The Asheville Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Daniel Meyer celebrated St. Patty’s Day in paradoxical fashion with a program entitled “British Invasion.” While the patrons of Irish persuasion must have been puzzled as to why Meyer chose to celebrate their historical rival on one of Ireland's most important holidays, that didn’t seem to turn anyone away. Thomas Wolfe Auditorium was seated to near capacity. As usual, Meyer designed a compelling program including Josef Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D Major (the “London” symphony), Edward Elgar’s Concerto in E minor for Cello and Orchestra, and Peter Maxwell Davies “An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise,” all having ties to the United Kingdom, of course. Also important to this evening’s festivities was the announcement of ASO’s 2007-08 season which looks to be very intriguing.
Haydn’s “London” symphony premiered in 1795 during his second visit to England. It was very warmly received by critics and remains one of his greatest examples of the form. Under Meyer’s direction, the ASO was uncomfortable in this consummately classical work. The performance was dry and lacked the intensity and forward motion audiences are accustomed to from this band. If I had to come up with one word to describe the ASO this season it would be spirited, but that spirit was in short supply for this opening work, even in the final movement, marked “Finale; Spiritoso.” After a lighthearted beginning, they seemed to lose the gaiety which glues the movement together making it an innocuous whole. Though past performances of classical works have been delightful, the ASO is relatively more in tune with works from the Romantic and the Modern eras. Evidence of this could be heard in the remainder of the program.
Joined by Meyer, cellist Mark Kosower came to the stage after intermission to perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto. This piece was a great contrast to the lively, wistful Haydn. It is meditative and brooding which are characteristics the ASO typically translate very well. They would not disappoint this time, nor would the soloist. Kosower, who incidentally was the student and assistant of the great Janos Starker, displayed a depth of emotion and a willingness to cooperate with the orchestra to fashion a unified perception of the concerto. There were some technical maladies in his playing, but they were easy to forgive considering the autumnal colors he was able to create, and the climactic tension generated in the finale. The orchestra, too, seemed to have a conceptual understanding of the themes; fond reminiscence and dreadful foreboding permeate the piece. They were well-balanced, yet courageous and not afraid to stretch the boundaries a bit to garner a new way for the listener to enter into this brilliant piece.
The finale of the concert was a piece by contemporary composer Peter Maxwell Davies based on a wedding he attended on the island of Orkney on the northern tip of Scotland. Please note that we have now moved from England to Scotland while still ignoring the Irish on their famous feast day. Nonetheless, this tone painting by Davies provided good entertainment for all. The sonic representation of the guests arriving in a stormy gale, and the relatives and friends trying to dance after too much whiskey was full of hilarity. Meyer has a way of pulling the audience in through the music but also through his motions on the podium which, during this piece, were especially animated. The highlight, though, came near the end of the piece when from the back of the auditorium came a steady drone. “The air conditioner must be malfunctioning;” I thought, “such bad luck at the end of a great piece.” Then the sound intensified and I realized that it was not faulty duct work but a bagpipe. Dressed in full regalia, as if pulled from the Highlands of Scotland, a man walked through the audience onto the stage bellowing the most beautiful melody in such a way that one could picture the Orkney sunrise that it was depicting. It was truly breathtaking.
Every time I attend a concert of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra they seem to outdo themselves. If this trend continues then the 2007-08 season promises to be the best yet. The hope is that the people of Asheville will continue to support this ambitious troupe as they march their way to further prosperity and artistic excellence.