The Magnificent Journey of Tanja Bechtler

By Lindsay Kosma

May 15, 2017

Originally from Zurich, Switzerland, though she spent much of her life in the US, renowned cellist Tanja Bechtler, was born into artistry. Well, maybe not truly, but she certainly had a lot of inspiration in her early years. Much of her childhood was spent getting lost in the whimsy of youth, balancing her time between school, ice skating lessons and family vacations, of which there were many. She was especially close with her grandparents and spent significant time in Hans and Bessie Bechtler’s summer home in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

“That was the thing about our grandparents, they allowed us to play and would never say ‘Oh my god don’t touch that.’ If you have looked at the Vasarely and the Marini that have been on display upstairs (at the Bechtler) and you look at the height of a four year old you’ll see some smudges. They were really amazing like that,” said Bechtler.

Bessie Bechtler (middle) with Tanja (middle) and sisters Vivi (left) and Fiona (Right). Courtesy of the Bechtler family

Early on, Tanja was exposed to a lot of culture and even socialized with some of the world’s most notable artists who, to her, were just family friends. She recalls fondly a particular visit to the home of Italo Valenti, who vacationed with her family often. He offered to show her his art collection of birds, to which she expressed her fondness of a certain piece that happened to be the most prized one in the collection. Much to her grandmother’s dismay, Italo handed her the bird to keep.

“When you’re young you don’t really think about those things. You see art everywhere and hear music and you just grow up like that,” she said. “It was only when I was much older that I realized that it was pretty incredible.”

Incredible, indeed. Amidst all of this creativity, Tanja found her own outlet when she was introduced to music from the robust music curriculum by Carl Orff, in the Swiss school system. Starting age nine, she was allowed to play string instruments and fell in love with the sound of the cello. Tanja’s mother, Natascha, would bring her to weekly cello lessons for years in Zurich as well as in Charlotte. Both of her parents were extremely supportive of her choice to become a musician. “They let me choose who I wanted to be as an adult and for that I will be forever grateful.”

Bechtler family with Andy Warhol. Tanja Bechtler (middle blue overalls).

In 1979, twelve-year-old Tanja immigrated with her family to Charlotte for her father, Andreas Bechtler, to pursue a new venture for the family business, Pneumafil. She had a tough time adjusting to the stark differences between 1970’s Switzerland and the southern United States.

“That is when music really became an escape for me. It was very difficult to leave all of my friends and everything I had ever known in Zurich to come here. My music helped me get through those teen years,” Bechtler said.

Toward the end of high school, she was ready for bigger and better things and convinced her parents to let her audition with the cello for the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston Salem: “Although I was quite good in school I knew I wanted to play music. Music, I felt, was deeper. It’s a way to communicate without words. When I played I would get into a different state of mind that I really liked,” she said.

Even though she wasn’t fond of classical music, she saw that as the only opportunity to pursue the cello and chose this as her major: “I wasn’t even listening to classical music. I loved Neil Young, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Queen, and Prince. I was crazy about Prince.”

Tanja Bechtler photo by Kurt Shackelford

NCSA was a very positive and formative experience in Tanja’s life: “I loved the diversity- it was so freeing coming from Charlotte. You could really be who you wanted to be and no one would judge you for that. Everyone was very serious about their work and there were lots of opportunities to perform.”

From North Carolina, Tanja went on to study for her Master’s at the Manhattan School of Music. “I got to play for Yo-Yo Ma there, I got to be principal in the orchestra and Kurt Masur came to conduct, and I had a great teacher, Marion Feldman,” said Bechtler. “So I had many incredible experiences there but it was a whole new level of stress.”

After obtaining her Master’s degree and freelancing in New York for a year, Tanja decided to audition for a full time position with the Charlotte Symphony: “There were two openings in the cello section and sometimes there are no openings for like 15 or 20 years…I had never even taken a full time audition so it was the first one.”

Not only did she nail the audition, but played with the symphony for the next twelve years. Eventually, though, it was time to move on to a more creative pursuit of her own. In the time between leaving the symphony and taking the next step in her career, Tanja had a rollercoaster of events. She got married, had her son, and also injured her back so badly that she thought it could be the end of her career.

“It was so difficult and I didn’t think I would be able to play again. But I also didn’t want to have surgery. So I stumbled upon Practice HORA, a training which I still do, and dedicate all of my performances to. It not only saved my back but helped me gain clarity, stamina and calmness in my performances ” she said. Practice HORA is a science-based training program designed to develop physical and intellectual inner strength, endurance, and the ability to remain calm during any activity.

Tanja Bechtler photo by Kurt Shackelford

“I finally understood how to hold myself in space, how to walk, how to sit and with this my thinking patterns also shifted to a completely new level. My energy levels soared. The connections between my brain, nervous system and body were literally re-wired.”

After regaining her strength, Tanja formed her own chamber ensemble where she combines music and art into a series of educational and informative performances. The Bechtler Ensemble, as it’s called, combines different types of music, largely 20th century, with artworks that are related in some way, either from the same time period or otherwise.

“The idea came about, naturally, because my grandparents have this large collection of 20th century art and my father had the vision to have Mario Botta build the museum to house it. I am very proud of my dad for his foresight. It is a joy to see people from all walks of life enjoying the art that I had naturally as a child.”

So I thought it would be so interesting to connect the visual and the audible or aural mind,” she said. “There were a few hurdles to go through but after the first concert got a positive response ,you could see that the art and the music were a natural fit.”

The Ensemble has been successfully performing monthly since 2010. Once a year the Bechtler Ensemble puts on a “Charlotte Composer’s Forum” where a group of local composers come together to create a unique program. This year, the forum will be held on May 21 and composers Craig Bove (CPCC), John Allemeier (UNCC), Ronald K. Parks, Mark Lewis (Winthrop), Zack Zubow (Queens), are being commissioned to write a piece for the 50th anniversary of the Santana Tinguely sculpture which is on showcase in the Bechtler’s newest exhibition, Celebrating Jean Tinguely and Santana until September 10, 2017

Bechtler Ensemble

When Tanja left the city her senior year in high school, she vowed that she was never coming back: “It has all changed and now I walk through uptown and I’m proud of how far it has come. There are so many people now who appreciate music and art and dance. I am also very proud of the museum, John Boyer, Christopher Lawing and especially what the new curator, Jen Sudul Edwards, Ph.D. is doing.”

To Tanja, it is the people that have made this happen. The influx of diverse people and businesses that have come to the city has shifted the culture towards the arts.

“Money, by itself, does nothing for your soul. It’s pretty cold. But if you take that money and put it into art, which comes from the soul, it can move you. So it’s the people and businesses in Charlotte investing in the arts that have moved the city.”

Tanja Bechtler and the Ensemble performs at Music and Museum on May 21.

*The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art is a proud partner of CLTure*

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