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Chamber music thriving in Charlotte

Classical music fans can get close to the players at chamber concerts.

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  • Chamber music series

    Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

    Three types of concerts: Tuesdays at noon and 6 p.m., Sundays at 4 p.m., and Living Room Concerts (with food, drink and artists’ receptions) at homes. Museum concerts at 420 S. Tryon St. cost $5 and $10 (free to members); Living Room Concerts are $95 for an individual, $120 for a couple ($55 and $70 for members).

    Next up: “Low and Lower,” a cello-doublebass duo from Winston-Salem that combines serious music and humorous interludes, on Tuesday, and “Sacred Ages,” in which the Bechtler Ensemble plays Liszt, Messiaen and Bloch, on Jan. 19.

    Details: 704-353-9200 or bechtler.org.

    Providence United Methodist Church

    Chamber Music Recital Series runs Sundays at 7 p.m. at 2810 Providence Road. Performances are free.

    Next up: A concert including a Martinu duo for violin and cello, the U.S. premiere of Sérgio Azevedo’s Serenata alla Madrigalesca, and Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1 on Jan. 19.

    Details: 704-366-7442 or providenceumc.org.

    Music at St. Alban’s

    Concerts at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, 301 Caldwell Lane, Davidson, Sundays at 3 p.m., then repeats at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Seventh and Tryon streets, Charlotte, on Mondays at noon. Davidson concerts cost $15 ($10 students and seniors over 61, free under 12); Charlotte concerts are free.

    Next up: Music House Players celebrate Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s 300th birthday year with quartets for fortepiano, flute, viola and cello on Feb. 9.

    Details: 704-941-0650 or musicatstalbansdavidson.org.



Maybe the best thing about chamber music is that you can watch the players sweat.

You can see them grin and grimace, hear grunts of effort and groans of pleasure. They see you, too, because you’re just a few feet away. Your energy becomes musical oxygen to a string quartet or piano trio.

And the pickings are riper than ever hereabouts. Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte is blazing through a 16-concert program that spans three centuries, from Handel to Gershwin. Providence United Methodist Church is halfway into a chamber season full of local and world premieres.

Music at St. Alban’s, a Davidson series that also brings concerts to Charlotte, delves into Celtic and gospel music as well as classics in its six-performance season. Other concerts pop up under the radar, often on colleges’ cultural series.

These gigs have fiscal value: They cost a tenth as much as an orchestral concert – or nothing at all, in some cases – yet provide 100 percent of the musical satisfaction of a massive Tchaikovsky symphony.

At the same time, they remain an acquired taste for most classical music fans in Mecklenburg County. But people who become converts tend to turn into preachers.

“I discovered it at a summer festival in Maine, sitting in the second row for a Brahms trio,” says Alan Black, principal cellist for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. “I could see, hear, feel the communication among the players. I was enthralled.” His zeal led to the founding of Chamber Music at St. Peter’s in 1996, where the motto was “It’s all about joy.” (The Bechtler absorbed that series in 2012, after it changed names and management.)

CSO bassoonist Lori Tiberio learned the thrill of “getting together to jam with friends at somebody’s house” as a student at Carnegie Mellon University, where she was as likely to play Brubeck as Bach. That revelation inspired the series at Providence Methodist; three decades later, it remains a forum for Charlotte Symphony players and their colleagues.

The Friends of Music website at Queens University of Charlotte defines chamber music formally as “written for two to approximately ten performers, with the stipulation that only one player performs each part, normally without a conductor.”

Informally, jamming with friends has been going on for 350 years, reaching its peaks with Schubert and Chopin performing in the early 1800s in Viennese or Paris salons. The closest local equivalent would be the Bechtler’s Living Room Concerts, where 40 to 80 people gather in a home for food, drink and conversation.

So why is it cool?

“It’s the absolute ideal of democracy,” says pianist Paul Nitsch, who’ll play in the Bechtler’s Valentine’s Day concert and guided Queens’ now-dormant Friends of Music series. “You share insights and hopes in the collaboration. However you feel about the other players, you must come together when you’re onstage.

“Soloists do what they want. Musicians in an orchestra are team players who are told what to do. In chamber music, everyone’s an equal participant.”

Says Tiberio, “It illuminates a composer in a way orchestral music doesn’t always. Hearing chamber music is like getting to know composers personally.” Black thinks of the interplay as “a conversation: You listen to how instruments talk to each other, the way one plays a line and another takes that conversation in a new direction.”

Ben Roe, artistic adviser for the Bechtler’s Music and Museum program, found different virtues in violinist Karen Gomyo’s dazzling performance with the symphony this season and her recital the same week:

“Chamber music draws you in, in a way you may not be drawn in if you listen with 2,000 people. At the Bechtler, she showed her astonishing technique in pieces by Vivaldi, Piazzola and others. You can’t understand the finesse required to play a Ravel sonata until you’re 3 feet away.”

Roe used to be general manager of WDAV-FM. Now he’s managing director of classical services for WGBH in Boston. He says “the (musical) soil in Charlotte has always been sandier, and shoots need to push up harder to flower. That said, when we do Schubert’s Trout Quintet, which seems like a ‘greatest hit’ in Boston, you have people in the (Bechtler) audience who have never heard it played, and they’re as far from jaded as you can get. The fragility of the ecosystem makes people really appreciate pieces when they hear them.”

So where do you hear it?

Roe noted that Charlotte has no venue designed for chamber music, the way Londoners have Wigmore Hall and New Yorkers have Carnegie Hall. Churches, all-purpose college auditoriums and museums often carry the burden.

Maybe that’s a good idea, says Christopher Lawing, the Bechtler’s vice president of programming and research (and music director at Mallard Creek Presybterian Church). The 1980s idea of a museum as a place of quiet contemplation has given way to the idea that “we should be more participatory, more engaging. We use the collection as a common denominator and link it to music, architecture and film.”

Lawing says his chamber audience first split 20-80 between museum members and nonmembers. Now it’s 60-40; some members discovered this music, and some music fans became new members. They’re drawn by the Bechtler’s national reach; in December, it brought The Vivaldi Project from Virginia and soprano Maria Jette from Minnesota.

Maybe the venue doesn’t matter, if you’re close enough to the players to make that unshakeable connection.

“To hear musicians playing as equals is to get as close to perfection as you can in human endeavor,” Nitsch declares. “If all societies worked this way, how beautiful life could be.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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