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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 Beatles 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. 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 "Yesterday," "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 the lyrics that were meaningful for her.
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 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, adding a sly suggestion of the song's extramarital origin.
There were other instances where Watkins reacted as thoughtfully to the lyrics as to the music. Paul McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby" began very low in the cello with a mournful glissando 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, emulated 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 glissando 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.
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.