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Musical worlds collide at Spoleto Festival USA Chamber Music Series

Paul Wiancko, Director of Chamber Music at Spoleto Festival USA.

At the start of his first season as the festival's Director of Chamber Music, cellist and composer Paul Wiancko seeks a meeting place of "musical universes" at Charleston's Dock Street Theatre.

Paul Wiancko has been an integral part of the Spoleto Festival USA Chamber Music Series for the past several years, sharing his talents as both a featured performer and composer-in-residence. And now, the cellist who joined the boundary-breaking Kronos Quartet just last year, is stepping into his first season as Spoleto Festival’s Director of Chamber Music.

Wiancko is the one who puts it all together—coordinating over 20 world class musicians coming to Charleston’s Dock Street Theatre for 11 unique programs, each performed three times. But as Wiancko told Sonatas and Soundscapes host Bradley Fuller, the musical magic that happens at Dock Street isn’t about imposing his vision as much as it is putting perspectives and voices into dialogue with each other—in letting musical worlds collide.


BRADLEY FULLER: Paul, thanks so much for joining!

PAUL WIANCKO: Hey, my pleasure Bradley!

FULLER: Well, another Spoleto Festival is upon us, but this season is the first with you as director of the festival's chamber music series. Of course, you've been a featured performer before, you've been the composer-in-residence—how important would you say your previous Spoleto experience has been when it comes to informing your approach for this director role?

WIANCKO: You know, that's a great question. For me, I cannot imagine stepping into this role without having been actually both a composer and a performer at Spoleto before. There are just many moving parts and in the context of other festivals that I participate in, Spoleto really stands out. It's a very uniquely structured festival. It requires a lot of hard work which is balanced out by really satisfying experiences and a deeply collaborative effort. But it requires a certain type of musician, actually. Basically, everyone at Spoleto needs to work really hard [laughter]. That’s the bottom line, you know, to put on 33 concerts over the course of two and a half weeks.

(L-R) Violinists Alexi Kenney and Benjamin Beilman, cellist Nina Lee, and violists Gabriela Diaz and Ayane Kozasa performing at the Dock Street Theatre during the 2023 Spoleto Festival USA Chamber Music Series.
(L-R) Violinists Alexi Kenney and Benjamin Beilman, cellist Nina Lee, and violists Gabriela Diaz and Ayane Kozasa performing at the Dock Street Theatre during the 2023 Spoleto Festival USA Chamber Music Series.

You know, as a performer, for me, it didn't feel like a big deal. It was just kind of a go, go, go, you know. You put together two performances a day and then you rehearse afterwards. And that never bothered me. But now, I kind of realize Wow, that's a lot of work. So, to find people who are really incredible and virtuosic and artistically have something important to say—and at the same time are willing to give that sort of time—I kind of understand what a big deal that is and I'm really, really proud of the roster that we have this season because they’re all full of exactly those types of people: really hard-working, deep, deep artists.

FULLER: Once again, this year's series offers a balance of those absolute classics alongside contemporary works and many that might fit somewhere in between. In the first category, there's fare by Bach, Mozart Beethoven, the Debussy String Quartet, Schumann Piano Quartet (one of my personal favorites) and I think, what may be the signature work of the series, if I had to pick one: the Schubert String Quintet in C Major aka the Cello Quintet. Was that just a given for you, not only as a cellist but as someone who's stepping into this long-running series?

WIANCKO: Absolutely. That was one of the very first pieces that I performed with the Saint Lawrence String Quartet. That piece was sort of the way I got to know them better as human beings and sort of became friends during the process of rehearsing the Schubert Quintet. And I also know that that piece was an integral part of the tradition of Spoleto chamber music before (former artistic director) Geoff Nuttall took over. And it's also, you know, a personal favorite of mine. So it just made sense to include it. And this year we are having the three—Owen, Leslie, and Chris—from the Saint Lawrence quartet back once more as our sort of spiritual ensemble-in-residence. So I thought it would be really beautiful to do the Schubert Quintet one more time.

FULLER: Certainly a lot of familiar names not only in the composers list but again, many returning performers, you know: names that those who have gone to the series for a long time will recognize from the past such as those members of the Saint Lawrence String Quartet, as you were saying there. But of course, the Spoleto Chamber Music Series has a tradition as well of not being strictly traditional—being full of innovation, and there’s always some firsts to talk about I think with each season, including, I think, what stands out to me, a new composer-in-residence who’s a big name in contemporary music: Reena Esmail. Congratulations on getting to give the world premiere of her string quartet!

