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This month, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art celebrates its fifth anniversary. Opening on January 2, 2010, as Charlotte’s first modern art museum and an architecturally significant home for a distinctive family collection (the building is by acclaimed Swiss architect Mario Botta), the Bechtler has become a lively venue for music performance, as well. The Jazz at the Bechtler series regularly sells out its concerts, and the Music and Museum series draws a dedicated group of listeners to hear chamber music that spans a wide range of styles, genres, and performers.
But while the museum’s fifth anniversary is a celebrated milestone, the first Music and Museum concert of the New Year, on January 6, shone a light on an anniversary of even greater import. The Copley String Quartet, comprised of members of the Handel and Haydn Society, made its first foray below the Mason-Dixon Line to kick off that venerable institution’s 200th anniversary year with a concert of quartets by Mozart and Haydn.
The Handel and Haydn Society (H+H) presented its first public concert on Christmas Day 1815 in Boston and remains the oldest continuously performing arts organization in the United States.* But even that tag does not do justice to the significance of the H+H’s founding. Established at a time when nearly all public music-making occurred in the churches as part of congregational worship, the H+H virtually laid the foundation for what would become American concert life. The nearly 1000 ticket-buying audience members who gathered on December 25, 1815 to hear excerpts of The Creation, Israel in Egypt and Messiah were introduced not only to the music of Haydn and Handel but to the very concept of music as an independent performance art.
About 30 years ago, the H+H decided to adopt Historically Informed Performance and has since focused on performing the music of Baroque and Classical composers on period instruments and in period style. The program presented on January 6 by the Copley Quartet gave Charlotte music-lovers a rare opportunity to hear Haydn and Mozart in Historically Informed Performance. And while the acoustic properties of the modern museum salon, constructed of materials not even invented in the 18th century, guaranteed that the listening experience would not duplicate that of Mozart, the performance did offer a fresh and interesting perspective on two wonderful pieces of music, Mozart’s String Quartet in D Major, K. 575, and Haydn’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 77, No. 2.
Among the differences in the performance were the natural gut strings on the instruments and the use of Baroque bows, which tend to be shorter and lighter than the Tourte bow, developed in the late 18th century and still used today. But for listeners less accustomed to Historically Informed Performance (and I include myself among them), the most striking difference was the pronounced lack of vibrato in the playing. Adjusting to it can be challenging; along with the gut strings, it can make the intonation seem imprecise and the tone seem less vibrant. It must surely be a challenge for the musicians, too.
Fortunately, the musicians of the Copley Quartet – Susanna Ogata (first violin), Elicia Silverstein (second violin), Jenny Stirling (viola), and Guy Fishman (cello) – are excellent. They play well together and with great expression, energy, and a large sound, made even fuller by the ultra-live acoustics of the museum space. The Mozart quartet, composed in 1789, one of three quartets dedicated to Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, is a gentle work overall, dominated by moderate tempos and elegant melodies and affording each of the four instruments a chance to sing, especially the cello (the King of Prussia’s chosen instrument). This was particularly pleasing in the instrumental interplay of the second, Andante, movement and the Trio section of the third movement.
The Haydn quartet – the last string quartet the “father” of this genre composed – really allowed the Copley musicians to shine, both in the fleetness and vigor with which they played the Vivace fourth movement and in their expert control over a wide range of dynamics. Again, it was the slow movement – here the third – where the expressive singing of the instruments was notable. The movement opens with a duet between the first violin and cello, and the violin’s melody was so subdued, so sotto voce as to seem more like the memory of a tune than the tune itself. It was only as it was adopted by the second violin and then the cello that its full beauty and soulfulness bloomed before returning once again to the quiet inner musings of Ogata’s first violin.
The 200th anniversary season of the Handel and Haydn Society, with repertoire such as Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, Haydn’s Creation and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, is in keeping with the primary mission of the H+H when it was founded in 1815: to improve the performance of sacred music and promote the sacred music of European masters. Most of those masters were more contemporary than historical to 19th-century audiences. And it is interesting to note that decades later, the H+H also performed works by contemporary American composers, such as those of the Second New England School, premiering, for example, Amy Beach’s Mass in E-flat in 1892. One hopes that the H+H will embrace that part of its history, too. Fortunately for Charlotteans, the Music and Museum series champions both ends of the chronological spectrum and both sides of the Atlantic. Next up: newly composed pieces by four local composers on January 25, for details of which, click here..
*Grant Llewellyn, music director of the NC Symphony, led the H&H for five years before coming to the Tar Heel State.