Daily Archives: June 17, 2022

Music and Museum Delivers a “Kaleidoscope” in Four Quartets

Review: “A Kaleidoscope Concert” @ Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

By Perry Tannenbaum

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May 22, 2022, Charlotte, NC – For more than 12 years, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art has done a wondrous job of making modern painting, sculpture, and architecture enjoyable for the Charlotte community – while infusing fresh pride and enthusiasm in the community for the modern art and artists in their midst. At the same time, the Bechtler has also diligently championed photography and cinema at special events while providing a steady stream of modern music through series like Jazz at the Bechtler and Music and Museum.

Like the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte at ImaginOn, the year-round breadth and excellence of the Bechtler Museum’s programming and exhibitions can easily be taken for granted. But a revisit to the latest Music and Museum concert, a string quartet potpourri performed by members of The Bechtler Ensemble, reminded me how seriously the Museum takes their mission and how tirelessly they retune their presentations.

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Moving downstairs to the lobby from an exhibition hall above, Music and Museum feels more relaxed, casual, and clubbier than when the series began. The sonics of the lobby hadn’t sounded much different to me when The Bechtler Ensemble played a program of Beatles compositions back in November, all newly arranged for string quartet by Mark Adam Watkins, with guitarist Bob Teixeira added to the Bechtler’s Fab Four on a couple of tunes. But seated up front for the Bechtlers’ latest “Kaleidoscope Concert,” I was astonished by the improvement as soon as Vasily Gorkovoy played the main theme of Bedřich Smetana’s Allegro vivo appassionato, the opening movement of his “From My Life” String Quartet No. 1, and first violinist Lenora Leggatt lifted it higher in the treble.

Looking back at my photos from the Beatles concert, I could see a more probable cause for the acoustic improvement than our seat location: the curtains behind the players were gone, opening our eyes to the Museum’s rear entrance, which connects it to the adjoining Knight Theater with a wall of glass – and a somewhat breathtaking view, since the strip of lighting along the rim of the Knight’s outer balcony kept changing colors, traversing all the rainbow hues of the spectrum. Bouncing off glass instead of drapery, the sounds of the string quartet were no less enhanced than the view behind them.

2022~Kaleidoscope-16The Bechtler’s new executive director, Todd DeShields Smith, shared the emceeing with the Ensemble’s founder and director, cellist Tanja Bechtler. With Bechtler introducing the kaleidoscope of composers and music she had programmed after Smith had spoken to us about thematically connected artworks and sculpture, this format hearkened back to the original upstairs setup when the series started over a decade ago. Yet there was improvement here as well. Instead of projections while Smith spoke, three of the four artworks he discussed were in the room, flanking the musicians, including an interesting painting by Alexander Calder, which was stood up on its frame in a corner.

While the whimsical work by a Prague artist, simple drawings on canvas surrounding a cut-out of a manila envelope (so that “Express” depicted a dog walking on four human feet), belonged more solidly in the modern era, the whimsy of it all permitted the transgression of reaching back into the 19th century for the excerpts from Smetena’s 1876 quartet. Taking charge more fully on the musical intros, as she had done with the Beatles, Bechtler told us how the two movements chosen from the quartet came from Smetena’s life, the first hearkening back to his youthful beginnings as an artist and the third movement, a tender Largo, commemorating the death of his first wife.

2022~Kaleidoscope-18The pairing of these two movements was doubly atypical. We concluding with a slow tempo Largo sostenuto instead of a customary speed-up, and the Largo opened with Bechtler’s cello as the lead voice, once again usurping the first violin’s customary position. Legatt eventually came to the fore with a lovely cadenza after harmonizing deliciously with second violinist Tatiana Karpova. Bechtler was far from done, excelling in a cadenza of her own before taking the lead for a second time.

Smith proceeded to discuss the only projection on display, Nicolas de Staël’s Landscape, painted in 1951. Bechtler recalled so charmingly her memories of this 32×51 piece, shown in a photo hanging over the family’s mantlepiece, that I completely forgot what connection she or Smith drew between de Staël’s painting and the snip from Sergei Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 1 that was coupled with it. Chalk that down to letting my mind drift from considering how the painting resembled a German flag and how the figures de Staël superimposed on those dominant colors made the composition look more to me like a moonscape.

2022~Kaleidoscope-05Bechtler’s intro did register with me when she spoke about how Prokofiev struggled with the commission to write his first string quartet. The outcome to me was a delightful hybrid, Legatt sounding jubilantly in the main theme like she was on a lark with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, while the accompaniment sounded very traditional, not adventurous at all. Harmonies between the two violinists were refreshingly audacious, however, and Karpova finally had a chance to show off her prowess when she took over the lead.

