In a city where stodgy bankers and NASCAR vulgarians often seem to hold sway over intellectuals and cultural sophisticates, the new Levine Center of the Arts has made a telling difference over the past two seasons. The Knight Theatre has become the performance venue of choice for the North Carolina Dance Theatre and edgier Broadway touring shows. The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture has anchored an impressive centennial celebration of Charlotte’s pre-eminent visual artist, Romare Bearden. The Mint Museum has magnified its stature and relevance by moving its estimable collection from the outskirts of town to the city center. The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art has raised the playful work of Jean Tinguely and Nikki de Saint Phalle to a special legitimacy in a town that once balked embarrassingly at the prospect of including the modernism of sculptor Joel Shapiro in its cityscape. Moreover, the new center has become fertile ground for new synergies between the visual and performing arts. The exciting KnightSounds series has enabled the Charlotte Symphony to juxtapose NASA animations with Holst’s The Planets – and the music of Ellington with the jazzy collages of Bearden. On a smaller scale, via small jazz combos and its eponymous Bechtler Ensemble, the Bechtler Museum has been illuminating the connections between modern music and modern art. Led by Tanja Bechtler, who literally lived with the Museum’s collection as she was growing up, the ensemble provided a bridge between selected works by Sam Francis, Roy Lichtenstein, and Alexander Calder and three American musical masters, David Diamond, Aaron Copland, and Samuel Barber.
Without the encumbrance of a piano, the series was free to adjourn from its previous lobby locale to the fourth floor for this latest concert. The Bechtler’s vice president for programming and research, Christopher Lawing, emceed the concert, amid an exhibit highlighting geometric art. Between pieces, Lawing gave way to emissaries from two event sponsors, WDAV-FM and Our State magazine, for brief greetings and remarks. It would be interesting to know whether the WDAV official would consider the acoustics worthy of a live or recorded broadcast – or if Lawing & Co. would be amenable to an invasion of the station’s electronics. Although the quartet perched on top of an area rug as they performed, the warm reverberant sound needed more cooling to relieve the audible echo enveloping the music. Joining Bechtler were Elina Lev on first violin, Ning Zhao on viola, and Tatiana Karpova on second violin. All of them were excellent on Diamond’s String Quartet No. 3 with the exception of Zhao, who brought too little vibrato to his part to complement Lev’s silvery sweet phrasing. Tempo on the Allegro vivo was more like an andante, yet it sounded perfectly apt. My biggest disappointment was that the Bechtlers only played the second movement of the 26-minute piece.
Lawing drew a parallel between Lichtenstein’s embrace of pop art and Copland’s populism that was accurate enough, but the composer’s Two Pieces for String Quartet are from the beginning of his career, when the future populist was still content to give most of his work abstract titles. In fact, the two movements have all the adventurousness and dissonance of the piano music he wrote during the same decade, the 1920s. The lachrymose mood of the Lento molto certainly didn’t jibe with the nobility of the famed "Fanfare for the Common Man," played by the Charlotte Symphony at their Bearden 100 concert at Knight Theater last month. It was an excellent intro to Copland’s more troubled, less familiar avant-garde writings, anchored by Bechtler’s cello with some eerie wide intervals nicely done by Zhao. For anyone exposed exclusively to Copland’s greatest hits, the astringent Rondino was nearly as atypical. Lev set off at a frisky pace over pizzicato accompaniment, with Zhao soon returning soulfully to his bow, particularly effective at the upper end of the viola’s range.
A more direct and fascinating echo of the Bearden concert came as the Bechtler Ensemble culminated their program with Samuel Barber’s String Quartet in B. Of course, Lawing duly alerted us to the onset of the celebrated middle movement, which became the Adagio for Strings two years after the 1936 quartet premiered, at the behest of the great Toscanini, who wished to present an orchestral version. Even in the reverberant museum gallery, the quartet version recaptured all the sinewy agony that the orchestral version had surrendered to attain its mournful sublimity. Nor does the Molto adagio desperately need rescue from the remainder of the quartet, as amply proven by the Bechtler Ensemble performance. The harsh attack at the top of the opening Molto allegro e appassionato was endowed with perhaps a little too much trailing echo from the walls of the gallery, but Lev and Zhao seductively intertwined in presenting the lyrical second subject, returning a little more smoothly to the main theme for the final recap. Bechtler’s cello was the antiphonal voice in the familiar Adagio, steady and mournful opposite the tremulous anguish of Lev’s violin. Only Zhao’s viola, faintly echoed by Karpova’s second violin, seemed to bear the seeds of the balm that blossom so opulently in the orchestral version. The concluding Molto allegro hearkened back to the opening movement in its ferocity, with some thrilling interplay between Lev and Zhao in the closing Presto section.
Compared with the Holst and Bearden extravaganzas staged across the hall at the Knight, the classical Bearden series is smaller in its musical and box office ambitions. Comprised entirely of musicians with current or past associations with the Charlotte Symphony, the Bechtler Ensemble’s dedication and artistry are on the same high level – with special appeal to listeners eager to venture off the beaten track in search of new concert experiences.