Tag Archives: Lenora Leggatt

The Bechtler Ensemble’s Birthday Beatles Is a Big Hit

Review: The Bechtler Ensemble Plays The Beatles

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Celebrating her father’s 80th birthday, Tanja Bechtler and her string quartet found a charming way to mark the occasion, commissioning composer/arranger Mark Adam Watkins to produce a bouquet of a dozen new Beatle song arrangements for the Bechtler Ensemble. The gift was presented in the form of a world premiere concert, part of the Music and Museum series at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, where Andreas Bechtler, founder of the Museum, sat proudly and happily in the front row. Making the concert even more of an artsy (and family) affair, Polaroid shots of the Bechtler family taken by Andy Warhol in 1973 – and the artworks that resulted from them – were projected on the upstage wall, during the musicmaking and during Tanja’s meticulously researched remarks on the tunes and arrangements.

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Watkins’ arrangements gave due deference to the leader of the Bechtler Ensemble’s instrument, the cello, but they were remarkably even-handed in offering extended opportunities for violist Vasily Gorkovoy and second violinist Tatiana Karpova to excel. Lenora Leggatt on first violin hardly eclipsed her cohorts, so evenly were the labors divided, and guitarist Bob Teixeira joined this Fab Four on a couple of the tunes, becoming an honorary Fifth Bechtler.

Watkins lists Beyoncé, Al Jarreau, and Lou Rawls most prominently among his previous collaborations, but it quickly became apparent that he knew his way around arranging for string quartet. On the other hand, arrangements of “Eleanor Rigby,” “Let It Be,” and “Live and Let Die” underscored how much classical influence already infused the original Top 40 hits. Lesser known selections like “Julia,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Blackbird” supplanted such imperishable earworms as “Yesterdays,” “Lady Madonna,” and “Penny Lane” in the Ensemble’s survey, making the daughter’s gift to her father more heartfelt and personal. Oftentimes in her intros, Tanja would also spotlight phrases or sections of a lyric that were meaningful for her.

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Not at all surprisingly, the Ensemble started off with one of the Beatles’ most familiar tunes, George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” the most streamed song on Spotify by the British rockers. Conceived as a song celebrating the joyous arrival of spring after “a long cold lonely winter,” Watkins seemed to imagine a more instantaneous scenario, sprinkling a series of pizzicatos across his quartet and then launching the melody from Bechtler’s cello as the plucking subsided – like his sun was emerging after rain showers. The melody itself never quite made it up to the violins as Gorkovoy carried us forward on viola, but there was a radiant aura of violins as the arrangement crested to its zenith.

Notorious for its cryptic and surreal John Lennon lyric – and its infusion of Eastern sitar by Harrison – “Norwegian Wood” became even friskier in Watkins’ hands as the bridge of the song, lugubriously slowed down by Bechtler, circled back to a lively intro that reminded me of a Latin street dance. Gorkovoy and Leggatt restarted the song, handing the melody back and forth until Bechtler checked back in. The Latin syncopation hung around stealthily in various guises underneath, maybe a sly suggestion of the song’s extramarital origin.

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There were other instances where Watkins reacted as thoughtfully to the lyric as to the music. Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” began very low in the cello with a mournful gliss from Bechtler, reminding us that the song was a breakthrough for a pop music confection in dealing with the loneliness and depression of the elderly. The inchoate intro of “Imagine,” as Bechtler pointed out, was like a blind groping for a melody – the cello seemed to hit the tune tentatively, and suddenly when it found the path, the sound became achingly sweet. “Revolution” started out like the four instruments were an inarticulate, unruly mob, but the melody lightened to a relaxed Western swing groove when Gorkovoy played it over volleys of triplets – as far from angry as Lennon’s lyric was from supporting violent revolution. When the violins took it to the next level, corresponding with Lennon’s “don’t you know it’s going to be,” the pulse was so swift that it sounded like the Gypsy jazz that violinist Stephane Grappelli pioneered with Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt. Karpova played the full-out licks, soaring high into the treble while Leggatt bowed ferociously behind her.

Hints of jazz lightened a couple of other Watkins arrangements. There was a bluesy boogie-woogie insistence from Bechtler, churning like the pistons of a locomotive or an R&B combustion engine, under the blend of the higher strings in McCartney’s “Drive My Car.” We nearly ended in jubilation when we reached the repeated “beep beep yeah” exclamations, but a wicked decelerating gliss instigated by Bechtler on her cello hinted instead that the car may have comically run out of gas. Karpova had the loveliest variants on the memorable melody of “Michelle,” the song McCartney serenaded the First Lady with at the White House, before Gorkovoy and Leggatt had a nice exchange over Bechtler’s jazzy pizzicato.

