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The Asheville Symphony Orchestra's 2005-6 season began on September 17 with youth, color, and a promise of hope and prosperity for the future. Proclaiming a New Era, new-conductor-on-the block and Music Director Daniel Meyer presented a fresh face in his station, the symphony members are now wearing color – a shift from previous all-black decorum – and the symphony's sound is energized. It is indeed a new era.
For the fifth consecutive year, Wachovia was the opening night corporate sponsor. You may recall their presence at Brevard Music Center during the summer. With 121 musicians listed on the roster, new guy Meyer went straight to work with an animated reading of Michael Torke's "Javelin" (1994), a commission from the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and the Atlanta Symphony. Billed as one of the new orchestra pieces to be frequently programmed around the country, the "Javelin" didn't quite hit all the marks. The reading was fine, but the piece itself fails adequately to reach an architectural peak of significant substance. Maybe I need to hear it again – the hall may not have revealed all at my seat location.
The ASO's home is the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in the downtown Asheville Civic Center, and while comfortable enough it is not aging well. It is certainly clean and well maintained within budget tolerances, but the large ceiling water leaks and peeling paint are hard to ignore. The listening experience is spotty, too. There is a good reason why some tickets are more expensive here. Advice: buy the most expensive ticket you can afford.
The next block was taken up by mid-20s-something American violinist Nicolas Kendall whose grandfather, John Kendall, was the first string teacher to introduce the Suzuki method of violin instruction in the U.S. Meyer and Kendall chose chestnuts for their collaboration. First, Antonio Vivaldi's Concerto, Op. 3/9 (RV.230) – the one often played on solo guitar – was a tip to the baroque. In addition to very nice string continuo support from violist Marge Kowal and cellist Jacqueline Taylor, Kendall showed a reserved sense of style. His ornaments tended to begin on the back side of the beat.
Then we heard the lyrical and dreamy "Meditation" from Thaïs (1894), by Jules Massenet, a nearly ideal violin melody that set off all the expected groans of satisfaction from ladies. Then, we got down to the nut with Pablo de Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen" ("Gypsy Airs") (1878). This is big-shot virtuoso violin writing, and Kendall showed he had the playing side completely covered. His sense of pitch is flexibly perfect, and aside from occasional youthful impetuosity, most obvious in rapid passage-work, his quite facile technique is completely at the service of the music. The work is a set of starts and stops culminating in a roaring finale designed to show off the soloist. It worked – full marks all around, especially for well-balanced accompaniment.
After intermission, we heard Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. The famous eleven-movement work was composed for piano solo following an exhibition of paintings in St. Petersburg by Mussorgsky's close friend Victor Hartmann, who had died at a relatively young 39 years. Fast-forward to 1923, when far-sighted Serge Koussevitsky presented a setting of the work for orchestra from a commission let to Maurice Ravel. It was an immediate success and has been a staple of orchestra repertoire ever since. This orchestration is rich in textures, rhythm, and energy.
The opening trumpet solo, performed by Mark Clodfelter, heralded a sense of renewed expectation, for we were all now on familiar ground to evaluate the alleged New Era. His solo was familiar, correct, and nicely balanced, and it showed a professional timbre. It was fine playing. Most notable in this performance was an enhanced articulation of the rests; meaning the silence imposed between sounds. It was effective because Meyer understands the requirement, and proper execution brings a sense of vitality. After all, the rest is more than simply not playing. Meyer also drew a good dynamic range from this group of players. Meyer's conducting technique is sharply different from his predecessor, Robert Hart Baker. He falls in the stylist mold, where the grand gestures, sweeping stick arcs, and occasional musical grimace are tools of the theater. No doubt the orchestra can and does follow him very well, but there is not enough substance to the effort to result in something new.
That said, there is nothing new about the sound of the orchestra at all. It continues as a band of individualists holding fast to personal habits either from stubborn intransigence, personal resistance, or outright lack of leadership. It is certainly not a poorly shaped amateur band nor is it a homogenous and polished professional orchestra. It falls somewhere in the middle, and as a result requires all that extra nice-nice and shiny effort from a Music Director to convince the community and his Board that all is well. This effort is usually aided by programming targeted directly at emotional heartstrings in the hope that loose purse strings aren't far behind. Both are part of the political landscape in perpetuating art music outside of the ten major U.S. markets.
In this season and the few to follow Meyer must find a way to forge a future of growth, prosperity, and great art. With the hall about 80% full, opening night was certainly a success, the program was nicely played, and the season is certainly off to a good start. The encore, "Danny Boy," is still wafting through my memory. You can listen for yourself. This concert will be broadcast November 11, 2005, on Asheville NPR affiliate WCQS-FM 88.1 at 8:00 p.m.
Off in the distance, it will be interesting to hear if this promising ensemble and its new leader create a signature sound all their own.
Note: The ASO's season continues on 10/22 – see our Western calendar for details.