Philip Glass detractors could have taken special delight in Bechtler’s recollection of a strictly geometrical, monochromatic, and humdrum artwork that Smith had lavished his erudition on, somehow linking it with the composer. Bechtler admitted that she had never realized the piece was an artwork when she routinely walked by it in her childhood home, thinking it was merely something “you put stuff in.” Thankfully, the quartet, adapted from Glass’s film score for Mishima, was far more colorful and exciting. Legatt ostensibly had the lead as the “1957: Award Montage” movement busily unfolded like an industrious beehive, but Bechtler’s legato accompaniment often merited more attention as the repetitions continued, and the cellist briefly took over the lead. The swirl and solemnity of the closing were particularly affecting.

The last installment in this “Kaleidoscope” was the most explicitly colorful, a homespun Calder painting of a row of flowers and Patrick Williams’ “The Bay Is Deep Blue.” Stems of Calder’s flowers seemed to drip down the paper they were painted on, and Bechtler admitted it was a favorite of hers when she was growing up – inspired, she had heard, by the artist’s urge to imitate and/or replace some wallpaper. Williams’ quartet was no less agreeable, written in a jazzy idiom detonated by speedy bass-like pizzicatos from Bechtler’s cello, leading to some playful, rhythmically insistent chuffing sounds vocalized by the entire Ensemble. The piece was divided into three sections, differentiated more emphatically at the Music and Museum concert than in the recording by Quartet San Francisco.

In the middle section, perhaps the most satisfying of them all, we slowed down to a Western swing groove with Legatt seizing the lead and showcasing some nifty double-bowing. Here the “Blue” could have categorized as bluegrass as well as jazz. The final section started off even slower, with Legatt playing a cadenza over some weepy cello and viola tremolos. Then we abruptly made a U-turn back to the beginning and its unmistakable chuffing sounds and infectious speed. Very much in a jazz idiom, all four of the players drew solo spots, merrily handing off to one another at a frantic pace as their “Kaleidoscope Concert” took its last spin.

Bechtler was no less diligent in researching Williams than his predecessors. Apparently, Williams (1939-2018) scored more than 200 films and composed music for such diverse TV gems as Monk, Columbo, The Slap Maxwell Story, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Maybe it’s time for excavation and re-evaluation.

Originally published on 6/20 at CVNC.org

Warren-Green Bids Farewell With a Rousing Beethoven “Ode to Joy”

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Beethoven’s Ninth

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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May 20, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Even back in the early ‘90s, when Charlotte Symphony struggled to sustain respectable mediocrity, the valedictory concert led by Leo Driehuys in 1993 proved that the orchestra could always rise to the occasion when called upon to perform Beethoven’s thrilling Ninth Symphony. Having heard the same ensemble bludgeon Beethoven’s “Eroica” to blandness just months earlier, it was hard for me to believe that the inspiration came solely from the composer. I struggled with the answer to this anomaly until I interviewed Driehuys’s successor, Peter McCoppin, shortly before his final season at the end of the millennium.

Not referencing Beethoven at all, but explaining why he enjoyed his years in Charlotte so thoroughly, McCoppin observed that the Queen City is incredibly fertile ground for choristers and choruses. You just had to count the churches around town to see his point. Not only had the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte brought extra spark to Beethoven’s “Choral Symphony,” they had also arguably sparked the Charlotte Symphony musicians they were partnering with.

The Oratorios have undergone numerous metamorphoses during the past three decades, at discreet intervals absorbed into Symphony, renamed the Charlotte Symphony Chorus, and eventually set free to seek their own gigs, rebranded once again as the Charlotte Master Chorale. Yet each time it was necessary to muster the instrumental and vocal artillery needed for Beethoven’s masterwork – indeed, classical music’s masterwork – the Chorale has admirably answered the call.

In a recent interview prefacing his valedictory concert as Symphony’s music director after 12 fruitful seasons, Christopher Warren-Green revealed that the chorus had been “one of the big incentives for me to come to Charlotte because of the great repertoire that was written for orchestra and chorus.” Little wonder, then, that Maestro Warren-Green has chosen to conclude his tenure by including the Master Chorale in his final “Ode to Joy” concert – or that he has already announced that, when he returns this coming December as Symphony’s music adviser and conductor laureate, the choir will be in the mix once more as he conducts Handel’s Messiah at Knight Theater.

