In a mere five years, both the stunning architecture of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the jubilant sculpture in front of it, Niki de Saint Phalle's L'Oiseau de Feu sur l'Arche, have become Charlotte's most iconic images. So it's predictable that the fifth anniversary of the installation of "The Firebird" outside the museum has become the cause for a five-month celebration inside the museum. The exhibit on the fourth floor of the Bechtler, in turn, was the perfect site for the Music and Museum series to offer its own "Tribute to the Firebird" concert. Fittingly, it was the Bechtler Ensemble playing the chamber music program and the group's cellist, Tanja Bechtler, choosing the repertoire that reflected the spirit of Saint Phalle and her darling bird. Christopher Lawing, the Bechtler's VP for Programming and Research, emceed the program and provided voice-over for a smattering of slides about Saint Phalle and her work. As usual, the atmosphere for the concert was casual, so Bechtler, pianist Cynthia Lawing, trumpeter William Lawing, and guitarist Bob Teixeira freely offered their comments as well. With works by George Gershwin, Nadia Boulanger, Eric Ewazen, Phillip Glass, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Francis Poulenc, Astor Piazzolla, Jorge Cardoso, and – of course! – Igor Stravinsky on the program, there was plenty to talk about.
Anyone who thinks of Saint Phalle as jazzy and French would have little problem with Bechtler's opening choice of Gershwin for her tribute, though we'd more readily think of the composer's An American in Paris as delivering the right spirit rather than his Prelude No. 2 in C-sharp minor. All three of Gershwin's Preludes, originally for solo piano, have been transformed into string sonatas before, most notably in arrangements by Jascha Heifetz, and No. 2 actually has something of a jazz pedigree, chosen by Herbie Hancock for his Gershwin's World CD with a vocalise solo sung by operatic diva Kathleen Battle. Arranged for cello and piano by Lawing and Bechtler, the cello brought out a more lugubrious dimension to the Andante con moto than I've heard in other versions. Yet the piece was anything but a slavish transposition of the Heifetz. Bechtler threw in some pizzicato toward the end, giving up the lead briefly to the piano before taking command once again with her bow and finishing up in the treble with a playful glissando.
Prelude No. 3 would have been jauntier and closer to Gershwin's Parisian flavor, but we moved straight across the Atlantic for the next suite of cello sonatas, Boulanger's Trois Pièces for cello and piano. A little sadness certainly lingered in the cello during the E-flat minor Modéré piece, Bechtler's lament accompanied by chromatic rainfall patterns reminiscent of Debussy delicately delivered by Lawing. We began to move away from melancholy in the A minor Sans vitesse et a l'aise as Bechtler and Lawing picked up the pace, but it was the Vite et nerveusement rythmé piece that finally broke through into playfulness, prancing capriciously toward a festive finish.
William Lawing and his trumpet were primarily there to play a very special arrangement of the Berceuse (or Lullaby) from Stravinsky's Firebird, Saint Phalle's inspiration. I may be overstating Lawing's presence in this unique instance, for he actually played a muted trumpet in an adjoining gallery, answering Bechtler's cello to marvelous effect. Pianist Cynthia Lawing's transcription not only dealt effectively with the challenge of adapting Stravinsky's score to a reduced ensemble with altered instrumentation but also supplied the piece with a satisfying ending of its own – instead of the simple fadeout that sets up the triumphant final hymn of The Firebird. The trumpeter had made his entrance more visibly – and impressively – in the previous selection, the middle Andante appassionato movement from Ewazen's Trio for Trumpet, Cello and Piano. You won't often hear the trumpet in a chamber music setting, but Lawing has the finesse to play softly and fluently enough on an unmuted instrument that he doesn't overpower the room. As in the Berceuse, the burden of the melody was mostly shared by the cello and trumpet, with some lovely contrapuntal passages as well from this unlikely pairing, but it was really the pianist who lifted the music from its initial foreboding and elegiac moods into the full flowering of its passion.
Through the first part of the program, including the soothing Berceuse, the trumpet trio was easily the sunniest piece on the program – an important factor since the sun figures so prominently on the breast of the Charlotte landmark and much of Saint Phalle's most notable work. Bechtler and Cynthia Lawing weren't quite ready to surrender to sunniness after the trumpeter's exit, but the quirkiness of their next choice was clearly in Saint Phalle's impish spirit. If anything shines more brightly than the sun on The Firebird, it's the 7500 or so mirrors on the body of the sculpture, dazzling enough in the sunlight and even more arresting when lit up at night. So Bechtler decided she would like to play a piece by Glass for that oddball reason. "Truman Sleeps," written by Glass for The Truman Show (starring Jim Carrey), is about as contemplative as the title suggests, even dreamier in Lawing's transcription, which generously gives most of the melody line from the original piece for solo piano over to the cello.
Choosing the second, fifth, and sixth sections from the Pequena Suite, Bechtler showed a continued disinclination toward Saint Phalle's cheerfulness, but we can credit her with bypassing the extreme dreariness of the third "Harmonies soltas" miniature. To be sure, I'd rather she had chosen the lively fourth "Fugato all'antica" tidbit instead of the comparatively limpid "Legendária" second section, both for its lighter mood and its sharper contrast with the soulful "Melodia" that follows. There was no mistaking the contrast between the "Melodia" and the concluding Gavotte section of the suite, where Lawing emerged from the background and the duo delivered the dancing flavor of the piece with all its zest.
With that three-minute dance, the concert finally turned the corner toward the light. The first section extracted from Poulenc's Suite française, the opening "Bransle de Bourgogne," and converted from the orchestral version to cello sonata had a frisky dance tempo, but we reverted to a stately, marching solemnity in the ensuing Pavane that verged on the funereal. Rather than axing this selection, I would have preferred that the duo had appended the minute-long "Petite march militaire" to liven things up again. The stage was left to Lawing for the only solo piece of the evening, Poulenc's Novelette No. 2, in B-flat minor, and the pianist played it charmingly, with enough eccentricity that the piece reminded me of Prokofiev's work, a distinction that none of the recorded versions I've heard can claim. Lawing's two minutes of brilliance allowed her to exit with the acclaim she deserved.
Libertango has been recorded countless times in myriad instrumental configurations, perhaps most famously in Yo-Yo Ma's CD-length homage to Piazzolla, Soul of the Tango, so it's definitely fair game for cello, though it has also been adapted for trumpet. Ma's trio version was done with accordion and percussion, so it was interesting when Teixeira joined Bechtler onstage, providing all the accompaniment, that he began percussively, tapping near the bridge of his guitar so there was also a string sound in the mix. Of course, the piece has also been recorded for guitar on many occasions, so Teixeira had plenty to contribute as the contagious melody repeated obsessively with its irresistible pulse. Bechtler's weird and totally original glissando at the end was surely her most eccentric moment in the program.
The tango mood carried over into the final piece of the evening, Cardoso's beloved Milonga for solo guitar (from 24 Piezas sudamericanas), arranged by Teixeira and Bechtler for their instruments. Much mellower than the Piazzolla piece, with the cello getting as much of the Patagonian feel as the guitar, it was the kind of music you would expect from a husband-and-wife duo and a perfect ending to a varied, meticulously played, and totally modern concert.