. Sometimes you’ll spend hundreds of hours working on one big piece so four specific people can be fluent in all the tiniest details of the work. If you lose one of those people, well, you ain’t got a string quartet! We were informed about ten days ago that the violist in the Miro Quartet —which is a superb group by the way— the violist had become very ill and was hospitalized with pneumonia.

I set about with my Associate Artistic Director to find a violist immediately. We could have done a program with just three strings, but we found a remarkable violist who has worked really hard with the group. The program required some changes (laughs), and so we had to make a special program just for Savannah.

Another issue that has complicated things in the past is that we had so many problems actually getting a date at the Lucas Theatre. One reason for that is the Savannah Concert Association only ever wants us to appear on Saturday nights. I have been able to convince other places in the country that they’ll often have just as big a crowd —if not a bigger one— if they shoot for different times. Sometimes even afternoon shows are much more successful. But they have the feeling in Savannah that they can only do concerts Saturday evenings.

And the Lucas has so many events going on all the time, plus the many nights it is used for the art college, that we just could never get the right dates. We are travelling around with all these musicians, and so we have to string dates together in the most logical way. It’s been awkward sometimes because of the lack of flexibility in changing the night of the week.

Since you have had to replace one of the musicians, has that affected the actual program for this show?

Charles Wadsworth: Yes. Now, we do still have the Armensky pice, because that has two violins and two cellos, so there was no violist needed. Now, there will also be one of the London Trios by Haydn. We have modified that for two violins and a cello, and it will work just fine. There will be a Beethoven string quartet as well. As have often been done in the world of music, I’ll be announcing in my own inimitable and stupid fashion what will actually be happening. (laughs)

The new violist has been great to work with, and they’ve all been working their whatevers off to get this Beethoven thing right. The standards of the Miro Quartet are extremely high, so it’s been like pulling teeth to get this concert together under these difficult circumstances.

I’m always curious when speaking with folks who are so closely associated with a particular genre of music to find out what other sorts of stuff they listen to. Is there any artist or genre of music that you’re particularly fond of which folks who known you only in relation to your chamber music tours might find surprising or unexpected?

Charles Wadsworth: Well, in my thirties, I had two very intense years of post-graduate study in orchestral repertoire, so that naturally interests me very much. I love good jazz — the really, really good stuff. And I have always loved great soloists — violin, piano, or whatever that happened to be around. When I was younger, if I was able to go and see (Artur) Rubinstein or (Rudolf) Serkin, I was always there. Now, because I’m involved in presenting so much music, most of the recordings and CDs I listen to are for audition purposes. I don’t listen to classical music too much on the radio, but my wife and I will go to certain concerts to hear specific people play or to hear particular performances, based on what’s being played and whether or not they’re acquaintances. But since I have to be up there myself playing so much music, I don’t want my get my ears too cluttered with classical music.

I’ll tell you that one of the most exciting evenings I have had in recent memory was in New York City this past Thursday. We went to the first revival of South Pacific in its original form with a full orchestra and an amazing cast at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. I had been fortunate enough to have seen it on Broadway in the ‘50s, and Rodgers and Hammerstein is incredibly exciting to me. I was totally overpowered by the genuine and true emotions of the piece. I feel sorry that young people and people in their thirties and forties today simply don’t have access to the great stuff we had in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

You’ve been very open about the limitations you feel the Savannah Concert Association has placed on themselves, but how much of a role might the actual mood of Savannah play into the viability of hosting touring classical music concerts?

Charles Wadsworth: Well, a friend of mine who I was visiting with last week used to play in the Savannah Symphony, and they were saying that their experience over several years of playing in that group, was that people just weren’t showing up to see those concerts. I’m curious as to what would cause the Savannah audiences not to turn out in great numbers. In Columbia and Beaufort it’s great. I have a rough time understanding the city of Savannah. You might do some research and give me a call in New York City sometime if you figure it out. (laughs) See, I am originally from Newnan, Ga., and that’s in the middle of the state. I have gotten the distinct feeling over the last few years that Savannah was kind of a stranger of sorts, out there on its own. Almost like a separate entity from the rest of the state.

Like we’re in a big bubble.

Charles Wadsworth: Yes, exactly — like there’s a bubble around Savannah.

We’re on the coast, but we’re not really isolated here at all. But there is a distinct feeling of otherness that can sometimes emanate from the town and that bubble we spoke of can sometimes contribute to folks ignoring conventional wisdom, and insisting on doing things their own way with blinders on, when that very approach may have already been proven a failure at plenty of other places near and far.

Charles Wadsworth: Yes. I don’t have that feeling in Charleston, for example. It’s fascinating to me in that your city is so filled with charm and character — it’s magnificent, really. And there are individuals there who are tremendous folks. But I don’t sense an overwhelming urge to really support things such as the opera or theater.

Well, I’ve lived here since 1986, and I can personally vouch for (and own up to my fair share of) Savannah’s legendary and perplexing apathy.

Charles Wadsworth: I’m interested that you live there and recognize that this does exist to some extent. That would certainly play a role in the attendance of classical music concerts. It’s rough when the last few generations have not been as involved as perhaps they once were. Savannah seems to pride itself on being a sophisticated community, but there are some things displayed there that seem not to reflect that mind-set.

Well, Charles, I greatly appreciate you speaking with me for so long today. I’ll do my best to represent our conversation as accurately as I can in the paper, and I wish you continued success and safe travels. Hopefully I’ll be able to attend one of your last two Savannah performances.

Charles Wadsworth: Well, I hope to find a way to continue to present shows there, but if not, please come see me in Beaufort. We have a wonderful time over there!

Charles Wadsworth & Friends (cellist Edward Aaron & The Miro Quartet)

Where: Lucas Theatre

When: 8 pm, Sat., April 12

Cost: $35 - $12.50 with Student Discounts available at or 525-5050