The Asheville Symphony Orchestra took two brave risks at its last concert. The first was programming a concerto for two timpanists. The decision to feature an instrument traditionally relegated to the back of the orchestra was a wise one on the part of the orchestra, as this sort of variety relieves the monotony of the more typical violin, cello, or piano concerti. But the ASO should also be commended for giving new music a much needed chance. All too often, orchestras recycle the tried-and-true repertoire of composers long deceased, failing to recognize the oeuvre of the living. Daniel Meyer's decision to feature not one but two works written in the last 15 years was a welcome change of pace, and this reviewer hopes the ASO will continue in this same trend.
The first of these newer works was Jennifer Higdon's "Machine," a brief yet exhilarating work that got the concert off to a riveting start. The ensemble was unrelenting in tempo and energy, each section of the ensemble performing with ferocious intensity while maintaining rhythmic acumen. The "ostinato perpetuo" in the timpani provided appropriate dramatic foreshadowing for the first feature of the evening, starting the concert with an exhilarating bang so as to prepare the audience for the rare treat of a double timpani concerto.
Todd Mueller, principal timpanist of the Asheville Symphony, and Mark Yancich, principal timpanist of the Atlanta Symphony, embraced their roles as soloists for James Oliverio's Double Timpani Concerto with musical depth and taste, showcasing the diverse capabilities of the timpani. The opening rolls of the first movement were perfectly balanced, as Mueller and Yancich matched one another with precision of dynamics and articulation. When the melody of both soloists was doubled by the wind choir, the overall effect was an exquisitely combined timbre, a new soundscape offering a treat for the ears. Mueller and Yancich demonstrated exceptional control as they executed a flowing interchange of four-stroke ruffs in the hocket section of the movement.
The second movement showcased the sensitive side of the massive drums, as both soloists engaged in a "sotto voce" dialogue. Oliverio's scoring for antiphonal harp duo brilliantly matched the combined effect of the two sets of solo timpani, both visually and aurally. In many ways, the second movement of this work is a miniature concerto for orchestra, briefly placing both timpanists in the traditional role of accompanists while passing the melody off to other members of the orchestra, including on this occasion a beautiful rendition by concertmaster Jason Posnock. The ensuing Interlude showcased Mueller and Yancich once again, as they engaged in a call-and-response featuring sublimely executed forte-piano rolls and glissandi. Both soloists demonstrated virtuosity in one of the less theatrical aspects of timpani technique, which is changing pitch accurately and rapidly on the drums. This reviewer, who has had experience as a timpanist with a few smaller orchestras and chamber ensembles, recognizes the often underappreciated difficulty of this technique and applauds both soloists for their superb finesse in this area.
The fourth and final movement provided a satisfying grand finale for the concerto. Mueller and Yancich continued to display their percussive prowess, performing a brief yet tightly coordinated duet of rapid-fire single strokes before launching into alternating cadenzas. Both timpanists were afforded the opportunity to display the full range of their skills on the drums as they flew across their instruments with effortless mastery. What was most impressive, however, was the carefully-paced phrasing Mueller and Yancich exhibited, building gradually to a thunderous climax before tapering down to a haunting and subdued 7/4 rhythm with the pizzicato strings. The orchestra performed the transition from this ethereal ostinato to the thrilling final notes with unbridled intensity, resulting in a much deserved standing ovation.
Following intermission, the program continued with Tchaikovsky's magnificent Symphony No. 4. The opening brass fanfare is one of the most instantly recognizable sounds in the Romantic canon, so the stakes were high for the ASO's brass section. That being said, there were serious balance issues, with the trombones and tuba overpowering the French horns. The disruption of Tchaikovsky's masterfully orchestrated pyramid of sound was not the fault of the performers or the conductor but a result of the less than desirable acoustics of the U.S. Cellular Center's Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. The first movement was also marred by serious intonation issues in the woodwind section, a significant distraction in a work where the woodwind choir is often exposed in a prominent manner. By contrast, the strings were marvelously coordinated with a collective assurance of pitch and articulation, especially in the gradually ascending melodic sequences of the development.
By the second movement, the intonation issues were largely improved in the woodwinds, and the overall balance of the ensemble had judiciously coalesced into a more unified sound. The first violins' sweet rendition of the theme was especially sonorous, with the accompanying scalar runs of the woodwinds providing a playful yet elegant backdrop. The dry acoustics of the hall, however, truncated the otherwise resonant releases at the end of phrases, generating unwarranted silence. This same problem detracted from the otherwise precise and expertly synchronized pizzicatos of the string choir in the third movement. The woodwind consort in the contrasting section of this same movement especially shone, the meandering countermelodies of the bassoons marvelously juxtaposed against the sparkling sheen of the flute's ornamented melody.
The orchestra launched with energetic precision into the final movement. Piccolo player Rita Hayes nailed the spit-fire scalar runs of the dizzying opening line with delicate precision and superb intonation, blending superbly with the violins. Once again, the sub-par acoustics of the hall came into play, rendering the percussion section's otherwise tasteful dynamics as an obtrusive din. This reviewer has said it once, but he will say it again – a dedicated and talented orchestra like this one deserves a much better performance space. However, the concert was indicative overall of the high quality of musicianship this reviewer and Asheville audiences have come to expect of their city's orchestra.
The ASO's season continues on Dec. 14 with "A Classical Christmas." For details, see our calendar.