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The Asheville Symphony Orchestra (ASO) under Music Director Daniel Meyer delivered a well-received program to a near-capacity audience. The first half consisted of twentieth-century music incorporating chorus and soloists. The second half consisted of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. It is apparently Western North Carolina's year for this famous symphony. In early March, the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra (HSO) devoted an entire concert to the Fifth; a demonstration-lecture before intermission and a good performance after the intermission. See the review of that program here.
The ASO's April 12 performance was even better. Meyer has worked hard auditioning players, and even the back-desk ASO musicians now demonstrate a quality that permits effects that a lesser ensemble is incapable of producing. There were super clean moments of silence in the first and fourth movements as all string players simultaneously removed their bows. The staccato bassoon and clarinet playing and the pizzicato strings in the third movement were exemplary. The fourth movement seemed life-affirming in its sudden shift from C minor to C major.
Like Thomas Joiner (HSO), Daniel Meyer (ASO) believes that the tempos in the Fifth should be fast but not breakneck. The only real difference in concept between the two conductors occurred in the first movement Allegro con brio. The incessant rhythm and harmonic tension provides a lot of urgency, but Meyer also added subtle tempo shifts. He appeared to desire each clear enunciation of the famous four-note motif to be stated at one tempo, followed by a slight tempo increase for those intervening passages in which multiple instruments layer the motif on top of each other. But the orchestra did not seem to be able to change tempo on a dime, and Meyer's baton was a little in front at times, trying to pull the orchestra through a subito tempo change that did not quite occur. I hope that the next time the ASO performs the Fifth, they will manage the fine adjustments of tempo. It is the sort of subtle interpretive detail that makes the difference between a very good performance and a great performance.
Before intermission, the Asheville Symphony Chorus and the Brevard College Concert Choir joined the orchestra on stage to present two works for orchestra, chorus and soloist: Francis Poulenc's "Gloria" and Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Five Mystical Songs."
Soloist for the Poulenc was soprano Emily Douglass, who was a substitute for Sarah Elizabeth Wolfson who cancelled for health reasons. While having a firm musical concept and good intonation, Douglass's diction was disappointing (particularly contrasted with the clear Latin consonants of the chorus) and her lower range did not have the clarity, beauty and power of her middle range.
Soloist for the Vaughan Williams was baritone Craig Verm. Meyer continues to use his connections in Pittsburgh to introduce us to excellent young Pittsburgh-based musicians, and Verm was a delight. Not only was his English text clear and musical, it was delivered with a finesse that matched the elegance that Vaughan Williams had provided in this composition.
In both works, the choruses showed excellent preparation, by Dewitt Tipton for the Asheville Symphony Chorus and by Michael Porter for the Brevard College Concert Choir. So often a community chorus, however musical, displays its average age in its tonal quality. The "leavening" provided by 30 young voices added to the 90 mature voices of the Symphony Chorus worked beautifully.
And in both works, the orchestra provided an excellent underpinning. They shone especially in the final measures of these two fine works. The Poulenc ends with a pianissimo "amen" for soprano and orchestra that was beautifully stated. The Vaughan Williams song "Antiphon" is for chorus and orchestra, and ends with a coda for orchestra alone that matched the Poulenc "amen" in elegance.