On the evening of Saturday, November 21, the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, with a little help from the women of the Asheville Symphony Chorus, performed one of the most beloved musical suites of the 20th century – Gustav Holst's The Planets. Under the skillful baton of Maestro Daniel Meyer and the director of the Asheville Symphony Chorus Michael Lancaster, the ASO and ASC delivered the performance of a lifetime on the stage of Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.
In my experience, the Asheville Symphony Orchestra is not known to perform just one piece of music, regardless of the name of their program, and tonight was no exception. The first half of the concert actually featured Franz Joseph Haydn's Sinfonia concertante in B-flat, Op.84, featuring the quartet of violinist Jason Posnock, cellist Franklin Keel, oboist Alicia Chapman, and bassoonist Michael Burns. This three-movement work prominently featured the quartet and demonstrated the musical agility and acumen of each individual. The back and forth between the orchestra and the quartet that Haydn so playfully composed was a magnificent introduction (or reminder) of the ASO's stunning music-making.
After the pleasant trip to the late 1700's and a mercifully short intermission, the ASO in its entirety came out onto the stage to begin the main event; Holst's The Planets.
"Mars, The Bringer of War," in all his power and bluster, came to life on the stage of Thomas Wolfe. The audience and I were in awe of the ensemble's tremendous power and presence; their portrayal of "The Bringer of War" was peerless. The string ostinato, the powerful low voices, the forcefulness of the percussion, all of these came together for an exceptionally emotional first movement.
The next movement, "Venus, The Bringer of Peace," is a thematic and musical opposite to the opening movement, and demonstrated that the ASO is not only an ensemble of power, but also one of grace. One of the hallmarks of a fantastic ensemble is when you, as the listener, are not distracted by anything technical (tuning, dynamics, phasing, etc.) and can truly sit back and experience the piece in the way it was meant to be heard. That was exactly my experience as the ASO led the audience through Holst's interpretation of "The Bringer of Peace."
Following Venus, "Mercury, The Winged Messenger" briefly made an appearance in the suite leading up to what is one of the most, if not the most, recognized movements in the suite, "Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity." I will admit that this movement is a personal favorite of mine. However, I am a fan of most all of Holst's works. That being said, I paid particular attention to this performance of "Jupiter." The Asheville Symphony perfectly captured the joy and ponderous presence that "Jupiter" embodies. There are some ensembles that elect to take this movement extremely fast (as short as seven and a half minutes), while still other ensembles elect to slow things down and take the movement much more leisurely. Meyer chose to take the piece somewhere in the middle, and I must say his interpretation of the work is by far one of my favorites.
The next two movements, "Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age" and "Uranus, The Magician," are both characteristically "cosmic" in nature, and are quite the departure from the more well-known movements like "Mars" and "Jupiter." However, without them, the effect of the final movement of the work would not be nearly as powerful. The final work of the suite, "Neptune, the Mystic," is the only movement in the work that calls for a chorus as well as an orchestra, and as such the women of the Asheville Symphony Chorus were backstage to provide the ominous, wordless voices of the piece.
I stated earlier that my favorite movement of The Planets is "Jupiter," and that is still the case, however, my favorite moment of the night had to be the final minutes of "Neptune." The combination of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, the Asheville Symphony Chorus, and the masterful direction of both conductors came together to create a haunting and truly "mystic" atmosphere, with the simple two-note gesture of the chorus getting softer and softer, fading away to almost nothing. All members of the audience were at the edge of their seats, leaning forward and straining to hear the ever-quieting voices of the chorus. Then, suddenly, Meyer's baton stopped, and the entire auditorium held its breath, and not a soul moved as time figuratively stood still. Then, slowly, his baton lowered and the entire room burst into applause louder than I have ever heard before. The moment was once in a lifetime, and I feel extremely honored to have experienced it.
This concert was recorded by WCQS and will be re-broadcast twice in the coming weeks – on December 8th and on December 10th if you would like to experience this wonderful performance. The Asheville Symphony Orchestra is next scheduled to perform their Simply Sinatra Christmas concert on December 11th at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. The Asheville Symphony Chorus is next scheduled to perform on Thursday, December 10th, when they will perform Handel's Messiah. Ticket information on the Chorus sing-along can be found here.