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Teixeira first appeared with the Ensemble to enrich the very classical-sounding rendition of McCartney’s “Let It Be,” and he returned, logically enough, for the grand finale, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Bechtler came most beautifully to the fore starting the melody, Leggatt was a fine exponent of the first violin’s role, and Karpova shone in some truly sublime treble, but Teixeira’s guitar was mostly relegated to a subservient strumming role, nothing at all like Eric Clapton’s electric exploits on the Beatles famed White Album. The Bechtler Museum’s lobby, where I was hearing my first classical concert after many amplified jazz concerts, wasn’t as kind to Teixeira’s acoustic guitar as it was to the other string instruments onstage. Bechtler, in fact, sounded far richer here on her cello than I’d heard her many times before upstairs at the Museum. Hopefully, Music and Museum will continue downstairs alongside the Jazz at the Bechtler series, but I hope more care will be taken in the future the next time Teixeira is called upon to mesh with the Bechtler Ensemble’s wonderful ecology.

Originally published on 11/14 at CVNC.org

New Al Fresco Series Delivers Fine Sound, Gorgeous Music, and a More Personal View of Symphony’s Musicians

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Al Fresco Concerts

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve learned so much about our nation’s leadership in the past few months – and perhaps even more about ourselves. Much of what we’ve seen has been disheartening and infuriating. Aside from the horrifying death and economic devastation, sweeping the globe and becoming so intense here in North Carolina, I’m most heartbroken by the spectacle of what has happened to arts and education. Vitally important to our quality-of-life and our future, both arts and education have been forced to retreat into self-imposed isolation while politicians and citizens have so catastrophically bungled our response to COVID-19. Virtuality has often been our refuge, a poor substitute for so many plans we made. One by one in May, my mom’s 100th birthday, Spoleto Festival USA, and a class reunion dropped off my event planner, so like many of you, I’ve had revelatory experiences in recent months coping with the quirks of ZOOM meetings and discovering new frontiers in streaming. Neither of these comes close to matching the benefits of live meetings and performances, but they do offer consolation.

Occasionally, the necessities of confinement and social distancing have mothered some worthwhile inventions. Celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday in April, the Chickspeare theatre company began with a fairly common 24-hour new play format, issuing a prompt to a select group of playwrights and expecting original 10-minute plays by each of them to be written, cast, rehearsed, and presented 24 hours later. Instead of the community projects I’d seen in past incarnations of this format, the new works were household creations – written, acted, and recorded by small groups of people, usually pairs, who were quarantining together. The results showed that these writers, actors .and stage directors were also quite adept at filming and wielding video editing software. Chickspeare had broken into an entirely new medium.

Charlotte Symphony’s new Al Fresco series of chamber music concerts has been similarly revelatory. The webcasts began steaming weekly on Wednesday nights on June 10, in a more relaxed environment than Belk or Knight Theater, where Symphony’s classics series is presented, and on a more intimate scale. Not surprisingly, the Al Fresco series is the brainchild of principal cellist Alan Black, a longtime catalyst for chamber music programming in the Charlotte area, beginning with a monthly series at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church back in the ‘90s and continuing with more acoustically pleasing seasons of Sunday afternoon concerts at Tyler-Tallman Hall on the Davidson College campus. The new series, subtitled “changing venues for changing times,” is performed outdoors in the backyard of Black’s bosky Davidson home.

Fortunately, while choosing his programming and recruiting personnel, Black brought French hornist Bob Rydel into the process for a set of wind quintets by Josef Haydn and Robert Muczynski. As Black tells us during the “Winds in the Woods” program, first streamed on June 24, his original concept called for recording the concerts with an iPhone or two, tools we have seen so very often behind the scenes at ZOOM meetings and guerilla theatre productions. Operating the Acoustic Mobility remote recording service, Rydel has been able to bring his engineering expertise to the task with state-of-the-art microphones, digital recording, and editing equipment. Video production has been a tack-sharp as the audio, boasting HD quality, with at least three cameras superbly integrated in the editing mix.

Before tuning in to “Viennese Serenades,” I had caught up on the previous Al Fresco concerts at their convenient webpage [https://www.charlottesymphony.org/csoalfresco/], playing the first three concerts through my home theatre system on the YouTube channel with a Chromecast streamer. This “Viennese” concert was already posted when I looked in on the site on Tuesday, so I was able to set a reminder at YouTube that worked perfectly, counting down the minutes to showtime. At exactly 7:30, a two-minute timer flashed colorfully onto my TV monitor, with jazzier old-style movie graphics counting down the final 10 seconds. In a rather elegant touch, you hear wind chimes when the opening title flashes on the screen.

The atmosphere is relaxed and informal, with Black invariably dressed in jeans, already sitting as our show begins. One or two other musicians are also seated on the small stage, which is still sufficiently large to devoutly maintain social distancing. They will talk before they play. In an earlier show, Black explained how he has chosen to deal with masks: if one of the musicians wishes to don a mask, all must. Only wind instrument players draw an exemption, so on a previous “Music in the Time of Mozart” webcast, flutist Victor Wang played the lead in Mozart’s Flute Quartet without a mask while the string players were all masked. Interestingly, Wang had a special appliance attached to his instrument, a Wind Defender. The device was originally designed to help flute players to perform outdoors, but in his conversation with Black, Wang said he was finding that it was useful during the COVID-19 crisis in minimizing the spread of airborne droplets as he blew across the instrument.

