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Over 160 choristers, 2 guest artists, 1 symphony orchestra, 1 Santa, 1 snowstorm — about the only thing missing from the Asheville Symphony's Holiday Pops concert in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium was a partridge in a pear tree. Though the stormy (albeit atmospheric) weather diminished the attendance at this popular event, Maestro Daniel Meyer was determined to make merry with the assembled company in a concert of not only holiday favorites (can there be a Christmas concert without Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride"?), but some classical oldies — some of them "having nothing to do with Christmas" — and a new work by Asheville-based Jonathan Scales commissioned by the orchestra. The breadth and "heft" of the programming, some chosen to showcase two young artists, made for an intriguing holiday-themed program reminiscent of the fine tradition of the Boston Pops.
Opening each half was a lushly orchestrated carol ("Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful") with the Asheville Symphony Chorus (Director Dewitt Tipton), and each half featured its own guest artist. Twelve-year-old piano prodigy Alexsandr Voinov ("Sasha") from the Pittsburgh area, a riveting player of rhythmic precision and technical assurance, was featured in the final movement of George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F. As an encore, the lad displayed his compositional chops in his own blazing and marvelously sophisticated rendition of "Frosty the Snowman," a performance which brought the audience to its feet. A lovely arrangement of two Bell Carols by Randol Alan Bass ("Ding Dong! Merrily on High" and "Carol of the Bells") had percussionist Laura Franklin working her magic on the mallet parts; this was followed by four movements from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker (March, Arabian Dance, Chinese Dance, and Trepak). The Children's Chorus directed by Timothy Wilds and accompanied on the piano by Vance Reese who'd laid aside his double bass, performed three carols in very fine diction — the first to the tune of "Kommt Ihr Hirten," the second was "Hodie Christus Natus Est," and the final "Jingle Bells." The parade of the children onto and off the risers was accompanied by the aforementioned Trepak and the Farandole from Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suite No. 2, the latter one of the few instances of ragged ensemble.
Jonathan Scales, Appalachian State University graduate and accomplished steel drummer and composer, was featured in his own piece, an arresting medley of carols with orchestra. The weaving and further manipulation of themes, unexpected metric change-ups, injection of jazz and other fusion elements, made this one of the most electrifying numbers on the program. Kudos to the whole percussion section who had an internal cadenza of sorts all their own, and to maestro Meyer for programming this fascinating work.
Concluding the program was the choral "I Wonder as I Wander." An instrumental "Winter Wonderland" was the segue to bring the young choristers back, this time joined by the Soundings High School Choir for the final sing-along with audience. "Silent Night" was unforgettably styled with steel drum accompaniment, and the final "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" was the grand send-off.