The Blue Ridge Orchestra, an Asheville-based community ensemble, is clearly thriving under the leadership of Music Director Ronald D. Clearfield. Their mission of outreach to those who love to play (and to those listeners who appreciate lower ticket prices) has netted an ensemble of no small musical means. Their third concert of the season in the intimate performance space of the Diana Wortham Theatre, “A Celebration of Spring and the Earth,” was programmed to raise awareness of the grandeur and vulnerability of the earth. The orchestra featured violinist Amy Lovinger in two pastoral works. She later sat in the orchestra to play their final piece, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6. Such is the “democratic” nature of this group. The work of two Asheville organizations instrumental in the crusade for eco vigilance in our area, Asheville Greenworks and the Western North Carolina Alliance, was acknowledged in remarks from the stage.
Lovinger is no stranger to the area’s professional musical scene. A graduate of both the Eastman School of Music and Kent State, she moved here six years ago after having performed with an ensemble in Madeira, Portugal. She is Principal Second violinist of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra and is Associate Concertmaster of the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra. Leaving no stone unturned, she is a member of the Opal Quartet and Sirius B, an “absurdist gypsy folk funk punk” band. Curiously, I found no information on her in the program, nor was she introduced from the stage.
The program began with “La Primavera,” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Lovinger’s musicality was immediately evident in the first movement. She is a strong, secure, and nuanced performer whose smiles convey an infectious joy. Clearfield is a straight-forward and energetic communicator with the orchestra who favors sharply delineated cadences. The second movement “Largo” was rendered at a very dreamy, soft dynamic level, with the famous “barking dog” violas kept very quiet, as at a distance. The ensemble between soloist and orchestra in the third movement “Allegro” suffered at times as in the first movement from a lack of rhythmic precision, and could have been helped by a keyboard continuo.
Before intermission we heard Clearfield’s Listen…The Earth is Weeping, a work rewritten as a fantasy for solo violin and orchestra. Clearfield is an experienced cellist who has performed with such classical notables Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, and pop icons such as George Benson, Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt and Dionne Warwick. His past work scoring for television and film was most evident in this piece which utilized a synthesizer-generated oscillating figure with vocalized sounds as the work’s frame. In the second section, tabla, tamboura, and other percussion injected a rhythmic insistence into what had been essentially a lyrical work of sustained harmonies.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”), frequently programmed this time of year took on new life under Clearfield’s direction. The tempo of the first movement “Allegro ma non troppo” (awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country) was brisk enough that the deliberately slow-paced unfolding of events did not bog down, this aided also by the lack of repeats taken. The second movement “Andante molto mosso” (scene by the brook) was also very brisk and similar to that of the first, more like a roiling river fueled by snowmelt than a peaceful brook. The lower strings worked furiously to keep up; some hunched intently over their scores. The third movement Allegro (merry gathering of country folk) had the character of a lusty hoedown where the winds (clarinet, oboe, and bassoon) outshone the difficulties in the horns. All of the levity of the dance was interrupted by a convincingly fearsome thunderstorm. It was with the fifth movement “Allegretto” (shepherd’s song; happy and thankful feelings after the storm) where one got a sense of the marvelous proportions of Beethoven’s work. Here again, the tempo was just right — broad enough to sound full as the composer’s summary statement, but not too slow. Clearfield’s interpretation of the piece was inspired and the playing was heartfelt.