WIANCKO: You know, I appreciate that Bradley. Thank you. I feel very, very proud to have gotten Reena to be the composer-in-residence for my first summer as director. Reena is just off the charts in her understanding of music now and just what she's after as a composer is so beautiful—to marry the worlds of Western classical music and Indian classical music. She is an Indian American composer living in Los Angeles. Her musical language just resonates so deeply with me and with what I want to do at Spoleto, which is use different musical languages to inform each other; have different artists present who will inform each other. And I think that the programming does reflect that. But Reena especially—if you're not familiar with her music, please check it out. Give yourself a primer before coming down to the festival. It is absolutely, stunningly beautiful. There are hints of improvisation. It's beautifully flourishing. There's a deep knowledge of Western classical music and harmony in her writing and there's also something deeply, deeply personal that I have never heard before in my life that only Reena can write.

So we're really, really excited just to have her and her music as a part of the festival this year and the fact that Reena will be with us for several programs to present her own work. And you know, it's amazing because we've been able to share Reena's music across the festival. The orchestra will also be doing a fantastic piece of hers, as well as the choir which does have a piece of hers on the program with solo cello parts which I will be joining for—as if we're not busy enough just on the chamber series.

FULLER: And she's one of several contemporary composers. I was glancing at this year's program—of all the 11 programs—and I think there was only one without a work by at least one currently-living composer. And even on that program there's some Henry Cowell and George Crumb (who passed away not too long ago) featured in this musical mashup from Pedja Muzijevic putting those two in dialogue with CPE Bach, so, you know, I think we could almost count that one as well. So did it feel like a kind of cornerstone of your mission as director to make sure that there was at least one contemporary piece on each program?

WIANCKO: You know what, I have to be honest: sometimes I had to make sure there was at least one old piece on each program [laughter]. You know, that's just kind of how my brain works and my musical taste follows. I'm always hungry for contrast. And as a classical cellist, you know, who started playing cello when he was five years old, Bach and Beethoven and Mozart and all those guys are a serious part of who I am as a musician. And, you know, over the decades I have collected and added on to who I consider, myself, as a musician and an artist and the things that I love. And it's just made my life better.

And that's the same road that sort of led me to the Kronos Quartet—just to be able to appreciate as wide range of music as possible has simply made my life better. So it has really nothing to do with proving anything or fitting a formula or making sure “Get your daily dose of,” you know, “take your new music vitamin pill” or anything like that. These programs have been, I would say, composed. I've used my composer brain.

All of the artists who will be on the series I have chosen because they each come with a sort of universe of their own—their life, their career, the composers, and the expertise and the specialties that they have developed over the course of their life—has been a really important factor in terms of what they're bringing to Spoleto, at least from my sort of curatorial vantage points. And so every artist brings with them this universe of experience in music and expertise, and that has really informed where these programs go as well.

Violinist Owen Dalby (left), cellist Paul Wiancko (center), and violist Ayane Kozasa (right) perform at Charleston's Dock Street Theatre during the 2023 Spoleto Festival USA.
Violinist Owen Dalby (left), cellist Paul Wiancko (center), and violist Ayane Kozasa (right) perform at Charleston's Dock Street Theatre during the 2023 Spoleto Festival USA.

So, for example, Ian Rosenbaum—the percussionist—he's a fantastic person. A great guy. Hilarious. An absolute monster on the percussion. And willing to work hard. So he's perfect for Spoleto. But he also brings with him a whole ocean of musical repertoire that he has commissioned, that he knows like the back of his hand. Music that was written by composers that are friends of his. He just is such a wellspring of important music. So a lot of the pieces that he will be performing are things that are the music that he's bringing with him, I would say. So we worked closely together to program those things. And that sort of goes for all of the artists. It's not just picking and choosing—it's not just me picking and choosing the music that we play. It's getting all of these musical universes down to Charleston at once and seeing what happens.

FULLER: Certainly. Paul, it sounds like there's a lot of excitement in the air and that you are just channeling this into your first year as Director of the Spoleto Festival USA Chamber Music Series. Thanks so much for sharing all about it today and all best for 2024.

WIANCKO: Thank you so much, Bradley. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

Spoleto Festival USA's Bank of America Chamber Music Series runs through June 9th, featuring 11 programs performed three times each. More information about those programs and other festival offerings can be found at

Spoleto Festival USA is a financial supporter of South Carolina Public Radio.

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Originally from Greenwood, SC, Bradley Fuller has maintained a deep interest in classical music since the age of six. With piano lessons throughout grade school and involvement in marching and concert bands on the saxophone, Bradley further developed musical abilities as well as an appreciation for the importance of arts education.