Black’s conversations with his guests frequently veer toward the players’ experiences in performing the music rather than sticking with the customary descriptions of the music and how it came to be written. More intriguing, Black doesn’t stick to the convention of talking about the music before it’s performed. We might see an interview that was recorded after a performance shown to us before the music begins – or Black and Rydel might edit the webcast so that an interview segment airs between movements.

Altering the focus and chronology was particularly insightful when, prior to airing Haydn’s Divertimento No. 12, Black interviewed his “Viennese Serenades” guests, violinists Jenny Topilow and Lenora Leggatt, and asked them point-blank what it had been like playing their music with masks on. Leggatt was almost exclusively concerned with the heat that wearing a mask dictated and its cumulative oppressiveness, but both Topilow and Black cited multiple challenges and annoyances that illuminated physical aspects of playing stringed instruments and the added communication needs of chamber music performance that go beyond playing in an orchestra.

After revealing that the neck of her violin collided unpleasantly with the part of her mask covering her chin and jaw, Topilow went on to describe how visibility, breathing, communication, and cuing were affected. Black confided that he hoped that a portion of his performance, when the fingers of his left hand got stuck momentarily in his mask, would be edited out of the final cut. Visibility and breathing were linked problems for Black, who customarily wears glasses when he plays the cello. Because his glasses repeatedly fog up in performance, Black finds that he needs to time his breathing as he plays! He also finds that he needs to listen more intently when seeing is so spotty. For her part, Topilow finds it startling to realize how much she normally uses her face for communicating in a chamber music setting, yet she vows to continue wearing a mask when Charlotte Symphony resumes live performances. Next month? Hope so.

The individuality of the musicians’ conversations carries over to their musicmaking. Uniform dress codes have been discarded for this series, so the players can be showy and comfortable at the same time. Topilow and Leggatt were the first guests so far to opt for standing as they played their violins in Stamitz’s Trio in G, and while I can remember Topilow rocking a splotch of blue hair at the Belk, I’m sure that I’ve never previously glimpsed her tattoo. Facing each other from opposite corners across the front of the cozy stage, the two violinists blended exquisitely in the opening Allegro moderato while Black, seated upstage between them, added a rich undercurrent as the tempo never quickened far beyond andante.

The mellow sound of the ensuing Andante made the best case for earlier remarks emphasizing how much both Stamitz and Haydn reflected their era. Although we could see fronds and leaves swaying throughout this concert – and multiple clips holding Topilow’s score in place – the sound maintained a studio-quality presence without a hint of wind even in the quietest moments. In the concluding Rondo-Allegretto, I found the most persuasive proof that both violinists revel in playing fast. Topilow remained the lead voice, but Leggatt kept pace beautifully with the harmony. I wasn’t completely pleased with the way Stamitz abruptly transitioned to the slow section of this movement, where Black shifted to a suddenly somber pizzicato, but the slowdown at the end of this section and the accelerating return to jollity were very satisfying.

What I wrote about Black’s series of St. Peter’s concerts in the ‘90s, that they show off the virtuosity of Charlotte Symphony’s musicians more fully, remains true today. But now that this new series is actually a part of Symphony’s programming, I can further observe that it offers the opportunity to venture beyond the composers who figure most prominently in the orchestra’s rotation of classics. Beside the likes of Stamitz, Muczynski, and Ignaz Pleyel, whose music has already been featured in Al Fresco, we can add Haydn to the roster of the neglected, for only two of his symphonies – and none of his concertos – have been presented in the classics series since 2015, and none are on tap in the already-announced 2020-21 lineup. And how many of us have heard of Haydn’s Divertimentos – or knew that they were chamber music? My 11-CD set of Mozart Divertimenti on Phillips certainly didn’t prepare me for anything as small as the string trio configuration of Haydn’s No. 12, the second to be featured in this series.

It’s a beautiful piece from the start, a soulful Adagio that was more serious and tender than the Stamitz, with a yearning undertow from Topilow’s lyrical lead. Hardly a leaf was stirring as she wove her spell, yet Haydn brightened the tone and quickened the pace to andante in a more genial midsection of this movement. Topilow was most fully in the spotlight when she leapt into the ensuing Allegro, sawing away with plenty of verve. The weather wasn’t quite as tranquil where I was watching, but it only stressed the transmission here once. What looked and sounded like a split-second edit disappeared when I subsequently replayed the movement – twice to be sure. The final movement, Tempo di Menuet, seemed to be a misstep at its somewhat plodding start. Once the 3/4 rhythm was established, however, Haydn loosened the reins, and Topilow had ample opportunity to show off her dexterity and Papa’s joie de vivre.

The concerts, the conversations, and Black’s hosting style are all winners for Symphony’s new Al Fresco. I’m hoping for more sinewy music, like a Beethoven string quartet, if the series reprises after the traditionally lighthearted summer season, and I’d love to see programs at least as long as the 75-minute noonday concerts that are traditional at Spoleto Festival USA. But what’s so nice about the Al Fresco format and its webpage is that you can replay multiple concerts one after another. More than enough for an evening out – or in – is now very handsomely at our disposal.