There always seem to be extra layers of drama and excitement when the “Choral Symphony” returns to Belk Theater, never more than when Christof Perick made his 2001 debut as music director just 10 days after 9/11. Fast forward to the fourth Ninth that Symphony has programmed since then, and there was still a palpable sense of a special occasion in the hall. Symphony president and CEO David Fisk saluted Warren-Green before he made his grand entrance, greeted with a lusty standing ovation. Maestro then pooh-poohed all of Fisk’s accolades, paid tribute to four newly retired Symphony musicians, and – prior to a nifty and brief exit – exhorted the audience to keep supporting the CSO “or I’ll never forgive you.”

That was the last laugh of the evening as Warren-Green returned to the podium, signaled the Chorale to be seated, and presided over the Symphony as Beethoven brought them to a boil, quicker than a microwave oven, in his opening Allegro ma non troppo. Warren-Green’s Ninth would by a turbulent one, far more timely than timeless, discarding many chances for liquid lyricism in favor of alert and spirited rigor – almost militant but never quite lapsing into rigidity with the onset of its rousing quicker tempos. The incisiveness of Jacob Lipham’s timpani came upon us quickly, never allowing us to rest for long, while the affecting woodwinds and the lively strings offered eloquent counterweights.

When we reached the Molto vivace second movement, with its industrious bustle and perpetual overlapping, Warren-Green enabled us to hear early foreshadowings of the teeming humanity we’ll find in the epic fourth movement, struggling toward togetherness and brotherhood. Excitement in the overlaps between various sections of the orchestra was increased dramatically by spasmodic boosts in dynamics and the sharp whacks of the timpani. Also pushing against the flow of the violins and the warmth of the cellos were the percolating winds and the moaning French horns.

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Between the second and third movements, the last true pause in this symphony, the guest soloists entered and took their seats at center stage: bass baritone Jordan Bisch, tenor Sean Panikkar, soprano Alicia Russell Tagert, and (substituting for Briana Hunter) mezzo-soprano Sarah Larson. The two little girls seated in front of my mom and me perked up expectantly at this point, only to be let down by the relatively tranquil Adagio molto e cantabile. The little girls weren’t as restless or fidgety during this lovely movement as you might expect little boys to be, but their attentiveness waned noticeably – despite the sweetness of the first violins, the affecting violas and second violins, and the mellifluous woodwinds and horns. Their adorable decorum was threatened most by the beautiful confluence between clarinet, horn, and flute as the penultimate movement faded into the concluding Presto.

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Having this glorious score in front of you, with its magnificent build-up to the signature fireworks waiting to explode, must be so gratifying and fulfilling as a musical conductor stands on the podium, heading into the homestretch of his 12-year tenure. Surely, the musicians and choristers sensed the excitement and shared an eagerness to deliver. The first violins were certainly ardent and rich over the churning violas and second violins as the build-up began, yet as the gradual gravitation toward the brotherhood theme was beginning, I noticed that Warren-Green was doing something different and new. Instead of seating his cellos and double basses to our right, they were now spread in a long row, starting in front of the podium and reaching to the left edge of the stage in nearly a straight line.

So there was a little more than the usual edge as the journey to the brotherhood theme launched, continuing with dogged inevitability after the woodwinds mischievously flashed back to the agitations of the second movement. Violas layered onto the cellos and basses, adding to the smoldering sensation, and the violins accelerated the familiar strains until the brass made them soar. The little girls in front of us were completely re-engaged ahead of the next magnificent build. Bisch sounded stronger and more robust in his opening declaration, “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! (Oh friends, not these sounds!),” culminating in the announcement of his Joy agenda (“Freude!”), than he did reprising the brotherhood refrain as he plunged into Friedrich Schiller’s “An die Freude (Ode to Joy).” More than a couple of bass baritones who have recorded these passages have fared the same. Perhaps that was Beethoven’s design, for ample reinforcements will emphatically arrive on the scene, first the soloists and then the phalanxes of choristers who were elevated over everyone upstage, ably representing Schiller’s millions.

At least a couple of regatherings follow, as all of us who love the Ninth well know. There’s a grand, brassy military march while the vocalists inhale for awhile and hold their fire, and then there are those sublime audible inhalations as Schiller’s lyrics, helpfully translated in supertitles above the Belk stage, took us “above the canopy of stars” in an ethereally protracted chord. When the Master Chorale reached peak tempo in the concluding Allegro assai vivace, like a herd of horses urged by Warren-Green to full gallop, one of the little girls turned to the other with an OMG expression on her face that her mom would have treasured until her dying day if she had seen it. At this moment, the greatest pleasure in watching kids experience this magnificent storm of sound for the first time is being able to say to yourself. “You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!”

Originally published on 5/22 at CVNC.org