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Santa Claus must have been reminded of home on this night in Asheville as the temperature was low but spirits were high. The masses, in need of a Christmas pick-me-up, piled into the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium at the Asheville Civic Center for an evening of song and merrymaking with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, the Asheville Symphony Chorus, the Asheville Symphony Children‘s Chorus, soprano Elizabeth Grayson, tenor William Martin, and of course the jolly man in red, replete with an entourage of elves and a private transportation service (apparently parked on the roof!). The stage was filled with poinsettias and Christmas cheer abounded as ASO Conductor and Music Direction Daniel Meyer took the stage to begin an enchanting evening of holiday favorites.
The evening began with some film music — Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, from the hit movie “Home Alone.” The AS Chorus, under the direction of Dewitt Tipton, had intensity and enthusiasm but lacked volume. This was obviously a problem with the hall’s sound-deadening acoustic as it continued throughout the concert. After an entertaining reading of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, the AS Children’s Chorus made their debut with an arrangement of Here Comes Santa Claus by M. Christenson. This youth chorus is quite talented and turned in an exceptional performance under the apt direction of Susan Hensley. They were also involved in the next piece, Reindeer Variations by Lucas Richman, whose Concerto for Percussion, The Healer, was featured in the ASO’s last Masterworks series concert. This set of variations, based on the names of Santa’s reindeer, was a little less serious but confirmed his talent for composition. At the beginning of each variation a member of the youth choir held up a sign with the name of the reindeer for whom the section was written. Hilarity was abundant, especially in the sultry (even swanky) “Vixen” variation. The children ended their set with Sally Albrecht’s Cantate Domino, which was beautifully done with an air of confidence that belied their ages.
The first soloist on the program was Elizabeth Grayson, a soprano who once used her talent to help her win Miss North Carolina. She joined the ASO this evening to perform “Do You Hear What I Hear” in an arrangement by R. Lowden. She nailed the high notes with cool aplomb, but was weak in the lower range of her voice giving an uneven, if at times fantastic, performance. Meyer and the adult chorus closed the first half with selections from Handel’s “Messiah,” including a rousing “Hallelujah” chorus. It’s always wise for a conductor to end a set with this famous chorus because he is virtually guaranteed a standing ovation.
After intermission, an executive from BB&T, who sponsored the concert, made the faux pas that everyone left talking about. He came on stage and twice referred to conductor Daniel Meyer as “David,” causing many in the audience to bury their head in their hands, sympathetically praying that he wouldn’t do it again. Meyer graciously accepted his thanks and went on with a Leroy Anderson medley entitled “A Christmas Festival.” The orchestra was expectedly in top form; they drew the audience in playing with flair and spirit. Balance was formed by positioning some more serious works in the center of the second half, such as selections from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. Aside from some wrong notes in the usually accurate brass section the orchestra turned in an interesting performance, drawing heavily on the Russian soul of the work and keeping the dance structure of the music intact.
Tenor William Martin followed with a brilliant performance of “O Holy Night.” His voice was superbly balanced and his tone full of warmth. Using his exceptional range he gave an exciting, colorful rendition of this solemn score. Grayson and Martin then joined both choruses, the orchestra, and the audience in a holiday sing-along, including Joy to the World, The First Noel, and Deck the Halls. I think the success of the whole evening can be summed up by remarks of a patron who sat in front of me. After the closing piece, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” she turned to me as she was putting on her coat and said, “If that doesn’t put you in the Christmas spirit, nothing will.” I agree.
One thing Meyer and the ASO always do exceptionally well is to move people with their passion and freshness. They’ve done it again, Merry Christmas!