Orchestral Music Review



"American Impressions" by the ASO

November 17, 2007 - Asheville, NC:


In Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, the Asheville Symphony's third MasterWorks concert on the theme of "American Impressions" showcased the music of Czech-born Antonin Dvořák, a visitor to the U.S., and Americans John Adams and George Gershwin, with featured soloist Zuill Bailey. The performance was repeated at Brevard College's Porter Center for Performing Arts on Sunday, November 18, at 3 p.m. More information about the season's repertoire, ASO Music Director Daniel Meyer, guest artists, and other events surrounding these concerts may be gleaned from the ASO website.

Maestro Daniel Meyer first addressed the audience, noting the need for a new performing arts center in Asheville and introducing the first work on the program. John Adams' "The Chairman Dances" (Foxtrot for Orchestra), derived from his 1985 opera Nixon in China, was inspired by the President's historic six-day visit in 1972. Adams, a Harvard graduate and professor at the San Francisco Conservatory from 1972-82, composes music in a minimalist style (mesmerizing repetitions of ever-so-slightly changing figures played within narrow constraints) made more accessible by its grounding in conservative Western harmonies. "The Chairman Dances" is part of a fantasy sequence from Act III of the opera in which Chairman Mao's wife (once a Shanghai film star) appears uninvited at a presidential banquet and dances the foxtrot, extending the invitation to "come down, old man, and dance" to her husband, who is present only in the form of a gigantic portrait. The jazz chords in the piano are a reference to Nixon's pianistic skills. The incessant and energetic motivic repetitions, punctuated by syncopated chords, gave way to other tempos and moods deftly led by Meyer, with a grin at the end where the piece simulated the wind-down of a gramophone.

The program continued with George Gershwin's An American in Paris, his 1928 "rhapsodic ballet" in three sections depicting "the impression of an American visitor in Paris, as he strolls about the city, and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere." Unmistakably urbane and suave, this iconic city sound-scape fuses the compositional style of the French group "Les Six" and actual French melodies with a jazz and blues flavor. The orchestra clearly had fun with this one — honking taxi horns, a bustling "walking tune," lush harmonies, and trumpet blues — and brought smiles and hearty applause in response.

After intermission, Zuill Bailey joined the orchestra as soloist for the Cello Concerto in B Minor by Dvořák. Bailey, whose Lisztian locks and good looks rival those of Meyer, is an internationally acclaimed solo and chamber music artist with family ties to North Carolina. He is currently a professor of cello at the University of Texas-El Paso where he is Artistic Director of the El Paso Pro-Musica. In 1892 Dvořák traveled to the U.S. to assume the directorship of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. While the large salary was an enticement to stay, he became increasingly homesick for Prague, and after three years he resigned to return home. Written in 1895, the concerto was the last of his "American" works; unlike the "New World" Symphony, with its American folk flavor, the concerto is more reminiscent of the sounds of his native land. Dvořák ingeniously scored the work in such a way that the cello's voice is never overshadowed by the orchestra or burdened with excessive virtuosic displays, though there are many. The second and third movements contain the melody of one of his songs, "Leave me alone," in homage to his beloved sister-in-law Josephina Kaunitzová, who had died before his return home. The orchestra was truly outstanding in the performance of this piece in its flawless ensemble, uniformly beautiful solos (notably in the second movement), and exquisite balance with the soloist. Bailey's playing was masterful in its command of both the technical and the expressive components of the work. The communication between conductor and cellist was palpable, achieved as often through mutual feeling as eye contact.

Meyer continues to build an impressive record of orchestral performances in Asheville. His fine work — indeed, his deep affection for the music, his players, and his audience — is a significant contribution to the cultural life of our region.