The Asheville Symphony paid tribute to the massive legacy of German composers in its Masterworks 4 concert in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium with a brilliant assemblage of works by Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss, and Beethoven. Maestro Daniel Meyer has unified the entire 2015-16 season by having each concert theme linked to a book. The title of Jan Swafford's massive Beethoven biography (Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph), the recommended heavy-weight read for this program, captured the essence of the musical program, beginning with the lyric beauty of Mendelssohn's "The Hebrides" Overture ("Fingal's Cave"), Op. 26, the anguish of Strauss' Metamorphosen, and the triumph of Beethoven's brilliant Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61, featuring soloist Bella Hristova. If ever there was a music/cultural/psychological exploration of the scope of human response, this was it.
Hristova is already an established artist whose vast accomplishments belie her age. A winner of numerous competitions and a sought-after chamber musician, she has appeared throughout the world as a concerto soloist, a recitalist, and a chamber player. Her recordings have garnered unilateral acclaim. She is a disciplined and focused player whose poised stage manner is devoid of the histrionics occasionally seen in more youthful performers. She performs on a 1655 Nicolò Amati violin.
The program opened with Mendelssohn's musical reminiscence of Fingal's cave, one of the caves in the basalt rocks of the Staffa Islands off the west coast of Scotland. The composer traveled there in August of 1829. In the form of a concert overture, the piece captures both the undulations of the endless waves which crash and echo and a sense of the wonder at such a natural formation. From where I was sitting, the opening statements in the lower strings tended to dominate the sound of the entire string section when they entered later, resulting in a "bottom heavy" rendition of the first section of the piece. This was alleviated in the development section (and later) with a more judicious balance of all orchestral sections. The tumultuous counterpoint of the development section, punctuated by majestic chords in the brass, was a highlight of this piece.
Following this and before intermission was Strauss' Metamorphosen, a remarkable work commissioned by Paul Sacher who also conducted its first performance with his Collegium Musicum in Zurich in 1946. Like Strauss' previous tone poems, the work is programmatic in nature, as its essence decries the destruction of German culture during World War II by the Nazis and the Allied bombings. In a relentless series of variations (metamorphoses) scored for 23 solo string instruments, Strauss plumbed the depths of grief through its chromatic harmonies and complex contrapuntal workings of lengthy phrases similar to Wagner and even Mahler. Its principal theme was a downwardly directed, sorrowing melody with a pronounced limp of its short-long two-note rhythmic figure. Meyer drew from the orchestra an exquisite performance of smoldering intensity which peaked several times but was never completely extinguished as the textures waxed and waned. The masterful solos by concertmaster Jason Posnock and acting principal cellist Franklin Keel cemented this finely nuanced performance as one of the best I've heard from the Asheville Symphony. Meyer is a master at directing the orchestra to establish a mood and have it linger past the sounding of the final notes; unfortunately, the profound sorrow which hung in the air was dispelled too soon by the eager applause of some members of the audience.
Intermission was strategically placed to allow the gloom to dissipate. The spirit of triumph was restored in Beethoven's violin concerto, one of the greatest monuments in the history of the genre. Written for Franz Clement, a friend of Beethoven's who led the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien, the scope of the concerto is enormous – symphonic in length, and with not only a cadenza for the soloist in every movement, but many cadenza-like passages played against sustained harmonies in the orchestra. Hristova rose to meet the technical demands of the work with cool aplomb, and a depth of musical expression that brought this listener close to tears. Expansively lyrical and drivingly dramatic by turns, she delivered a performance to be remembered. Under Meyer's astute direction, the orchestra was so carefully directed that no matter the volume of the soloist (often playing ppp on very high notes), they never overpowered her, but formed her perfect complement. The audience rose quickly to its feet in a roar of acclamation for all on this very frigid night.