As boys, my friend Hugh and I would conduct acoustic experiments. We would connect two tin cans by a taut cord. One of us would hold his can up to his mouth and the other to his ear, and we could convey speech. I would think that a community with the cachet of Asheville would have a large concert hall with better acoustics than the tin-can-and-string variety, but no. The Asheville Symphony Orchestra's patient and loyal audience has to put up with the freaky sound that the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium transmits to us. Just as Hugh and I had to add a dollop of interpretation to make intelligence out of what we heard, Asheville audiences have to imagine the music that the orchestra is producing; we are hearing only a distorted version of it. And more's the pity, when the music is as substantial as it was on Saturday. Music director Daniel Meyer programmed just two large works: Beethoven's second piano concerto and Bruckner's "Romantic Symphony."
Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 19, is deceptively numbered. Much of it was written in the 1780s, before his Piano Concerto No. 1, but it was not published until 1801. It is solidly in the classical mode, with reflections of both Mozart and Haydn in its structure and affect, although the third movement Rondo couldn't have been written by Haydn. And Alon Goldstein, the soloist for the evening, chose to use the difficult first-movement cadenza that Beethoven composed in 1809, an introspective cadenza that is a voyage through Beethoven's mind as he considers the themes and motifs of the movement. That cadenza, for sure, shows Beethoven moving beyond his predecessors.
In the classical mode, the orchestra has a lengthy statement of the thematic material before the pianist enters to give a restatement. Goldstein impressed this listener immediately with his butter-smooth legato, his singing tone and the clarity of his playing. His approach to the second movement was thought-provoking; it was much more Chopinesque and mannered than other performances, which put Goldstein's personal stamp on this interpretation. The third movement Rondo was a fine collaboration between orchestra and soloist. It elicited lengthy applause and an encore: Alberto Ginastera's "Danza del gaucho matrero" ("Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy"), Op. 23. This violent and forceful piece for solo piano, along with the earlier cadenza, left no doubt about Goldstein's virtuosity, a physical skill that never interferes with his musicality.
The Symphony No. 4 in E-flat, the public's favorite work by Anton Bruckner, is a sprawling Wagnerian work. It contains hunting horn motifs, rustic Austrian dances, and an ætherial second movement (Andante, quasi allegretto) that is the heart of the piece. While the shimmering string sound of the first movement was, from where I sat, often swallowed up by the hall acoustics, the gorgeous viola passages in the second movement, with the accompanying pizzicati from the other strings, were a high point of this performance. Bravo to Kara Poorbaugh and the viola section. The fourth movement presents to me a vision of Bruckner at his youthful home in Sankt Florian, experiencing a walk in the woods. We are outside St. Florian's Priory, where he was choirboy and then organist. The music elicits the sound of birds, brooks, and perhaps trout jumping as the happy stroller bursts out in song. Then we hear a characteristic Brucknerian gesture: a gorgeous brass motif that moves up one full tone at a time for restatement, leading to climactic moments wherein the orchestra resembles a pipe organ.
Anton Bruckner's music is in some mystical way a thoroughly religious statement of 19th-century romanticism. We don't hear much Bruckner on public radio, because his sprawling symphonies are generally well over an hour in length. Station breaks and hourly news preclude them being scheduled. This made me even more pleased to hear the work once again in live performance. Throughout the performance – and I surmise even moreso in rehearsal – Daniel Meyer worked hard to elicit the power of the piece, and with the assistance of a hard-working orchestra, he succeeded.
The ASO's season continues on April 12. For details, see our calendar.